A Fanfare for the New Year

Happy New Year.

I’m sitting here after lunch on Sunday, before the weekly onslaught of responsibilities and routines begins again tomorrow.  Robin Hood and Flip Flop have come by to dine, and writing seems more appealing than laundry or taking down Christmas decorations. (OK, so now you know I procrastinate too.)

So yes, I spent most of New Year’s Eve day at the oncology center. The first appointment was with the radiation oncologist at 8 a.m. I’d seen her initially last summer, but this was the re-evaluation and imaging to lay the plan. Lots of new information to digest but I’ll save that for another post. The appointment was scheduled for 2 and a half hours but finished earlier, so I had time to drive over to Shari’s for breakfast before the infusion.  I don’t know who Shari is, but she must be related to Denny, who has equally unhealthful breakfast items on the menu. Potato cakes smothered in sour cream and apples, with a side of scrambled fake eggs.

Don’t tell the naturopath.

This week the white cells were 4.1, good enough to get me off the Neupogen even if they dip this week. For good measure and because the count was slightly low last week, I took one shot before traveling, even though Dr. L said it wasn’t necessary. I wore one of those silly paper masks on the plane and seem to have come through the travels just fine, if you don’t count jet lag. The hemoglobin continues to climb — 10.9, less than a point shy of normal. My stamina is slowly increasing, and I’ve tried to be diligent about doing the exercises, even attempting a few yoga sun salutations, before radiation changes the picture again.

So for now, I’ll borrow some lyrics from Bob Marley: “Give thanks and praise to the Lord, and I will feel all right.”

The Popsicle Report:  Of course I went for the blueberry-lemon. Not the last time, though. I have to return to the infusion center once a month to have the port flushed, so I should still be able to nab one then. I’ve had the the last of the steroids though.  It’ll be up to y’all to decide what effect they’ve had on my writing.

For the infusion this time it’s the same pod, even the same chair, and so the same view, including the crystal bee and the steel-gray cloudy sky. Down the row I see the same stocky man with his 1920s motoring cap. Across from me is a woman with a black knit cap doing crossword puzzles with her husband beside her. When I mention to her that it’s my last infusion — I hope forever — she rolls her eyes sadly and responds, “Yeah, that’s what I thought the first time too, but it didn’t work out that way.”

Next to me lies a thin, frail man, napping in the chair and covered with a blanket.  The tube in his nose whistles periodically as it delivers oxygen. At the end of his session, his wife and granddaughter bring in a wheelchair to take him home. They move with great gentleness around him, pausing during his shift to the wheelchair when it’s clear the movement causes him pain. One of the nurses comes to help.  I have the sense, as they wheel him away, that he may not be back many more times.

Georgia, one of the gregarious infusion nurses, comes to say goodbye to me before she goes to lunch. She comments on my headgear — a royal blue cloth with a lighter blue flower and vine motif — and says it looks just like some cloth she bought in Hawaii. “That’s because that’s what it is,” I reply. I picked it up as a “free gift” at Hilo Hattie, Hawaii’s premier souvenir shop, last year. With her comment ensues a discussion with the woman in the black cap about the best places to get cheap Hawaiian goods: not Hilo Hattie or the ABC Store, but the flea markets. Lots of folks from here head out to the islands to escape the dreary winter.

As my infusion wanes, the rest of the nurses come to give me a sendoff:  They sing “Happy Last Chemotherapy Day to You!” while clapping, one nurse blowing bubbles, and they give me a Purple Heart certificate of completion and my very own “Save Second Base” T-shirt. (I’m hoping I don’t have to explain the slogan to my kids.) I couldn’t help but cry. Such a relief to have it finished, but the center wasn’t a bad place to be.  I might even miss my Barcalounger.


After a beautiful traditional celebration of Christmas here, we spent a few days with family back in my hometown in Ohio. Thomas Wolfe once said you can’t go home again, but that’s not true. You can go home. And it’s good to be there, where you don’t have to be anyone but your familiar self. You just can’t stay there forever.

