Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Chronicles of Breast Cancer Part 6: Frankenboob

Now that everything is over, I am left with a breast that has:
  • A hole where they put in the balloon catheter
  • An incision that look a bit like railroad tracks in my armpit, where they took out the lymph nodes. 
  • A 3-inch, raised, purple scar where they removed the lump
  • Just beneath the big, purple scar, a noticeable divot.
  • Currently, a decidedly sunburned appearance where the radiation damage continues to surface.
There goes my dream of becoming a porn star.

Friday, March 17, 2017

The Chronicles of Breast Cancer: Part 5--Glow in the Dark Fun

This week was all about radiation treatments. As you may recall from my last post, I decided to go with partial breast radiation, where they insert a balloon catheter into the site of the lump.

This is the kind of balloon catheter I had. You'll be glad to hear they did not insert it at 7 o'clock, more like 11. Under local anesthesia, so easy-peasy.

They put it in last Friday.I had to keep the site where it exited my body dry, so I wasn't able to shower,

Cat scan gantry from the inside

On Sunday night, Old Dog cut a neck-hole in a trash bag and had me put it on. He stripped down and got in the shower with me (this is what passes for kinky sex at our house) and washed my hair. Nothing like having clean hair to make you feel human again.

On Monday I started treatments. The treatments went like this: first step was a cat scan, so they could make sure there was no extra air or fluid surrounding the balloon. The scanner looked like this:

Lights whirled around that track, taking pictures from 360 degrees. Then the computer assembled them into a single picture that looked like this:

The stuff in white are my spine, my ribs and my scapula--and the balloon, of course. The black ovals are my lungs and the gray stuff in the middle is my heart. (Finally. Irrefutable proof.) It's a slice of me.

Then they took me into a lead-lined room (with an 8-inch thick door) and hooked me up to a machine called an After-Loader..

A thin wire pushed a radioactive isotope down one of those plastic tubes and into a channel on the balloon. My balloon had five channels, but we only used three. The other two were too close to my skin or my chest wall, and they didn't want to burn me.

The isotope stayed there for around 2 minutes (shorter time for brand new isotopes, longer if they've had time to decay). After three rounds,one for each channel, they redressed the wound and I went home, returning six hours later to do it again.

The box on the wall measured the amount of radiation in the room. I saw it get as high as 524.3, but I have no idea what that means.

Today was the last day. After my second treatment, they deflated the balloon and removed it.

And now this is all in the rearview mirror.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Chronicles of Breast Cancer--Part 3--If I Get a Balloon, Does It Mean There's a Party?

I had my lumpectomy on Tuesday and my lymph glands came back clear. That means no chemo (yay!), so I have just one more thing to get through: radiation therapy.

As I mentioned in my last post on this topic, there are three types of radiation therapies, lasting 5 days, 21 days and 5-8 weeks, respectively.

How to choose among them?

When I was 5 or 6, I got caught playing down at the neighbor's house without notifying my parents I was leaving the yard. They had an appointment to close on a house (my dad sold real estate) and they searched high and low for me, making themselves late for the closing in the process. My dad was pretty mad, and promised me a spanking when he got home.

I spent that entire day sick with worry about that upcoming beating. But when they got home, my dad, who was nothing if not mercurial, was in such a good mood from the nice, fat check he'd just received that he forgot all about the planned punishment.

A common-sense takeaway from that event would have been: don't worry about bad stuff because it may not even happen. My takewaway was, "Go ahead and take your beating. Once it's over, you don't have to worry about it anymore."

In keeping with that life lesson, I decided to go with the 5-day radiation treatment.

Tomorrow, my doctor will insert a device that looks like this into the cavity where my lump was.

Then, twice a day, six hours apart, they will load radioactive material into those lumens sticking out at the end. The lumens will ferry isotopes into my breast, where they'll destroy the ability of any remaining cancer cells to reproduce. They will do the same thing to any nearby healthy cells, too.

Here's the tricky part:If you picture my breast as a clock, my tumor was at 1 o'clock. This gadget, as I understand it, will be inserted from the 7 o'clock position.

Which kind of means they're going to have to shove it all the way through my breast to get it into place.

I'm pretty sure there's a bunch of meat in the way. (Okay, "a bunch" may be overstating the case, but there's definitely tissue blocking the path between 7 and 1.)

