Thursday, October 26, 2006

hot stuff

Yesterday's post received the most hits of any I have written so far. I can't help but think that more than a few people landed on my blog after googling 'sexy' and ended up with a totally different kind of eyeful.

I'll be away from the computer for a few days (yikes!). My spouse and I are delivering the kids to Grandma and then heading off for a week end get away.

If you miss the blog, you can always check out BlogHer. I'm completely addicted. So much good, smart writing by women in one place!

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

why breast cancer isn't sexy

I loathe my prosthesis. I have entertained fantasies about attacking it with a knife and watching its silicone innards ooze all over the floor.

I hate how it feels, I hate the way that it never looks quite right. I hate that I have to wear it (actually, mostly I don't wear it). And I know I need to work at a solution, as I don't want the first thing that people notice to be my missing breast and all it represents.

There has been much good feminist writing about the hype surrounding Breast Cancer Awareness month, and I have referenced some of the more interesting pieces in this blog. I join these women in their condemnation of the commercialization of breast cancer. And I certainly don't believe that one form of cancer is more worthy of support than another.

But a couple of writers have referred to breast cancer as 'sexy'.

It wasn't so long ago that breast cancer was considered shameful, a secret to be protected. For many women, this is still the case. After all, breasts are still not something we talk about at the dinner table, in the boardroom or in most day-to-day situations.

My breasts have variously been a source of embarassment, shame, confusion, pleasure and pride. Now I only have one, and a big scar where the other one used to be.

I thought long and hard about going public about my mastectomy but I decided that if I am to write honestly about my experience, this enormous source of discomfort, frustration and sadness must be included.

Breast cancer mutilates a highly sexualized, commercialized and central part of women's bodies. It is also a major cause of lymphedema, a further strain on our bodies, emotions and sexual selves.

I hate my prosthesis. I hate what it represents.

Self-confidence is sexy. So is love. Power can be a turn-on. So are broad shoulders, a quick wit and a sense of humour. Sometimes, I am sexy.

Breast cancer will never be 'sexy.'

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

not bloody likely

My radiation oncologist always treats me as if I am about to burst into hysterical tears. It makes me crazy.

When I start to show annoyance, he seems to take this as further evidence of potential instability and it only makes him worse. I am trying to learn to keep my mouth shut, get the information I need and get out of there.

But it' s not easy.

On the other hand, yesterday's appointment held no nasty surprises. My skin is healing well and so is the rest of me, slowly but surely.

Still working on patience, though.

Monday, October 23, 2006

where i'm at

In mid-September I had a heart scan. This is the test where they inject you with radioactive material, wait twenty minutes, then take video of your heart, pumping away. I got to watch a little bit of it and, as far as I could tell, my heart seemed to be doing a very good job.

I found it to be a pretty reassuring experience (and slightly less bizarre then I did back in January when I first had this test done).

A week or so later, I went to see my medical oncologist, expecting to be given a date to start Herceptin. Instead, I was told that my heart had not sufficiently recovered from chemo.

The chemo I had was pretty aggressive. And that there is always a 1-2% chance that chemo will permanently damage your heart. There is also a 1-2% chance that Herceptin will damage the heart. Taken too close together, there is a thirty per cent chance of the heart being permanently damaged.

Chemo is very, very toxic. And Herceptin, which I will be taking every three weeks for a year, is pretty toxic, too.

My next heart scan is scheduled for November 10th and I expect to start Herceptin shortly thereafter. My heart and head should both be ready by then.

I have an appointment with my radiation oncologist this morning. My skin seems to have recovered really well and that I am working hard at regaining strength and mobility in my shoulder and arm. I expect to be told that I am doing well but I admit that I'm nervous.

I am making good progress, though, and as my hair grows, I look more like a hedgehog than a cancer patient.

I think I have reached the point where it is not immediately obvious that I've been in chemotherapy. A highlight of the staff retreat I attended a couple of weeks ago was the moment a colleague from Vancouver (who doesn't know me well) inquired as to what kind of leave I'd been on.

That made me feel really good.

Friday, October 20, 2006

not much left

I just crawled out of bed, where I was reading Cancer Vixen, a beautiful graphic novel written by Marisa Acocella Marchetto (and a testament to the fact that each cancer story is so different, yet we do share much common ground). My favourite moment is when the author yells, "Cancer, I am going to kick your ass! And I'm going to do it in killer five-inch heels!"

It's a rainy day in Ottawa and I am fighting off the cold my young son brought into the house. I feel like fixing myself a nice comforting, healthy snack. But the question of what to eat is not one that is easily answered.

I've been reading (or rather skimming the chapter summaries of) Foods that Fight Cancer: Preventing Cancer Through Diet. It is, all in all, a positive book, full of beautiful pictures of leafy greens, bright citrus and even lovely dark chocolate and red wine. However, the author's list of foods to avoid leaves me cold:
  • Fried foods (fair enough)
  • Processed foods (makes sense)
  • Red meat (in excess)
  • Alcohol (in excess)
  • Smoked foods (ack!!!)
  • Marinated foods (double-ack!!!)
I understand that this is not so terribly restrictive but add to this the 'foods to avoid' one from the (very helpful) information session that I attended this week on lymphedema management and prevention:
  • Processed and refined foods
  • Coffee (oh no!!)
  • Alcohol (bye, bye red wine)
  • Sugar
  • Saturated fats
  • Red meat
  • Dairy
  • Chocolate (so much for my daily guilt-free fix)
  • Salty foods (no more Vietnamese noodle soup?)
  • Spicy foods (might as well eat Pablum for the rest of my life).
'What's left?', I ask you. Fruit, vegetables, water....flax seed.

