I am Not my Hair- Take 2

I am Not my Hair- Take 2

Everything I read about Abraxane, my current IV chemo, says that hair loss starts around the third dose. Last Tuesday was my third treatment and, sure enough, a couple of days after the infusion, I started shedding. It’s hard to describe the sensation. It’s a tingly, itchy feeling. It feels similar to the way your scalp feels if you part your hair in a new place, or leave a ponytail in too long. If you know this feeling, it just feels wrong. 

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We started with an undercut, just in case it wasn’t all actually going to fall out. I let Alyssa make a heart with the electric shaver. I kept it like this for about a week.

After the 4th treatment, the shedding and odd sensations became even more pronounced, so I knew it was time to do something more drastic. That something, this time around, would be a purple mohawk. I guess it’s tradition. In 2014, when my hair started coming out in clumps from my first run through chemo, I decided to put the electric shaver in the kids hands and have some fun with it. That time, I was determined to hit cancer hard and never look back. I dealt with the hair loss as a temporary situation to reclaim my health. 

This time around, it has a different meaning to me. The hair loss is insignificant compared to the improvement I sense in cancer’s symptoms in my abdomen. The first time around, I never had any symptoms to indicate cancer was developing. I was strong and healthy before my diagnosis. This time, I have been suffering from various pains, and the accumulation of fluid in the peritoneal lining (the lining surrounding the digestive tract). The chemo has significantly reduced the amount of fluid, my appetite is coming back and I’m starting to feel better. So I don’t care so much about the balding head (except that it’s cold!). 

Thursday night, I decided it was time to dig out the shaver again. I got some pizza and put on the Packer game and we proceeded to shave it off. Ironically, it took me a couple of years after the first chemo to leave my hair alone and let it grow out. I was just beginning to like the length.

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But that isn’t really relevant. The girls decided that Kaylei would do the rest of the cutting and Alyssa would dye it purple.

Friday, my buddy Crystal brought over lunch and we spiked up the mohawk and then cut it down to a more manageable height. My brother and sis-in-law dropped in to witness the beginning of the mohawk! We’ll see how long I can stand the tingly, itchy feeling. I’m thinking pretty soon it will be time to buzz it all off. I’m collecting warm, fuzzy hats now. Winter in WI is not the best time to be bald…

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If I’m going to sport a purple mohawk, I better go bold.

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Soon, I’ll be able to make a new “hair raising” video!!

 

Once in a Blue Moon

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I’m changing my handle from “Queen of Side Effects” to “Blue Moon”. It seems every time my doctor talks about side effects that happen only once in a blue moon, they happen to me. And it works well with my last name (Blue Moon Knight). So, yesterday I experienced something that only happens once in a blue moon (in 2% of patients, to be precise).

After working through insurance delays, and lab test, and a surgery to insert a MedPort, I was set to start Taxol, the iv chemo that would be my 3rd line of treatment. 

I arrived at the clinic and went back to the lab area to have blood drawn. I was happy to be able to access the MedPort (more on that procedure in the next post) and give my veins a break from the constant pokes. This is where the day started to go wrong. They could flush saline into the port, but no blood was coming back out of the port. We tried all the tricks-raise one arm, raise both arms, look left and cough, look right and cough. After about 5 syringes of saline, I was sent back to the infusion room to see if the nurse would have any better luck. I ran through all the tricks again, but I drew the line at turning cartwheels. No blood. So, it was time to inject something to break up the clot. Unfortunately, we needed to give it 30 minutes to work, so it was decided to use my arm for the blood draw after all, preventing further delays in starting the IV. 

visit from a friend

At the end of the 30 minute wait, my friend stopped in and gave me some good luck to get the port flowing. It worked and we were back in business! I was hooked up to saline and a variety of pre-meds (Benadryl, steroids, etc) were given to help reduce the side effects of the Taxol. All was going well, and soon I could smell the chocolate chip cookies baking!! Yes, you heard right. Another friend was there volunteering in the clinic, and part of her duties include baking cookies! I got the first one hot out of the oven! I’ll take the silver lining wherever I find it.

A couple hours into the appointment, it was finally time to add the Taxol to my IV. Immediately, my day turned upside down. I felt the drug the instant it hit my bloodstream. Suddenly, everything felt wrong. Thankfully, Andy was there to get the nurse, because I couldn’t function. Within moments, I was having a severe allergic reaction to the new chemo. It’s almost impossible to put the experience into words. I felt heat and pain spread through my body. My heart rate skyrocketed and my blood pressure went out of control. My face turned hot and red and I broke out into a terrible sweat. I was in agony, throwing up, unable to breath, open my eyes or answer questions. I’ve never experienced anything like it before (and hope never to again!) I had three nurses adding stuff to the IV to counter the reaction. I was given oxygen. The doctor suddenly appeared by my side, rubbing my arm, reminding me to breath, asking me questions, and reassuring me that I was going to be okay. My mind was racing almost as fast as my heart. Now what? If I can’t tolerate this treatment, what options do I have left? All of it was completely horrifying. 

