Sunday, September 27, 2009

Games people play

The scene: A small coffee shop/art gallery. There is a 60th birthday bash being thrown for Nat's stepdad. He knows the owners, who have shut down the place for the party. Nat's sister, the sister's boyfriend, Uncle Steve, and Nat have snuck away to the coffee shop's kitchen area to play some cribbage on a makeshift table while the party rages on. Uncle Steve arrived from Winnipeg earlier in the day just for the party.

A woman no one knows enters the kitchen.


Woman: Ah, so this is where the real party is!

Uncle Steve: Absolutely. It's the kitchen party.

Woman: Do you use the coffee shop kitchen as your own kitchen, too?

Uncle Steve: [looking around to see if she's talking to him] Um...yes?

Woman: Must be nice to have such a big space to use for your own cooking.

Uncle Steve: [getting into it now] It's great! One of the benefits of owning this place.

Woman: I bet!

Uncle Steve: [gesturing wildly] Have you gone out back yet? We're expanding. We're building up, we're building down. We're building out and around and in.

Woman: [eyes wide] That sounds WONDERFUL!

Uncle Steve: You should see in the winter. Beautiful.

Woman: Oooh, I just bet! But I should let you get back to your game. Nice chatting with you.

Uncle Steve: [to her retreating back] Make sure you try the cheesecake!


I sure hope that poor woman was far enough away before the four of us dissolved into laughter.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Hair today, gone tomorrow

When I was ten years old, my then-step-grandma gave me a home perm. Please imagine horror movie strings screeching in the background when reading those terrible words: home perm.

Frog watching the sunset

I had been begging my mom for months to allow me to get a perm. She got them regularly - why couldn't I? Finally she relented after my step-grandma offered to give me one herself. I had high hopes for my first perm ever. I imagined myself walking into class with gorgeous wavy locks and all the kids collectively inhaling in awe at my new look.

Finally, after much burning and waiting and rinsing and drying, the unveiling occurred. It was HIDEOUS! I looked like a brunette Lil' Orphan Annie! I didn't know whether I wanted to to cry or shave my head first. Instead, I mustered up a shaky grin for my step-grandma and thanked her. Then I went into my room and cried.

The next day at school I tried to keep my touque on in class, but my teacher (heartless witch that she was) made me take it off. In front of everyone! The snickers and snorts still haunt my dreams.

Bridge construction

Since the home perm , I've struggled to find a hair style I liked. I cut it short, I grew it out. I dyed it red, I bleached it with Sun-In and lemon juice. I got real, salon perms. And through it all I uttered my all-too-familiar mantra: I hate my hair!

About four years ago I gathered up all my courage and had a friend give me a haircut I'd been aching to try. Short in the back, long at the sides, bangs - you know the one. I immediately fell in love with the style. It was quick and simple (two MUSTS for me) and I received compliments on it daily.

Flock of seagulls

And then April 28, 2009 happened and I found myself sitting in a surgeon's office being told I have breast cancer. And do you know what made me cry the most during that appointment (and, in fact, for days and maybe even weeks after)? It was when he told me that I would almost certainly need chemotherapy and I would lose all my hair. In our society, hair and clothes are seen to be expressions of personality and since I'm mostly unable to do that with what I wear, my hair became the way I showed there was more to me than people first assumed. And now my wonderful hairstyle was going to fall out.

I tried to put on a brave front for people. "I've always wanted to see what I look like bald, anyway!" or "They say it could grow back different - maybe I'll have those curly locks I've always wanted!" But that was mostly me saying things to make other people feel better. I didn't really believe least at first.

A strange thing happened as I tried to placate others - I started to really buy in to what I was saying. Shortly after my aborted attempt at my first chemo treatment, I decided to get a kicky new pre-chemo hair cut. It was short and funky and I LOVED it! It made me stop dreading the whole growing-out process.

How many blackbirds can you see? I see 13.

Then a week and a half ago I noticed more hair in my hairbrush than usual. I decided that rather than going through the mess and the trauma of watching my fun new style go down the drain (and in the garbage and on my pillow and on the floor), I would have my friend Cake shave me. He couldn't do it until 4 days after the initial hair loss and by then my hair was falling off in clumps. There was a small section that was sticking out and I was trying to get it to lay flat and, instead, the whole bit came off in my hands. It was at that point that I realized that I was good and ready for what I was calling my Good Ol' Fashioned Shearing Party.