OK. Going to make vegetable soup now. I'm going to use broth with salt, though. Because it's all I've got and, as the lymphedema trainer said, "You've still got to live your life."

Thursday, October 19, 2006

gifts that cancer gave me

Cancer is not a gift. It is an evil scourge and I am still really pissed off that I got it.

But someone asked me this evening if I write every day and I said, "Yes. That's the gift that cancer gave me."

Here, in fairness to Cancer, are some other things it gave me (which doesn't mean I'm not still working on kicking its ass):
  1. The knowledge that humour can be found in the darkest places.
  2. A renewed appreciation for the people who love me.
  3. A sense of confidence in myself and my ability to face new and tough challenges.
  4. Perspective.
  5. An abiding love for a good pedicure.

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

not enough to think pink

Pink is not my new favourite colour (unless it's hot pink, then maybe we can talk).

I will never, ever buy a pastel pink sweater with pink ribbons on the buttons just because "a portion of the proceeds" goes to breast cancer research.

Lots of good writing has appeared in the blogging world on this subject in the last couple of weeks. You can read lots more about this on BlogHer, my new favourite thing (in particular, you should check out posts by Suzanne Reisman (Breast Cancer is Sexy, or Pink Ribbons, Advertising, Class and Race) and Liz Thompson (The Bad Business of Buying for a Good Cause).

I resent large corporations benefiting from breast cancer and find the small donations made by some to be tantamount to fraud.

But I knew there was more to my extreme annoyance than this (and the fact that very many breast cancer baubles are hideously ugly).

And then I had a conversation that had nothing to do with breast cancer.

I was in my local fair trade coffee shop the other day buying beans. I ordered Brazilian, their very darkest roast and was informed that it would not be available for several months. "Do you want to know why, asked the clerk?"

She told me that Wal-Mart decided they wanted to start a fair trade line of coffee and had bought out all the beans from the co-op in Brazil. Shortly after they had cancelled these plans, leaving the co-op farmers to reach out again to their smaller distributors.

That Wal-Mart wants in is a testament to the power of the fair trade consumer. But that this low-wage, anti-union, sweat shop-supporting behemoth should hop on the fair trade bandwagon is beyond hypocritical.

And that, I realized, is what bugs me about breast cancer product promotions. Too often the products sold are full of carcinogens or are made under conditions that are highly toxic to the environment. I don't want any part of that.

Let's make our donations directly to organizations that are working to prevent, treat and cure breast cancer.

I'm off to a lymphedema workshop at Breast Cancer Action, one of those great organizations. I'll make a donation while I'm there.

Monday, October 16, 2006

'a kinder season'

I can't get enough of this new CD, by my friend Eve Goldberg.

Eve has the most beautiful voice and her songs get right under my skin. I was fortunate to have been given an advance copy, right after my diagnosis, and her album was one of the things that got me through some of my darkest moments.

Eve's mother passed away from breast cancer in June 2005, Eve's music is infused with heartbreak and love. In her words:
"'A Kinder Season' was recorded in months following my mother's death. Although none of the songs are directly about my mom, the album is permeated with the emotion of that time - a time of great sadness but also of extreme clarity, beauty, even joy. If I learned anything from my mom's death, it is that sweetness can be found in the bitterest season."

Amen to that.

And this time, right now, is my 'Kinder Season.'

You can find out more by visiting Eve's web site or through her record label, Borealis Records.

Friday, October 13, 2006

seeking balance

Apparently, people on long term disability don't often call their insurance company to say, "Can I go back to work now?" (At least that's what my insurance rep told me when I spoke with her).

"What's the rush?" asked my oncologist when I mentioned a return to work.

And there certainly are many other things with which I could fill my time and not get bored (aside from physiotherapy and trying to find my house under all the rubble).

I know how lucky I am to have a supportive employer with a good insurance plan. I am also very grateful that I live in Canada where we have socialized medicine (women without health insurance face alarmingly high death rates) and a terrific oncologist who supports whatever choice I need to make (as long as I promise to take things slowly).

In part, I want to return to work slowly so I can build up my stamina gradually and not feel overwhelmed by the shock of trying to get up to speed.

But that's not all. I attended a staff retreat last week (at the Chateau Montebello, in a village near where I grew up. I'd always dreamed of staying there) and the truth is, I felt energized by the experience, and, in fact, have continued to have more energy since my return. It was so good to be around people and to have my thoughts be consumed by something other than cancer for a while.

I love my work (and my co-workers were an enormous source of support during treatment). And a significant part of my identity has always come from my work life.

I am a mother, lover, friend, trade unionist and now, irrevocably(but not primarily), a cancer patient. Each of these identities is important to me and I need to give voice to each of them in order to feel whole.

I know that I need to be careful. The last thing I want is to end up on sick leave again (and labour movement jobs are famous for being demanding and stressful). I am going to have to set clear boundaries and figure out how to pace myself.

But I feel ready to start re-claiming the life I had before cancer.

I'll let you know how it goes.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

more than skin deep

The stages of recovery from radiation:

1- Burned, blistered, raw, achy and sore.

2-Fragile and sensitive.

3-Renewal. Still very tender but on the road to healing.

4-Better. Not as new, but strong, healthy and fit.

I am hovering somewhere between stages three and four, sometimes taking two steps forward and one step back. I am making progress, though.

And my skin is healing, too.