Oregonian A&E Sunday Nov., 24, 2013
Thank you for the emails and messages since the surgery and the Oregonian’s article came out. I am 2 weeks past surgery now, but still recovering and have needed far more help than I anticipated. My older sister and mother have cared for me 24/7, and I am just beginning to do things for myself again though I can’t drive and still have drainage tubes in my sides. I am not really writing much at the moment. Sleeping, eating and taking pain pills is more my regiment.
Paige Stoyer photographed the pre-surgery chemo-girlfriends party at the Benson Hotel and was actually in the surgery room during the double mastectomy and reconstruction. I have not yet seen these images and will wait to view them until my next week. I will also share photos from the shoot four days post surgery with Fritz Liedtke, as well as the self portraits from after surgery once I’m recovered from the next surgery I’ll explain next.
The post-op appointment with my plastic surgeon went well. No problems. I’m healing well. Evidently my nipples look good on the outside as well as the outside and they were able to save them during surgery. This was very good news to me as I woke up looking somewhat more normal than I expected. The post-op appointment with my surgeon, however, was not quiet so good. Due to the location of the tumor, even though it was much smaller than before chemo and there was only cancer in 2 of the 8 lymph nodes removed, I need additional surgery this coming Weds to create a wider margin around where the tumor used to be. This is just to be sure we got everything. So there’s little time or energy to process where I’m at now before I have more surgery. I will wait until then to begin posting. Thank you for your thoughts and support. The outlook is very good and my hair is growing in the meantime!
I wonder what it will be like waking up without my breasts in two days
Will my first feelings be of sadness for my missing breasts or gratitude for my missing tumor? Will I remember that I chose this path of a double mastectomy as the best option to keep living a life I love? Will I recall that I made this decision to rid my body of the cancer now and save myself the anxiety of it coming back in my other breast? I’m 44, will I remember that reconstruction and symmetry are important to me and this is the first step? When I wake to a flat chest with only skin, nipples and plastic expanders, not yet filled, will I feel as if a limb is gone? The doctor has said I may have phantom pain. This is not internal surgery on an organ, but an external part of my womanly shape and identity. Will I feel less feminine? When I see the five drains that will empty the fluids from the wounds will I remind myself that the alternative is far worse? When I reach to touch my breasts and they are numb and I realize that I will never again feel them being touched will I be angry I made this choice or grateful I had the option?
I’m trading my real breasts for my life – or perhaps just my sanity. At least that is the bet I am waging. Statistics show the same survival rate for women who have a lumpectomy as those who have a double mastectomy. So maybe I’m just trading my breasts for some control. I want to know that it won’t come back in my breasts. I want certainty that I won’t go through chemo and surgery for cancer in my breasts again. MRIs of both breasts looked suspicious and were hard to read, as my breast tissue is very dense, as is the case with many younger women. So dense that a mammogram did not detect my cancer, even though I found the lump. I don’t want the stress of retesting and having biopsies each time we find something uncertain. I’m done with cancer in my breasts. If it comes back elsewhere in my body… then it’s an entirely different game. Once breast cancer metastasizes it is treatable but not curable. So I’m treating this curable breast cancer as aggressively as it has grown in hopes that it ends here.
I wonder at what point I can declare myself cancer-free. After surgery when the tumor is removed? After all treatments, the radiation oncologist says. But I want to begin thinking it after surgery. I know there are cancer cells, too small to be detected by any advanced scanning, that are likely there. The truly difficult part of cancer, for me, is keeping my mind from spinning into the ‘what if’ questions and staying focused on the ‘what is.’ Cancer treatments live in a world of studies, statistics and percentages. I’m thankful for this, but my mind does better with the present. ‘What is’ on Monday after surgery will be no more detectable cancer in my body. I’ll write that in big letters and tape it on my fridge. I’ll try to imprint it in my mind. I’ll ask my friends to remind me when I am upset, hurting or anxious during the next 3 weeks of recovery and then 3 weeks of reconstruction where my breast implants are filled twice a week. I’ll ask them to remind me again in about 9 months when I go through the final reconstruction surgery. In 6-8 weeks, January 2014, when I begin 6-7 weeks of radiation everyday that makes me fatigued or burns my skin I may forget again. Right now I want to think of radiation as the ‘bonus round,’ icing on the cake, to ensuring I get to keep this cancer-free outcome, but I may not remember this perspective. Yes, let me complain at times, I’ll need that. Don’t expect a superwoman, I’ll cry and feel my experience fully. I’m not one to sugar coat what’s really happening. But help me stay with the “what is” as I go through it. Help me find the beauty in “no more detectable cancer” even before I’m finished with treatments.
