Monthly Archives: April 2013

My trip to Richmond, measured in Important Moments in Hairlessness

It’s been about a month and a half since my hair fell out, and in that time I have really only left my house to do three things: 1) run, 2) get coffee, and 3) eat food. Recently I added 4) fly to Richmond, but I’ll get to that in a bit.

When partaking in activity #1, running, I generally just wear a beanie. I’m listening to music with earbuds in, the universal sign for “leave me alone,” and generally moving fast enough that no one will bother me, so I don’t care what I look like. Also, I usually look horrible when running, bald or not. I’m like a sweaty mess flinging her arms and legs all around all weirdly. So basically the beanie is probably the last thing someone would comment on when I’m out jogging, a distant third to “Are you normally this jiggly?” and “Is it healthy for someone’s face to be so red?”

When performing activties #2 and #3, getting and consuming coffee and/or food, I’ll put my wig on. Mostly I do this because I don’t want anyone to remark on my appearance in any way, but sometimes they do anyway. For example, I’ve recently become a frequent patron of a stupidly expensive and trendy but somehow really addictive coffee joint out here in LA, and the guy behind the counter is always super chatty with me and I can’t help but wonder if he is noticing the fact that my hair is not attached to my head.

Actually, one time, as I was leaving this coffee shop, one of those Greenpeace people with the clipboards stopped me and said, “You have the most beautiful hair I’ve ever seen!” In my head I was like, thanks, but I bought it in a store. No one can grow hair this nice. It was made in a factory, which accounts for its shine and straightness. My real hair was a rat’s nest compared to the perfection of my wig. Out loud I was like, “Ahhh I love whales and stuff but I’m really poor please don’t ask me for money!”

Recently, I took a huge step by boarding a plane and traveling to Richmond, Virginia, where I was a graduate student before the Boob Mutiny. (Muttitties? No, I’m reaching.) I flew first class because I had enough miles to do it for free and frankly, I really owe myself one, and it was CRAZY, y’all. I don’t know if it was just a super cheerful morning at LAX or if it was because I fly so damn often I got a free flight, but the TSA people were insanely nice to me. The guy drew a heart on my boarding pass! And lest you think he was flirting with me, let me assure you that I cannot possibly overstate how bad I looked. I barely dress myself when flying. Sweat pants? Check. Ripped, smelly stuffed animal I’ve had since I was 3 peeking creepily out of my bag? Absolutely. Zero makeup? Duh. Beanie? Yes.

I actually really debated about whether to sport my beanie or my wig on the plane. Sometimes you get those chatty seat partners who will ask you really invasive questions and there’s literally nowhere for you to go to get away from them, so throw one point up on the board for the wig, because it ensures no one will ask about my cancer. On the other hand, the wig can get itchy, and what if I fall asleep in one of those awkward positions planes force you to adopt and then it falls off or gets crooked and that’s even WEIRDER than just wearing a beanie in the first place? Also, if I commit to the wig and then it’s uncomfortable, it’s not like I can just take it off in front of everyone and switch to the beanie. That’d be the WEIRDEST.

In the end, I went with the beanie. Mostly because I’m normally a somewhat lazy person but when waking up at 5am for a cross-country plane ride I am extra lazy.

So now that you have a mental picture of my abject hideousness at the start of this plane ride, just imagine how ugly I was when it concluded, many hours and one long, boring layover later. It was while basking in this complete and utter lack of hygiene or fashion that I was surprised at the airport but some of my best friends and my very bestest friend’s mom, who is like my second mom. She came in the most breathtaking floor-length sequined gown to show her support for Glamoury Mammaries, while my friends held up whiteboard signs, balloons and flowers. I immediately burst into tears, all while my friend Tyler – a former professional photographer – snapped extremely high-definition pictures of me crying, snotting and drooling all over everyone. After we left the airport, we all stopped by a bar for a quick drink and a catch-up. (I still looked hideous but I didn’t care.) Thank you all so much; for a little while there, I felt like a normal 25-year-old, and that’s really the best gift I can ask for. I love you guys.