Gradually, the meds they gave me started to relieve the symptoms and I was feeling better. They mentioned that we could try the infusion again, at a slower pace, but we all agreed that it wasn’t worth the risk. The reaction the first time was dramatic enough and I wasn’t ready to experience that again. Ever! 

The doctor eased my fears about what we would do next when she explained that my reaction was to the other drugs mixed in with the Taxol. Luckily, there is another version of Taxol which does not contain the same mix. She would switch me to that. Of course, that means one more delay in treatment, pending insurance approval and a holiday weekend. I am now scheduled to start treatment next Tuesday, meaning I will have gone without treatment for over a month. It is frightening to think of what the cancer is doing without anything to fight it, but I am hopeful that the next infusion goes much more smoothly, and I can get back to kicking cancer’s ass. 

In the meantime, Andy’s company gave us two tickets to the Packer game tomorrow night. I am super excited. I’m a lifelong Packer fan who has never been to Lambeau Field. Nothing is going to make me miss this game! Bucket List item-Check!

Changing Course

It has been a summer full of adventure. Some ups and some downs, but overall, a pretty good summer. Amid doctor’s appointments and pills and side effects, we managed to squeeze in a big road trip West, State Fair, Ren Faire, Girls Rock and a couple camping trips. We also started a butterfly garden! This is life with metastatic cancer. You never know when, or where, disease progression will hit. Take every opportunity to take the trip, see the friends, tackle the bucket list. Live fully, in small increments (between naps). Things may change quickly, putting simple things out of reach. 

My first sign of metastasis was a year ago, when fluid filled around my lungs. Chest tubes and Ibrance took care of that for a few months, then the cancer moved to my pelvis. A second drug, Xeloda resolved those problems and I had a few healthy months. In May, I started having new issues in my abdomen. My appetite was terrible, complete with GI issues and a swelling belly. I told my oncologist before our big trip out west, but CT and pet scans showed stability, and she said “take the trip”. I knew in my gut, though, that something wasn’t right. I’m tuned into my body, now more than ever, and I always know something is wrong before any tests confirm it.

July 5th, we loaded up the camping gear, and aimed west with a loose plan. We saw the Bonneville salt flats, and ran fast over the crunchy surface. We went to Crater Lake, Andy’s favorite National Park, and dipped in the unworldly, pristine water. We made it all the way to the pacific coast, where the girls floated in salt water for the first time. We walked among the giant redwoods. Heading back east over twisty mountain passes, we stopped at “Borden State Park” to get to know Adventure Trio and share travel stories around the campfire. Kaylei was the bold one who jumped off the waterfall. We saw the Tetons. We lingered in Custer, SD, where Michelle’s hospitality at Chalet Motel was a warm and welcoming step back in time. We explored caves, roamed with bison and saw the badlands again. We covered a lot of miles. 5,200 miles, to be exact (no breakdowns-well, for the truck, anyway. The kids may have had a few…)

Back home, we had a few days to re-pack for a weekend of camping and the triathlon where a new batch of brave cancer surviving women (Hey Team Phoenix!) became triathletes. We were there to cheer and help take pictures for the team. That was how our July went. I was making the most of everything, even though I was feeling worse and worse. By the Sunday morning of the triathlon (July 28th), I was ready to go to the hospital. Our 5:00 alarm wasn’t going to get me moving. I sent everyone ahead, took some pain pills and caught up in time to watch the race start. Packing up camp was exhausting, but with help from the family, I made it home to unpack. I re-packed  again. This time, it was my hospital bag, an all too familiar process now. 

After several hours of tests, and waiting (mostly waiting) in the ER, I was told I could either leave and let my oncologist order a paracentesis (a procedure to drain fluid from around the abdomen), or be admitted and do the procedure the next day. I couldn’t have waited much longer, so I was admitted for a long, uncomfortable night in the hospital.  I did have a few lovely visitors brighten my mood.

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As the fluid started draining, I could feel instant relief. I could breath better, the nausea stopped, the pain in my spine faded, and I started to feel better. 4.2 Liters of fluid was taken. I’m not sure where I kept it, but I know why I felt like I swallowed a bowling ball and looked pregnant. It was nearly twelve pounds of fluid.

In the hospital, I stopped the oral chemo (it didn’t work…) I would meet with my oncologist to determine my third line of treatment. She went to tumor board with my case and settled on a hormone blocker with another oral chemo. In the meantime, to my shock, the fluid started building with days. Before I could start the new treatment, I was back at the hospital for another paracentesis. This time they drained 2.5 liters (just 2 weeks after the first procedure). 