I went over to Cake's place, bottle of wine in hand. There were the obligatory before, during (complete with mohawk and fauxhauk), and after photos and to my utter delight, I didn't look terrible when he was all done! There were no weird lumps that were uncovered and my head isn't bizarrely misshapen or anything! I even walked home that evening without donning the funky head scarf I had brought with me in case of emergency.

Autumn sunset at the legislative building

Since then I've been embracing my new 'do, walking with my head high and scaring old people. But all of this doesn't mean I'm not looking forward to my hair growing back. I haven't spoken to my ex-step-grandma in 20 years. That should be a lesson to NOT MESS WITH MY HAIR AGAIN, cancer! I don't fool around about these things!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Mom: 3 Nat: 0

The scene: Nat's mom picks her up to go grocery shopping. Nat just had her head shaved because her hair was falling out by the handful.

Mom: You know, if I thought I would look better bald I would shave my head, too.

Nat: How do you know how you would look until you try it?

Mom: It would start growing in and it would be mostly grey. I think it would look terrible.

Nat: So you're not going to be one of those moms that shaves her head to support her cancer kid?

Mom: Nat, you know I'm here for you to help with anything you need - but I don't love you that much.

How do bald people cope with the constant cold head?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Timing is everything

Since being told I have breast cancer, I've been doing a lot of reading. I want to learn as much as I can about this gawddamned disease to help me get through treatment and ensure I never have to endure it again. One thing I've noticed over and over is that the literature urges me not to feel like I have to be superwoman. I'm advised that I shouldn't feel like I have to do it all myself, that there's no shame in asking for help.

This confuses me. Of COURSE there's no shame in asking for help! Of COURSE I don't have to do it all my self. And besides, do what, exactly? There's nothing in my life so urgent that it needs to be done if I'm aching all over and can barely keep my eyes open. How silly of all these people to even suggest otherwise.

Not all of my reading has been so serious, however. I just finished a book called Cancer Vixen by Marisa Acocella Marchetto. My friend Cake gave it to me shortly after I told him about my cancer. It's fabulous. It's a graphic novel all about the author's journey through breast cancer. Even though her life is vastly different from mine (she's a high-powered career woman living a glamourous life in New York and I'm...not) there are so many similarities with our stories that it's like she's writing about me sometimes.

Nevertheless, one thing about the book annoyed me throughout. She is constantly fretting that her fiance is going to wake up one day, decide that he can't take it anymore, and leave her for someone younger and healthier. She can't see how lucky she is! She's with a man who clearly adores her and wants to support her every step of the way, and she can't even see her good fortune.

But then I realized that no one really knows how lucky she is. It's never a good time to have breast cancer. A woman doesn't think, "Oh thank goodness it's now when I have a caring, loving partner and children to help me get through this." No, she thinks, "What if this is too much for him to deal with and he leaves me? What if my children can't handle it? Why couldn't this have happened when I was still single?"

Just as I don't think about how lucky I am that I'm going through this now when I only have myself to look after and worry about. Instead, I've cried myself to sleep thinking about how women with partners have it easier. They've already found someone to love them and stroke their hair and help them. They're not stuck being single, hoping that one day they'll find someone who won't shriek at the sight of their Frankenboob.

I realized that's why the cancer literature urges us to not feel like we have to be superwomen. Many women who get diagnosed with breast cancer are wives and mothers and grandmothers. These women have people who rely on them. They have responsibilities and obligations.

Once I had this realization, I sat down and made a list. The following are things should make me writhe around on the ground with joy:
  • I have a wonderful family who I know is here to help me get through everything. My mother is alive and young enough to be there beside me every step of the way.

  • I have more good friends in my life than I've ever had before. Probably in all my previous years combined.

  • I have an adorable and cuddly cat that provides me with sympathetic mews and purrs.

  • I have a very low housework expectation level. Not only am I able to live with myself if I don't do the dishes for 2 weeks or clean the bathroom for a month, but that's just business as usual around here.

  • I have no one who's relying on my for income or care.

  • I have a job that provides me with benefits so that I can take months off to focus on my treatments, and a boss who has encouraged me to do so.

  • I'm young and strong and probably in the best health of my life.