My first few days back at grad school, I still opted for the beanie over the wig. I’m a student in a small, close-knit program, so everyone already knew about my cancer. I got so used to wearing the beanie that I actually forgot it was out of the ordinary until I was attending a guest lecture, raised my hand to ask a question and the lecturer was like (and this is verbatim), “Yes, young man with the weird hair. Wait, that’s a girl. And that’s a wig. Wait, it’s a hat. A weird hat.”

In his defense I was seated pretty far back in the auditorium. People around me started whispering, “Tell him you have cancer!”, but what’s the point? It’d just make him feel so bad/awkward. A few nights before this debacle Gordie and I went to see a stand-up comedian at a local open mic, and he was interacting with a young person in the crowd of rather ambiguous hairstyle and dress and asked, “Wait, are you a sir or a ma’am?” This totally badass androgynous person replied, “Whichever,” with the most genuinely casual shrug I’ve ever seen. S/he is my new role model when it comes to beanie snafus.

The reason I was back in Richmond in the first place was actually to attend a job fair, and for that I did bother to actually put on my wig. Since I was meeting with a lot of potential employers, I wanted the first point of conversation to be my work, not my illness. My cancer is a matter of public record, however, since this blog and other cancer-related projects are part of my portfolio, so some recruiters did ask me about it. Amazingly, I actually met three other women who are breast cancer survivors. It was one of those odd moments of cognitive dissonance when I find myself being sort of strangely thankful for my cancer – not that I got it, because screw that, but because I’m now part of this weird breast cancer sorority of amazing women who are constantly showing me it’s possible to beat this thing and come back better, stronger and more beautiful than ever. Delta Delta Titties. Phi Mammaries. Boob Alpha Theta.

Being back in Richmond was amazing. For ten days I returned to my forgotten life as a grad student – spending too much money on sushi, getting berated by my professors, drinking on Abbey’s porch, and perhaps most excitingly, looking forward to the future while interviewing with potential employers. Nothing lifts my mood like a reminder that soon this will be behind me, and my nascent career stretches out before me, a winding path of infinite possibilities.

Private marathons

This post is going to be a bit of a jumble since it’s been a while since I last updated (sorry, was busy violently hating every food except macaroni and cheese and cold sugary breakfast cereal and therefore gaining 1,000 pounds), so try to bear my weight. With me. I mean, bear with me. Oh my God, I need to start running again.

I want to take a second to talk about the Boston Marathon.

You might think that doesn’t have a lot to do with a cancer blog, and ostensibly, I think you’d be right. Except that while I’m also a cancer whatever (still searching for appropriate surrogate term for survivor), I’m also a former Bostonian. And a temporarily displaced marathoner.

Those who know me personally know that I lived in Boston during the “gap year” I took between undergrad and graduate school. I moved there on a whim because my awesome friend Hailee, who was finishing up at BU, needed someone to sublet an empty room in her apartment, and I mean, why the hell not? It’s not like I had a job. I majored in French, Literature, French Literature, who remembers now – the point is, I was not a STEM major banging down the doors of consulting firms in New York and DC.

In an unbelievable stroke of luck, I landed a job almost immediately after getting to Boston, and that’s where I met Gordie.

I also met Jenny – on Craigslist. After Hailee’s lease expired I needed somewhere new to go, and since Hailee was already locked into a new apartment, I turned to Craigslist, preferred victim source of internet murderers since 1998. Having only stalked one another on Facebook and had maybe one brief phone conversation, Jenny and I decided to go for it and rent an adorable apartment together in Brookline.