Friday, Aug 16, I had a few more tests and a consult with the oncologist for the new meds. She entered the room with news that we were changing course. The pills she wanted me on would not work fast enough given that the fluid had came back so fast.  We needed a more aggressive treatment. She told me it was time for IV chemo again.  This was a day I was hoping would be years in the future. IV chemo is usually reserved for late in the game when more aggressive action is necessary. My oncologist assured me that I could go back to try the pill combo once I stabilize. We also discussed Foundation One testing, which could be helpful in tailoring treatments to my needs.

I left the appointment with a lot on my mind – side effects, hair loss, being tethered to weekly appointments. I packed the truck up and headed to the family lake house to relax and prepare for this next step. I missed lake time last year for the first time in my life, in exchange for 6 nights in the hospital with chest tubes, so I wasn’t missing lake time this year! It’s been nice taking a minute, but I’m ready to face the next treatment in hopes that it resolves the fluid and pain. 

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Thursday, I have a small surgery to place a port in my chest, so the chemo drugs don’t damage my veins. Then Friday, I have my first of the weekly Taxol infusions. Weekly treatments limit my wanderlust, so I’m happy we got another long trip in before starting this regime.  Let’s hope this one gives me (a lot) more time. 

Travel has taught me a lot about serendipity and changing course when needed. I trust that my doctor is guiding me in the right direction to get back on the road I want to follow. 

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Health Insurance Blues

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I have a love/hate relationship with my health insurance company. It is a necessary evil. Without it, I would be way beyond medical bankruptcy. With it, insurance providers control aspects of my health care that should be between me and my doctors. There’s not much I can do about it. In my invincible 20’s, I thought I didn’t need health insurance. I was living a very healthy lifestyle. I ate well and got plenty of exercise and sleep. I was healthy. I still am healthy, actually, except for this one thing….

As I got older, I realized I needed insurance. Now I know how lucky I am to have good health insurance. I also know the frustrations. Insurance issues are a common problem in my network of cancer patient friends. Chemo and surgery are being delay, or worse, denied by insurance companies. I understand that medical costs dictate some things, but it hurts to see women who can’t get the life-saving treatments they need because insurance companies won’t pay. The added stress dealing with insurance issues and finances is the last thing a cancer patient needs. Stress kills.

Medical costs with a life-long illness are mind boggling. I stopped adding up expenses after my first year of treatment. I left off around $600,000. Since then, I’ve had 4 more surgeries, several scans, tests, and shockingly costly chemo meds. I’m guessing that by now I’m a million dollar baby. Luckily, My insurance has covered most of my medical bills without too many headaches. This makes my current argument more frustrating. 

Last night, I tossed and turned. I was hit with a panic attack. I don’t know who dropped the ball. Somewhere between my cancer center, the pharmacy, and the insurance company, my chemo meds did not arrive on my doorstep in time for me to start my current cycle. My loving husband is much more calm and cool than I am.  He’s better at handling long waits on hold and repeated conversations that go nowhere. He has spent hours on the phone every day this week trying to get my pills for me. For some unexplained reason, the pharmacy claims we had a change of insurance and did not approve my meds. Our insurance company did not change. We did upgrade our plan as of the first of the year with a lower deductible and co-pay (still trying to avoid medical bankruptcy). The pharmacy already sent one round of pills in January, so I don’t know what the issue is. I’m angry because nobody informed me that there may be an issue with my pills. It’s my third cycle of pills, nothing new or unforeseen. 

I was supposed to start taking them on Sunday. Now it’s Wednesday, and I’m still waiting for the hospital to get a pre-authorization for the insurance company. (And my cancer clinic is closed today due to weather). In the overall scheme of things, missing a week of pills should not have a profound effect my health, I’ve been told. That’s hard to wrap my head around, though. I’ve had a rapid, positive response to this new med after only two cycles, and the delay is messing with my head. Friends have said that I’m lucky to get a nice break from side effects. True enough. Side effects suck. But I can’t help but fear that the delay is giving cancer a chance to regain a foothold. This is not something I should have to stress about. If everyone had done their jobs and got my cancer meds to me on time, or at least informed me early enough that there may be a problem so we could have started leaning on them sooner, I wouldn’t have a problem. 

I’ve had a rough seven months dealing with the effects of cancer metastasizing around my lungs and abdomen. The first line of treatment did not work and my symptoms were coming back. By fall my shortness of breath and cough started up again. The fluid around my abdomen worsened, and I had pain and a loss of appetite. Over the holidays, I lost weight that I didn’t want to lose. I was exhausted, and generally feeling ill, weak, and frail. After two rounds with my second line of treatment (the pill I’m currently waiting on), these symptoms started to improve. The cough went away. My gut no longer felt like I had a bowling ball in it. My appetite improved. The meds are working. I want my meds. I want my health.