  • When I eventually do find someone to love me, he or she will know exactly what they're getting into - Frankenboob and all. They will love me because of what I've been through, not despite it.
It turns out there really is a good time to have cancer!

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Insulted by the mail

Why? Why did I receive this in the mail, addressed to me and everything? How did I get on this mailing list? The woman on the envelope looks older than my mom.

Look how she's reaching for me, like she's saying, "Just a little bit closer, my pretty...muuuaaaahahahaha!"

Friday, September 11, 2009

I don't love Oprah, but...

Oh how I would have LOVED to have been a part of this:

I'm not religious. I'm not a diehard fan of a big arena band. Hell, I don't even have a big family. These kind of collective events are rare and wonderful for me. They allow me to feel connected to people and part of something larger. This is what's missing from my day-to-day existence - I interact with a handful of people, really relate to one or two, and pass by hundreds of others like they're extras in the movie of my life.

Feeling part of a whole is why go to folk festivals, why I adored houseboating, why I've been in a concert band or choir for most of my life, and why I love comments on my blog.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Foxy thoughts

I was lounging in bed yesterday and listening to Wiretap, a brilliant, hilarious, and sometimes poignant show on CBC Radio 1. Jonathan Goldstein was talking about Archilochus and the difference between foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know a lot of little things and hedgehogs know one big thing.

I am definitely a fox. I don't have the patience, interest, or mental recall abilities to be a hedgehog. Hedgehogs do one degree, then a Masters, and then maybe a PhD. Foxes would take one or two classes in almost any discipline imaginable, get 3 bachelors degrees, and then do work that has nothing to do with any of them. Ahem - or so I would imagine.

The main stage crowd at the Regina Folk Festival

I'm not sure if it's the chemo, my frequent naps, or my lack of having to do anything at all with my days that is emphasizing my fleet, scattered way of thinking, but I sat down and found it near impossible to write one cohesive blog entry. The most taxing thing I've been able to handle is deciding when to stop calling it "napping" and start calling it "in bed for the night." And so today? You get my foxy thoughts.

At the festival, even the mannequins were Hipster Douchebags

  • Women who claim they would totally be a lesbian if only the right woman came along annoy me. I suppose that my grandma is right and the opposite is true, too. The reason I claim to be bisexual is simply because I haven't met the right guy, yet. Honey, I'm pretty sure you're not a lesbian because the thought of putting your tongue in a vagina doesn't make you all a-quiver. Not because you just haven't found Ms. Right.

Perhaps they're waiting for the right person

  • Also annoying? Articles written by people with glamourous jobs who try to claim their jobs aren't as glamourous as we think they are. Oh, assisting the casting director for a big budget Hollywood movie isn't all glitz? Writing for the New Yorker isn't all fabulousness? You mean it's tough, important, "nitty gritty" work? Talk to me about hard work after being a nurse or plumber for a decade. Talk to me about ordinary after your soul has been sucked dry as a receptionist at Don's Used Car Deals in Wichita Falls. No one thinks their life is absolutely fantastic - it's just life and you're living it day by day - but you with your mani-pedi-spa power lunches, your all-access passes, and your expense account - just recognize what you have and appreciate it for what it is, okay?

Okay, curiosity officially piqued

  • I just heard an interview with Salman Rushdie on CBC. (I've been doing a lot of radio listening, as you can tell.) He is fascinating to listen to and I recommend you check out the podcast. During the interview, he said how in all of us is a conflict between the dream of home and the dream of leaving. I really like that. He also said he used to wear a shirt that said, "Blasphemy is a victimless crime." I like that, too.

She's a woman on a mission

  • Everybody poops. No, really! Think about it. Everybody poops. Picture the celebrity or historical figure you idolize most. Impressive, yes? Perhaps even a bit intimidating. Now picture him or her in the can, pants around their ankles, slightly bored expression, taking a dump. Talk about the great equalizer! All of sudden Paris Hilton's a lot more human. (Why yes, she IS the person I idolize most. You mean you didn't guess?)

Wasting time in a prairie town

  • I feel there is such a huge difference between "This is a terrible movie!" and "I thought this movie was terrible!" One intimates that you're crazy for liking it, the other merely states an opinion. And if there's one judgement I'm willing to make, it's that I shouldn't judge people. That brings to mind a line from Austin Powers: There's only two things I hate in this world. People who are intolerant of other people's cultures...and the Dutch.