So that's gonna smart. And I understand that yanking it out kind of smarts, too, but I'm sure they'll numb the area. For afterwards, they gave me good drugs and I'm not afraid to use them. (Okay, a little afraid. Hydrocodone is pretty addictive.)

The good news is, a week from tomorrow, this beating will be over.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Curmudgeonly Consumer--Breast Cancer Chronicles Part 2

On Tuesday I met with a radiation oncologist to discuss my options for radiation treatment after my lumpectomy next week. There are three:

1) A three week, once-a-day treatment where they shoot targeted radiation at you. Requires the tumor to be small and not too close to the skin,

2) A five-day, twice-a-day treatment where they insert a balloon into the area where the lump used to be. A hassle because you have leads to the balloon sticking out of your skin for a week.

3) A five-to-eight week, once-a-day treatment that appears to be the fall-back if you're not a candidate for the other two.

The doctor went over each of them, discussing success rates (all very good) and side effects (all minimal, though some less than others).

When he finished, he said, "Do you have any other questions?"

"Just one," I said, "How much do each of these cost?"

His eyebrows shot up. "I don't know," he said. "No one ever asks that."

"Really?" I was astounded. "Why not?" (Because I know I'm cheap, but I can't be the only cheap person in the Dayton area.)

He shrugged. "Most people just figure their insurance will cover it."

As will mine. At 80%. Don't these people have co-pays?

And it gets better. In order to determine the cost, he has to write up orders for all three so the Billing Office can compute the cost. They're supposed to call me before the end of the week and let me know.

Cost isn't the only criterion for my decision, but it's certainly one of them. They do hundreds, maybe even thousands, of these things every year. It's ridiculous that they can't quote a price. There's no magic here. It's damned close to being an assembly line.

No wonder America's health care is the most expensive (though not the most successful) in the world.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Chronicles of Breast Cancer

Last month I was at the health center, getting my annual mammogram and bi-annual bone density
scan. As I put my cell phone in that little locker they provide for your stuff, I thought, "Snap a picture of yourself in this hospital gown and post it to Facebook as a reminder to other women to schedule their checkups."

As a rule, I believe selfies are best left to the young and self-involved, but this seemed like an opportunity for a Public Service Announcement. I've had fifteen or twenty mammograms over the years and they're always okay. So, contrary to my usual policy, I posted this picture of me in alternating hospital gowns (one forward, one back).

I got a lot of likes and loves and laughs on my Facebook post--and a handful of requests to let my friends know the outcome.

I figured, in a week or so, I'd post the results and be done with it. But three days later (a quick response on lab tests is never good), my doctor's office called to say, "Something looked a little hinky. You need to get another mammogram with more elaborate and expensive equipment."*

Facebook post #2 netted 70 well-wishes and requests to be kept in the loop.

So the next Monday I went to a different facility and had another picture with different equipment. The tech sent the pictures straight over to a radiologist, who said, "That lump is tiny (5mm), but the edges are irregular. We should poke it with a sharp instrument."*

Eight days later, I went back to get poked. (Full disclosure: This was done under the effects of a local anesthesia and didn't actually hurt.) I still wasn't concerned, because the Susan G. Komen site assured me that 80% of breast lump biopsies are benign.

Only this one wasn't.

A week later, I met with an oncology surgeon, who explained that my tumor is what's known as invasive, ductile breast cancer. It's in my milk glands (ductile), and it's traveled between milk glands (invasive). The good news was, it's also Clinical Stage One.

He offered me the choice of a lumpectomy followed by radiation treatments  or a double mastectomy sans radiation. Either choice has a recurrence rate of 6%. (That rises to 21% if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer.)

If I went with the mastectomy, I'd have to have a second, reconstructive surgery to reinflate my breasts. The vision of permanently perky breasts atop a 90-year-old chest creeps me out. I prefer my entire body to shrivel at the same pace.

Also, not crazy about a second surgery.

So, I'm having my lumpectomy on March 7. While I'm asleep, they'll also harvest a couple of lymph nodes and check them for cancer. If they're clear, I'm good to go (to radiation treatments five times a week for 5 to 8 weeks). If not, I'll undergo chemo before I can start radiation.

All prayers, good vibes, and well-wishes welcome.

*Possibly not an exact quote.

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

Detour Off the High Road

The other day on Facebook, a friend posted that, although he understands the Dems desire to get even with the Republicans for refusing to consider Merrick Garland for the open Supreme Court position when Obama was president, he thinks they should take the high road and give the American people a full roster of justices without attempting to slow things down.