You guys, I loved that apartment. I look back on it with a special kind of nostalgia, the kind that you need like a full five minute pause to appreciate. The daydreams I have about our time in that apartment literally disrupt my productivity. It was a fully certified POS with literally no counter space in the kitchen and a heating system that either worked so poorly we had to sleep in Everest-rated sleeping bags or so well that our candles melted and we had to open the windows during a blizzard and I woke up with a snowbank on my bed, but I LOVED IT, DAMMIT. It was my POS, and I loved it. It has the biggest, brightest windows and a TV Jenny and I DVR’d all our favorite shows onto to watch together later, snacking on popcorn and Indian food from the place down the street. It had a courtyard where we roasted marshmallows over a Weber grill and drank Bud Lights with our neighbors. It had a roof deck from which we watched the marathon in 2011, sipping mimosas.

Far from being an internet rapist, Jenny turned out to be one of the most awesome people I know and will undoubtedly remain a friend for life. So thanks for getting that one right, Craigslist.

Beyond all that, even, I used to spend my summers in the Boston area. Some of my fondest memories are trips up to my Bostonian grandparents’ beautiful lake house on the shores of Lake Sunapee, New Hampshire. We learned to waterski there and stared in awe as my dad, the hero, waterskied on one leg, or on no skis, or showcased his prowess on the raft that we drug behind the boat at what seemed to our tiny minds to be lightspeed warp 5 max speed, or whatever the fastest sci-fi speed is, I don’t know, FAST AS HELL, y’all, that’s what I’m getting at here. My dad and uncle were supermen at Sunapee. The sun always shone and the waters were warm and calm. Even now, even as a Californian, I admit that I prefer the serenity, the peace, the seclusion of a small New England lake to the vastness and chaos of the ocean. (If you disagree, you should read my cousin Devon’s beautiful blog, where she shares all the reasons you can imagine to appreciate the sea. She’s almost made a convert out of me, but I’m gonna stick to lakes so she has more room in the waves.)

All of that is a long-winded and probably self-indulgent way of saying: I love Boston, and it has a piece of my heart now and always.

It gave me these things:

• 1 (one) addiction to Mike’s Pastry

• 1 (one) amazing boyfriend

• 1 (one) malfunctioning, 100-year-old apartment that I love with the ferocity of a mother bear protecting a retarded, barely functioning cub

• A jillion (approximate measurement) new friends

• Innumerable afternoons spent strolling through the Common and the Public Gardens

• A breath-taking bike commute to work along the esplanade that was worth every near-death experience I had passing a car on Comm Ave later

• My first peek into true adult independence

I’m also a runner. I feel like an imposter saying that; I never ran my first marathon because I was still recovering from my surgery when the starting gun went off, sadly. I have run many 5ks, some 8ks, a 10k and a half-marathon. But runners are an inclusive group, and the title doesn’t discriminate between ultramarathoners and beginners – one of my favorite things about runners as a whole is their dedication to the idea that anyone who can put one foot (or prosthetic device) in front of the other can be a runner. Running is a celebration of the human spirit and the human body’s ability to endure. I don’t know what these terrorists had in mind, but if they were trying to tear that down, to eliminate optimism and tarnish hope and frighten people, I’m just gonna put this out there: the group of people who push their bodies to the limit for fun to run 26.2 miles and are smiling at the triumph of their spirit at the end of it are probably not the right group of people to target here.

Because, really, could there be any more appropriate symbol in the world for the unflagging optimism of humanity than the marathon?

I often think about my running when I think about my cancer. I marvel at what I achieved, and the feats I watched my body perform. I look back, astonished, on how easily I knocked out a 10-mile training run back in November, and how difficult it is for me now to run a 5k without collapsing, and how determined I am – more now than ever – to finally run that damn marathon one day, to run it to prove that nothing, not disease, not terror, can diminish the astonishing power and grace of the human body and the human spirit.