Maybe I’m just cranky because the windchill is 55 BELOW zero.  

Hair Raising

Literally.  Watching hair grow.

Because I had too much time on my hands last year, and not much energy, I started taking daily selfies.  Watch time fly and hair grow as I document the rapid changes that took place over the past year of cancer treatment.  When I first knew I would lose my hair, I let my kids cut it short and we donated the ponytails.  Then we added some color.  Soon the razor came out, and it was gone.  Next, a fabulous Henna Tattoo.  And, finally, one day in July, chemotherapy was over, and the long slow process of raising hair began.

Livestrong

Livestrong

As of Tuesday, I am a graduate of the Livestrong program at the YMCA (I even have a certificate!). Livestrong is a 12 week program designed to help cancer survivors achieve their health goals. I would highly recommend the program to anyone just finishing cancer treatment, unsure about how to rebuild after the difficulties they’ve just faced.

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While I still have a ways to go to regain the strength and fitness level that I had prior to cancer treatment, I feel like it was an excellent way to start. Participants in the Livestrong program get a free Y membership for the duration of the program, too. My class met twice a week, and it was just the push I needed to get off the couch and hit the gym. It was extremely difficult to find the motivation, and the energy, to exercise during chemo and radiation, but having a class to look forward to was an excellent way to get me out of that mode.

I’ve always had a physical lifestyle. I love jogging, biking, swimming, hiking, playing sports, and on and on. But I’ve never been terribly interested in “classes”, or group exercise. I have to say, there was something invaluable about being part of this group exercise program, though. For me, it was less about the exercise, and more about the camaraderie I found in a group of women who had recently gone through the same treatments and challenges that I had. It was the opportunity to talk about our experiences that motivated me to go every week. My group was very small, only 3 of us came regularly, and we grew comfortable talking about some personal stuff. It became like an intimate support group ( another thing I’ve never really been interested in). We were there to encourage each other and cheer at our small successes.

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Over the 12 weeks, we tracked our progress and did a baseline and post-class assessment of our progress. I’m proud to say that I improved in the areas of endurance, strength and flexibility! I hope to keep working toward my goal this winter. One more hurdle to clear, with surgery imminent, but after that I’m on track to join Team Phoenix at Aurora next spring! (more on that in future blog posts…)

Now What?

I realize that it has been nearly two months since I updated my blog. Don’t worry. I am still here. I still have a lot on my mind, and have been meaning to write, but the urgency to write which I felt before has let up some. In the thick of things this past year, I felt a strong pull to put my thoughts to paper. Writing was the only way to sort out the complex jumble of thoughts and fears, and dig for some sense of peace with what I was going through. Now, as I continue to move forward, I don’t feel the same pressing sense of urgency to put my thoughts to paper, so maybe you’ll hear less from me. Maybe….

The completion of radiation in the end of September marked the end of active treatment against cancer for me. For 10 months, this vigorous battle dominated nearly every aspect of my life. The abrupt change from constant doctor’s appointments, major side effects, and a underlying, ever-present focus on whipping cancer, to a return to… “normal” life, left me thinking, “now what?” Where do I go from here? So much has changed.

The important things in life are that much more important now. The unimportant things in life are that much more unimportant now. Facing fears, and pain, and setbacks seems to be a regular part of every day, yet I have new goals. Some are previous goals that have been neglected. Some are new goals. Life is too precious, and there are no guarantees that I’ll be around long enough, to put off the hopes and dreams I have for my life. What all of this means, I am not sure. But I am excited to find out. Excited to move forward.

Though I sometimes feel manic excitement to jump head first into this new chapter, waste not a single moment, I also realize that it will take time. I don’t have the strength or the energy that I used to have. I see glimpses of my old strength at times, but only glimpses. It seems that I can’t complete the tasks that I set for myself in the time I think I should be able to complete them. It frustrates me. I don’t have time for the patience of my younger self. I know that I need to learn, for now, to take on less, slow down, do things at a reasonable pace. Balance.

I have one more major hurdle to clear on this journey. Two weeks from today, I will be undergoing reconstruction surgery, along with the removal of my chemo port. I look forward to getting it done, or, rather, to getting it over with. In fact, I pushed the doctor to let me do it before the end of the year because I want this chapter to close with the end of 2014.  I am not looking forward to another surgery, another recovery, another pause from the things I want to be able to do.  I can say one thing with certainty, though – look out 2015! This New Year has new meaning and I am going to come on strong!