Tulips from a friend

Friday, September 4, 2009

Under pressure

"Nat, as a registered nurse, I just want to warn you about something. It's not so much the chemotherapy or the radiation therapy, but I'm worried about the retail therapy. If you have overextended credit it could lead to some vomiting, or you might have a burning sensation in your wallet. You might want to watch that!"

This was the message I received from my Uncle Steve after I got back to my apartment and he's not far from the truth! Good thing I only need 4 treatments or I'd be broke.

On August 20 I was scheduled for my first chemotherapy treatment. My mom picked me up at 7:30 so we could be at the cancer centre for 8:00. I was nervous but nothing too crazy. I more wanted to just get things started so they'd be over sooner than anything else. However, my eye had been twitching for the past 2 or 3 weeks and I'd had stronger-than-usual headaches, so I knew all was not well. The first thing they did was hook me up to a blood pressure cuff. One of the chemo drugs they would give me (docetaxel) can increase blood pressure, so my readings needed to be taken every 15 minutes while it's being administered.

"Hmm...that's pretty high," said the nurse. "You're probably nervous, aren't you? I'll give you a sedative." She gave me a tiny white pill to slip under my tongue and started the pre-chemo anti-nausea drip. She only had to poke me twice before she got the IV in.

Of course, when people are poking me and tutting over blood pressure, it does nothing at all to help. My mom was being all alarmed over how high it was and the nurse kept saying she'd let me sit for 10 more minutes to see if it would come down. People (ie, mothers) freaking the hell right out and saying things like stroke and heart attack is not an effective way of calming someone down. (To be fair, my numbers were ridiculous. Like, 165/110 kind of ridiculous.)

Think calming thoughts

They gave me 2 doses of the sedative but all it made me want to do is slip into a pulse-racingly high-thumping sleep. In addition to blood presure problems, apparently my white blood cell count was lowish as well, so after about 45 minutes of resting and waiting, they decided to send me home. They told me to go to my family doctor to get something for my high blood pressure. I know what - how about not having to go through chemo? I'd say that's an almost immediate guarantee to bring me back to normal!

My mom and I went to my doctor and I was set up with some samples to try to bring my blood pressure down. And then we went shopping.

Treatment #1 was rescheduled for September 1. (By the way, that's a mere 4 months after first finding out I had cancer. Does that seem fast to you? It seems fast to me.)

I tried not to be anxious about the day as it approached. I was on blood pressure medication but it only seemed to help at home. As soon as I would go to the oncologist or my family doctor for a check, my numbers would be high again. My doctor assured me that as long as it was managed at home, I should be fine. I just happen to have a sensitive system that magnifies any sort of outside influence.

Again, my mom picked me up and we went to the cancer centre. Again, they hooked me up to the stupid blood pressure cuff and jabbed me with a needle to hook up my IV. Again, my numbers were high and they gave me the small, white pill as a sedative. This time, though, my numbers came down enough to convince them to go ahead with the chemo drugs. I sat in the armchair for four and a half hours, successfully manipulating my chords and drips to the bathroom once. My mom read me the paper and we played sudoku. I dozed. The drugs dripped.

And then I was done! Free! To go shopping!

Purchases after the aborted chemo treatment:
  • 4 head scarves (why not be bald AND fashionable?)
  • Bottle of Angel by Thierry Mugler (which was totally worth it and I can't stop smelling myself when I wear it)
  • A fabulous purple purse (who doesn't need a purple purse?)
  • A brown purse (it was cheap and cute)
  • A big bottle of pomegranate juice (complete with powerful antioxidants)


Purchases after the actual chemo treatment:
  • A Booster Juice (Sonic Soy, the best one there is)
  • Pair of black leather sandals (comfortable for walking)
  • Pair of black leather sandals (dressier and not really good for walking)
  • A white purse (it was on sale and I didn't get that colour last time!)

I'm not sure what I'm going to buy myself next time, but I'll be sure to think of some delightful items I couldn't possibly live without. Hey, if I'm going to suffer through this light-headedness, grogginess, and surprisingly orange diarrhea (just for fun, do an internet search on that last one), I'm going to do it smelling and looking fabulous. And shopping brings down blood pressure, I'm just sure of it!

The yellow survivor's shirts at the 2009 Relay For Life