People like the Boston Marathon bombers are the cancers of society. At the very least, they bear similarities. We don’t know what causes them – faulty genes? A deficiency somewhere? Something gone haywire in the potential for growth? Trying to eradicate them is a messy effort with a lot of collateral damage (like my poor hair, RIP Brunette Michelle; or your freedom to go to a baseball game unmolested by security personnel). But one thing I know is that I am going to prevail over my cancer, and society will prevail over its.

Because if there’s one thing a marathoner – or, in my case, an almost-marathoner – knows, it’s that the game is a mental one. Attitude is everything. Crossing that finish line smiling while you bleed from the nipples and hobble off on blisters the size of silver dollars is a show of human fortitude no attack can ever steal. In whatever private marathons we run – against disease, against grief, against sadness, against depression, against hatred – the finish line will always, always, always be a place where you catch your breath, marvel at the runner’s high and swell with pride at what’s possible when people believe in themselves and in others.

Chemotherapy #3, Brought to You in GIFs

GIFs* are little moving image clips from TV shows, movies, video games and so on. They’re awesome. Strap on your safety suit and get prepared for the most visual chemotherapy ride I’ve ever taken you on!

*Some of these are just JPEGs. They don’t move. I am sorry. This isn’t Harry Potter.

SO! First I woke up at 7 in the morning to beat the traffic and get to the day hospital on time. I needed blood drawn, I had a clinic with the oncologist and then there’s the whole 7-hour infusion thing, so it was going to be a long day. I was all like:

But then my mom was like, “Hey, do you want some scrambled eggs and a bagel and some fresh fruit?” And I was like:

And then she was like, “We’re gonna be late!” And I was like:

So eventually we get in the car with our coffees, and I get to pick the music, so it was all like:

The valet parking guy was all:

Yes, they valet park your car at the cancer center. It’s like a bald people country club. It’s the little things.

Then it was time to draw blood out of my very sore port for the first time, so my face was like:

But during the actual port access I was more like:

So basically, the same thing. I should be a psychic.

Luckily, once the port is accessed, it stays that way all day, so only one needle stick today! When the nurse told me that, I was all:

We had our meeting with the oncologist. We asked a million stupid questions, and the oncologist couldn’t stop our torrent of bro-science and poorly Googled “facts”, so she was basically like:

She has a lot of patience with us. It’s internet pseudoscience she hates. She was like:

But because our questions are hilarious even when they’re straight up irrational, at the end of it we’re all laughing and she’s like:

And then she’s like, “Seriously, stay off the internet or else.”

Then we got the drugs going, and the drugs were all like:

Luckily, I got my pre-meds, so I was all like:

But then I had to pee, and it was like:

Because clinic and blood draw took a while, we didn’t get to the infusion room in time to order lunch (which they do stupid early, at like 10am), so I was feeling like:

I never did get a meal to eat so I pretty much just did this the whole time:

And then I did this:

And this:

I wish. More like this for the ENTIRE TIME:

With a touch of this:

But then way more of this:

And then I got to go home! After being inside hooked up to tubes ALL DAY I felt so FREEEEEE that the car ride was like:

By the way, after today’s relatively pain-free, quicker-than-usual, piece-of-cake infusion, my port and I are all like:

As for the rest of the week, it’s gonna be like:

Just kidding y’all, more like:

But I’m done with three of ’em now, which means I’m halfway there! If you think I didn’t search for a fantastic Bon Jovi “Livin’ on a Prayer” GIF to round this post out, then you severely underestimated me. Alas, I couldn’t find a good one. So you’ll just have to imagine me singing it, which I have done far too many times at far too many karaoke bars after far too many shots served in test tube equipment.

A toast to vein champagne

After the Great Vein Explosion of 2013, from which I still have a weird bruise/rash on my hand where the IV was inserted, I finally opted to have a PortaCath…inserted? Placed? I prefer installed, since it’s a titanium implant with a self-sealing rubber lumen and a long tube that goes into the jugular vein, and all of those words make me feel like the Terminator. I am now half girl, half robot, all lean, mean chemo machine.