Here's the problem I have with that:

1) Democrats have won 4 of the last 5 Presidential elections, but we've gotten to inaugurate our chosen candidate only twice.

2) Under Republican-controlled State houses, gerrymandering has reached a computer-modeled peak of effectiveness. Only about 15 of the 435 Congressional seats are competitive anymore.

Here's an example of what Republicans have done to ensure that as many Democratic votes as possible are herded into a single district in a kind of political apartheid. (North Carolina District 12)

Note: The same thing occurs on the blue side in states controlled by Democrats. In California, 1/3 of the state voted for Donald Trump, but only 1/4 of the representatives are Republican.

3) The impacts of this gerrymandering are not limited to national elections. At the state level, Dems can no longer afford to compete in races they have no chance of winning. One third of state legislative seats were uncontested across the United States in 2016. In Georgia, it was 80%.

The long-term impact of this is that Democrats are no longer growing a bench for future national elections. The United States is moving toward a single-party system.

4) The only races left that are remotely fair are the Senate races, but even there James Comey and Vladimir Putin teamed up to give the Republicans a 52-48 lead on the coattails of their preferred candidate.

5) Eighteen days into Donald Trump's first term, it's painfully apparent that the GOP plans to rubber-stamp any unqualified (DeVos, Carson), bigoted (Sessions) asshat (Mnuchin, Price, Perry) he proposes for his Cabinet. They're so occupied with staying out of range of Twitter rants and Tea Party primaries they're making no attempt to ensure balance or even competence in our government.

Only two Senators voted against the confirmation of Betsy DeVos--Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine. Turns out the only two Republicans in the Senate with any balls are women.

And now you're asking us to give up what little leverage we've got--the fillibuster--to actually have some kind of voice in our not-very-representative government?

If that's the high road, I think it's time to reconsider our route.


Monday, January 23, 2017

Women's March on Washington

(Graphic by Hayley Gilmore)

Over the years, as other Boomers inexorably moved to the right, determined to hang onto all the toys they've amassed over the years (bad news, kids, they won't fit in the box when it's time to leave), my political views haven't changed.

Despite that lifelong lean to the left, I've never joined a protest before. I was a speck young for Vietnam--it ended before any of my classmates could be drafted. Now, with the Trump Administration holding majorities in the House and the Senate and likely appointing the next two or three Supreme Court justices, it felt like it was time to stand up for my beliefs.

Here are a few impressions from the March:

1) Standing in a crowd of 1.2MM people (estimate provided by DC police) in a space planned for 220K is like getting a 5-hour vertical full body massage from strangers' knees and elbows.

2) I got to see one of my real-life heroes, Gloria Steinem, speak. The woman is 82 years old and she is as incredible and inspiring today as she ever was.

3) At some points, when it got especially claustrophobic, I would practice breathing and remind myself it was just for a few hours. I felt bad for the kids who were there. If it was hard for me, when my head was level with or above most of the people there, what was it like for them, who had no view of anything but people's coat buttons? Shudder.

4) The signs at the rally ranged from clever to heartfelt to scurrilous (the man can't help his tiny hands, stop picking on them). There seemed to be 6 general topics:
  • ·         Reproductive rights
  • ·         Climate change
  • ·         Gay rights
  • ·         Religious freedom
  • ·         Civil rights/Black Lives Matter
  •       Healthcare

5) I assumed there would be vendors along the route where I could get snacks and beverages, but there were none within blocks of where the stands and the Jumbotrons were set up. So from 5 a.m. till around 4 p.m., I had no food or water. Other people brought sandwiches and drinks. That didn't actually work in their favor because the porta-potty/protestor ratio was on the order of 1:10,000--and you had to work your way through a packed mass of humanity to reach the few there were. Later, there were more along the parade route, but most of them were padlocked.

6) I love that the demonstration was so inclusive. I love that people whose agendas are not necessarily in lockstep could draw support from others with divergent interests. And I'm painfully aware that the very diversity that makes my party interesting and colorful is what makes it so hard to reliably draw Dems to the polls.

Demonstrations and protests, no matter how heartfelt or well-attended, won't take back our government. If we want some say in how this country is run (and we're perilously close to having none), we need to show up on Election Day and vote in the same numbers and with the same enthusiasm we showed Saturday. 

And I'm going to do what I can to make that happen.


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