We spent New Year’s Eve and Day following Japanese tradition, and again I realize an advantage of a cross-cultural family. We get to extend our holiday celebration with gusto. There are no grand Buddhist temples to visit nearby, but my husband again arranged for the osechi, specially prepared foods — fish, vegetables, lobster, and other treats — beautifully arranged in a triple-tiered lacquered box. You can see an example and learn some background here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osechi. (I can assure you that he didn’t get ours at 7-Eleven.)

Then we watched the annual TV special on NHK, Japan’s main broadcast network. (Out here you can get TVJapan through the cable company.) The show runs almost 5 hours, has aired since 1951, and is a competition between two teams of singers, the red and the white. The red team is composed of women singers, the white team comprises men. (I don’t know exactly where the performers in drag fit in.) The music is of several varieties:  J-pop (bouncy, popular music), enka (a certain style of singing referred to as “Japanese blues”), and other types, and the performers appear by invitation only. Even though I understand little of the banter that takes place between the acts, it’s great fun to watch the groups perform, some of them in wild costume. You can see one example in the man on the right side of the photo here: http://www9.nhk.or.jp/kouhaku/.

This year’s show featured a couple of surprises:  an appearance by Susan Boyle, the Scottish woman who gained headlines last year with her performance of “I Dreamed a Dream” on “Britain’s Got Talent.” Also making an appearance, albeit vicariously, was Michael Jackson. A Japanese impersonator sang and danced to a backdrop of the most famous of Jackson’s video dance clips. I suspect we’ll see a rise in Jackson impersonators to rival those of Elvis.

But now, with the opening of the New Year, I’m undergoing a mental shift with regard to the cancer and treatment. Of course I rejoice at the completion of chemo, but now I face a whole new set of information to consider with radiation. I can’t know if I’m cured at this point, but I’m definitely focused on preventing a recurrence and figuring out how to live each day with uncertainty. My dad’s advice, based on his own encounters with cancer, is to put it in the back of my mind, and when the worry emerges again, as it will, put it back there again. I’m still searching for the meaning in these events. Reading Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, has me thinking about what my Personal Legend is and how to identify and read the omens that will take me to it.

One omen appeared a few days ago, when I stopped in a shop downtown. As I was checking out at the counter, a woman to my left spoke to me, and I glanced over to see who she was and figure out what she had said.  To cover my embarrassment at not having understood her, I said, “Hi,” and she asked gently, “Are you in treatment?”  Her tone was not at all aggressive, not at all like the woman in blue in the bathroom. She stood there gazing at me in her blazing red coat with a head full of thick black hair.  When I told her I’d just had the last infusion, she assured me that my hair would come back “just like normal” and we chatted enough for me to know that she had been down an almost identical path, with the same companions — Adriamycin, Taxol and radiation, which she said was “a picnic” compared to chemotherapy.

The funny thing about omens is that you get to decide if they’re real and what they mean.  I’m taking this woman’s appearance to indicate that I too will be where she is.

More photos, more identities:

If you’re a fan of the Addams Family, you know this character.

Here, I’m not quite home on the range.

Riding Hood vanquishes the wolf.

Apologies to Carmen Miranda.

I couldn’t get the grapes to stay on that Hawaiian headdress.

And here’s that Hawaiian headdress again. New Year’s Eve and the champagne and Obama bucks were flowing.

To close, here’s a link to one of my favorite pieces, Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man,” played by the New York Philharmonic, James Levine conducting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Xzf0rvQa4Mc

A fanfare for all of us.
And don’t we deserve it, just for doing what we do every day of our lives.
A fanfare for our New Year.


Popsicles and Tae Kwondo

A cool beautiful evening here.  We just got back from dinner (Mexican) and the kids’ tae kwon do test, in which they earned the next color belt.  My son surprised himself by actually breaking his first board ever (with his foot).  To pass the test, all he had to do was try, and the look on his face when it actually broke was priceless.  My daughter went about her test with her usual aplomb.  The girl is formidable in sparring.  God help anyone who accosts *her* in a dark alley.  And then there’s that wicked grin she gets on her face after the battle is over.