The procedure is performed under something called “conscious sedation,” which is a bizarre oxymoron to me. I mean, when somebody is inserting tubing into a vein in my neck as thick as my pinky finger, I don’t want to be any kind of conscious at all. Fortunately, what they should really call it is “extremely happy adult naptime,” because I was far, far more sedated than I was conscious. Heavy on the sedation, light on the consciousness, just how I like it when I’m getting cut open with a scalpel.

I wasn’t allowed to eat or drink anything past midnight on the night before the operation, which of course means that at exactly 12:01am my mouth became the Sahara Desert and I was struck with an absolutely insatiable craving for potato chips. I tossed and turned in bed for a long time, trying not to focus on thirst and hunger and therefore focusing on absolutely nothing but thirst and hunger for at least two hours. I eventually drifted off to sleep, and woke up to the completely unfamiliar sound of the alarm I never, ever set anymore because I had to get to USC by 7:30am for my pre-procedure blood tests and other prep.

Somehow, when I sleep until 11am, I never wake up hungry. But when my alarm starts blaring at 6:45 in the morning, I wake up absolutely dying, dying for a sausage, egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s. I KNOW IT’S BAD FOR ME. But have you ever eaten one? It’s like the perfect lovechild of all the world’s best breakfast foods in one greasy, fatty disgusting sandwich. It’s also something that I associate with treating myself, since I only ever let myself have one when something horrible is happening, like I have a killer hangover or I have to go the airport at the crack of dawn. Whatever, I don’t have to explain myself to you, internet! If you don’t like the sausage, egg and cheese biscuit from McDonald’s, you’re un-American and the terrorists win.

As I was getting my blood drawn and my vitals checked in the prep room, having neither eaten nor hydrated since 7pm the night before, the nurse asked me if I was currently experiencing any pain.

“Does hunger count?” I asked. “I’m ravenous.”

Also, am I going to be out of here in time to get McDonald’s breakfast? I added in my head.

As I was lusting after my disgusting fantasy biscuit, the nurse set up my IV and it dawned on me that this the last IV I’ll be getting for quite some time. This new device does everything – it can be used to draw blood, administer chemotherapy, inject contrast for CT scans, MRIs and MUGAs and just about anything else you can think of. It can remain implanted for as long as I need it, requires no maintenance except for a monthly saline and heparin flush and means I’ll never have to deal with a blown out vein again. And best of all, no more tourniquets. I hate the way it feels as my arm goes numb and the nurse starts slapping me to try to find a vein. Never again!

Once everything was good to go, the doctor came in, obtained my consent for the procedure and let me play with the different Portacaths they had available. I actually ended up with a model known as a PowerPort, which is a deep, beautiful purple and shaped like a heart. Sadly, it is hidden underneath my skin, so no one will know that it totally matches this J. Crew sweater that I love.

I shifted myself over to a shockingly comfortable surgical table, and then the nurse asked me – I swear I’m not making this up – “Are you ready to take a magic carpet ride?” I answered with a whole-hearted affirmative and she pumped me full of my favorite drug in the world, Versed. In fact, I learned today that Versed is often referred to as “vein champagne,” a nickname I find to be unbelievably apt because it does make me feel like it’s New Year’s Eve and I’m looking fantastic in my glittery dress and the handsomest guy in the room is about to kiss me at midnight for good luck. Modern medicine is amazing.

Thanks to the drugs, the rest of the procedure plays back in my memory like a time lapse.

The first frame is the injection of the local anesthetic. I remember it stinging a bit, but I didn’t care. I was far away in another world, high out of my mind on happy juice.

Next frame. The nurse is asking me how I’m doing. It takes a massive amount of effort to bring her face into focus. “I’m dreaming about the Lion King,” I slur. I really was.

Next frame. My dream shifts. I’m in a forest somewhere. Wait, maybe a cave. There’s some tugging and pressure near my neck. I hear the doctor’s voices but I feel like they’re on a TV someone left on in the background.