The doc’s appt. was about 2 hours this morning.  First a blood draw.  My husband was actually glad to see the white and red blood cells slightly below normal.  He was thinking that, since I’m not sick (yet), the medicine wasn’t working.  The lowered blood counts reassured him. Odd, but true.

The oncologist asked how I felt.  He said the fatigue will be setting in slowly, and laughed when I told him about riding roller coasters. “Taking Cytoxan and riding roller coasters? Cool!” was what he said.  He also predicted that my hair would start to come out soon.  When I asked if he could estimate a time, he said “about 19 days” after chemo starts.  “About?”  Gee, could ya be any more specific?  Would that be 18 and 3/4?  19 and 1/2???  I started chemo two weeks ago.  Guess I better enjoy my hair this week.

I spent part of the afternoon searching websites for how to make a turban and how to put on a hajib — the scarf that Islamic women wear.  Turns out there’s a variety of turbans.  I don’t think I’m up to winding one on my head  like the Sikhs wear (17 yards of fabric!), but the one in Vermeer’s painting of the Girl with the Pearl Earring might work.  Look what it did for Scarlett Johanssen!  With either style, it’s the closest I’ll get to taking on a different religious practice.

Speaking of religious practice, I spoke yesterday with one of the monks, a colleague who teaches at the college I’ve been teaching at.  He has taken up praying for me, and tells me I’ll pull through this.  That prediction sounds good to me.

The weekly infusion has already taken on a predictable pattern. After checking in, I’m assigned to one of the vinyl Barcaloungers in one of the “pods” of chairs comprising the infusion center.  The nurse then asks me my birthdate — a question I have to answer often for these medical appointments — then brings me 5 pills: 2 antinausea drugs and three steroids. (I don’t care to think what my blood is comprised of currently.)  Today’s nurse was especially informative.  She told me the steroids can give some people a burst of energy (good to combat the fatigue later, I guess) that makes them do things like want to clean the house for 3 days.

I don’t think I’ll have THAT particular problem.

Then she hooked up the bag with saline and threaded it into the port on the right side of my chest.  After letting that drip in for awhile, she switched to the Adriamycin, and for the second time I watched that red liquid (the color of KoolAid) snake its way into my chest.  She brought me a popsicle to eat during the infusion (also red).  Apparently sucking on that helps reduce the chance of mouth sores, a hallmark of Adriamycin.  So I sat for about 10 minutes watching the red stuff going in my chest, and sucking on the red stuff I put in my mouth.  Nothing like color-coordinated medical treatment.  She also recommend doing a saltwater mouth rinse several times a day to prevent the mouth sores.

So my daily routine includes taking an anti-nausea drug first thing in the morning, taking my temperature, waiting half an hour then taking the Cytoxan, making sure I eat enough and drink about 2 liters of fluid during the day, doing the arm exercises, monitoring myself for anything unusual, recording input/output (to put it delicately), and now doing the mouth rinses. Another antinausea before bed, and ginger tea and peppermint tea periodically throughout the day since they’re both known to aid the tummy. Too bad I can’t get paid for taking care of myself.

On Wednesday, I’ll be meeting with the naturopathic doctor associated with the oncology clinic. Naturopaths are fairly common out here on the “left coast”.  They’re N.D., not M.D., but can function as a primary care doc and deal with alternative types of medicine — herbals, supplements, diet, etc.  This one specializes in oncology naturopathy and is spoken of highly.  I’m hoping he can help me sort through the confusion about what to take/not take during chemo and to fight cancer.  Should I eat soy products or not.  Should I take a daily vitamin or antioxidants, or not.  Is alcohol OK (now that my spouse has perfected his martini technique)? What about Coenzyme Q10? I’ve stopped researching a lot of this on the web because there’s confusing evidence on either side of the issues, and what applies to one breast cancer patient (say, a postmenopausal woman with hormone receptor-positive disease vs., oh, say, a perimenopausal 48-year-old with triple negative disease) may not be appropriate.  Too much to make sense of.

Then on Friday I’ll see a physical therapist for my left arm, to work on getting it back to pre-surgery range of motion.  I’ve regained a lot and the odd tweaks, pains and numbness have decreased considerably, so I’m happy about that.

Time to put my little warriors to bed…