Next frame. The doctor is sewing me up. I’m not sure how I know, but I know. She says, “We’re just about done!” I literally do not believe her, because it feels like I’ve been in the room for thirty seconds, tops. In reality, it took about half an hour.

Next frame. I’m being wheeled into the recovery room. The drugs are starting to wear off, but I’m sleepy. The nurse turns the lights off and lets me nap.

When I wake up for good, I discover my new hardware is pretty subtle. Take a look:

PowerPort

The top incision, near my neck, is where the catheter is inserted. The longer incision is where the pocket was created for the PowerPort, which is the roundish button below it. There’s a thin tube connecting the two and arching down into my jugular vein, where it stops just inside the entrance to my heart. The little red prick in the center of the port is where the nurse accessed it with a special needle to ensure that it was placed correctly, which it was.

All in all, the procedure was a piece of cake. Truthfully, the worst part about it was that we didn’t finish it in time for me to get that sausage, egg and cheese biscuit before McDonald’s stopped serving breakfast. Dammit.

Clarity

I think getting cancer is a lot like getting glasses.

Stay with me here.

When I was in the fifth grade, I started having some difficulty seeing the whiteboard in class. But I was like eleven years old, and I didn’t know a thing about anything, and I just thought that was kind of normal, to be sort of semi-blind and wander around through a world of blurry shapes and impressions without having any real idea what’s going on. Eventually, an adult realized that I couldn’t see jack, and the next thing I knew I was picking out a pair of frames in an optometrist’s office somewhere. I’m pretty sure I picked a pair that was pink, or had ponies on them, or something. I don’t really remember. But what I do remember is the clarity.

I walked out of that office – and I was just standing in a gross parking lot somewhere, it’s not like I was in the rainforest – but I looked up at this tree and it had leaves! And the grass, it had blades! What had been to me for months, maybe years, just an expanse of green shapelessness was now nature in all of its intricate and awe-inspiring detail, with little ladybugs and caterpillars that I could see.

Cancer gives me the same sort of clarity. Before cancer, my life was mostly an aimless walk, bogged down by worries about the stupidest things you can imagine, stupid even by twentysomething standards. And then somebody was like, “Hey, did you know you might be dying?” And I was like, “You mean, in the metaphysical way that we’re all dying?” And she was like, “No, I mean like you might actively be dying, right now, like a lot faster than you should be.” And I was like, “No, I did not know that, or even suspect it, and wow, that is not cool.”

It was just like that moment in the doctor’s office when they put the glasses on my face for the first time. Everything important snapped into focus, and I didn’t have to strain anymore to see the writing on the metaphorical whiteboard of life. It was very clear. Be happy. Be kind to one another. Don’t be an idiot who counts the calories in a box of See’s Candies. It’s See’s Candies, it has one million calories, and who cares? Eat the hell out of those raspberry truffles! (In moderation, obviously.) What’s more, I felt the same awe at the beauty of life after my diagnosis as I did after my glasses fitting. The same intense sense of wonder at the beautiful intricacy of everything, even a leaf, with its spindly veins and crisp green edges.

I don’t want people to think that cancer has given me some sort of higher level of transcendence, because it hasn’t. I still get mad when cute clothes look bad on me in the dressing room. I still spend my time worrying about stupid things like if I will EVER stop getting zits on my left cheek, and whose fault was it really that that one roommate and I didn’t get along? (Hers.) Basically, my life is like an episode of Girls, but with 100% more cancer.

But what cancer has given me, if not the ability to rise completely above worry, is the ability to let those worries slide. It has given me a feeling of deep appreciation for everything in life, even the bad things. I pretty much go through my days now like a B-list celebrity who gets nominated for an Academy Award they can never win because they’re up against Daniel Day Lewis or Stephen Spielberg or something: “It’s an honor just to be nominated. I’m just happy to be here.”

I am so happy to be here.