Photo by Paige Stoyer of plastic surgeon Dr. Shannon O’Brien as part of her continued “The Real Thing” documentary series. See Plastic Surgery consult SHOOT for more. Shot Week 16 of chemo, Oct 29, 2013
The video and article is featured on the Huffington Post Good News section!
Week 1 and Week 16
These two portraits show the changes in my body between the first week and last week of chemo. Clearly the hair is the most dramatic difference. I was surprised my body did not change more. I will continue to document the process weekly through surgery, reconstruction and radiation.
Shot week 14
Hard Candy. Part of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” sessions by
Photographer: Raina Stinson./ Henna Tattoo Artist: Ana Warren / Makeup Artist: Justine Verigin / 1st Assistant: Alan Thornton / 2nd Assistant: Constance Spurling Videographer: Erik Schultz for Hooplaha
Hard Candy, the concept that we can play with sugar and spice and all the nice, easy breezy aspects of life in a photo shoot when the other part of life, cancer, is so hard. It’s the flip side of what I’m actually going through. This beautiful, joyful, pink shoot full of sugar and laughter is a break, a release, a reprieve from chemotherapy and how difficult parts of life are right now. It is really what this project is about. Finding beauty in something that doesn’t always feel or look beautiful. It’s why we need support in funding a book and gallery show to share the work with a wider audience and inspire others. Donate here. Continued below…
When photographer Raina Stinson approached me about doing a shoot for the Finding Beauty in Cancer project and told me about her series called, “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” I jumped on the opportunity. I had recently purchased a piece of her work and wanted to meet her anyhow. What perfect timing, I thought, and what a good opportunity to collaborate with her creative mind. The session was both fun and exhausting. It was shot the weekend before my last round of chemo. I was as fatigued and low as I would be and had trouble sitting for the makeup and henna let alone the shoot. I faked it until I was actually laughing and kept it going from there. The team of creatives was amazing. All of them helped me though, from keeping me supplied with water and snacks to putting my shoes on for me. I was literally shaking from exhaustion after 4 hours, but happy to have done it. Cancer is hard, and yet there are moments of pink, sugar and laughter in between.
Week 16. The Real Thing: Acupuncture. Shot Week 15
Since the beginning of chemotherapy I’ve been receiving weekly acupuncture through IEP (Immune Enhancement Program). They offer low cost traditional medicine and have a special program for people with cancer. I’ve also received Shiatsu (acupressure) and met with a naturopathic doctor there. In all honesty, I have no idea if it helps. Chemo make you sick. When you feel sick with new side effects all the time, how do you know if something has made you better or not? I feel sick, I go to acupuncture and feel somewhat better and relaxed during the treatment then I go home and feel sick again. I like thinking that I’m doing something proactive to help my body. I like thinking that the herbs and supplements make me stronger and ready to take the next rounds so I can get rid of cancer. In reality, I don’t know but I keep going.
Week 15 – The Octopus Shoot, Photographed Week 10. I’m under the sea, on the bottom of the ocean floor. I’m resting there, face up, when the octopus comes out of his hole and wraps himself around my body placing a shell over my right breast. I know it’s there as protection. He’s protecting me…. (continued below)
The water pulses against my body with the “bang, bang, bang” rhythm of sonar waves. Sonar waves, if I’m the whale or fish, I imagine. MRI noise if I’m in my own reality. I’m actually lying in a great white metal machine. One that, if I stay still for 45 minutes, will scan my body and tell me if the cancer has spread beyond my breast and lymph nodes. This is the time before I started chemo, days when I wondered, as I still do some days now, whether the cancer has taken root elsewhere. It’s nerve-wracking to wait. Wait on test results for answers to your life. Never mind it’s a weekend or holiday. Nerve wracking to wait on the “bang, bang, bang” of the machine and so begin to imagine myself hearing what the fish and whales must hear under the sea. I meditate on the rhythm and dream of what they must hear. My body drives through the water and then finally settles upon the ocean floor where I meet my octopus. He holds me safe and I wait with him until the banging stops, then slowly rise to the surface as he dissolves into my body. I know immediately, this must be one of my Finding Beauty in Cancer Shoots.
Thank you, Janna Lopez, Portland Family Magazine, and Tay Juncker for designing and publishing this spread from the blog in your September 2013 issue! See online link to feature as well as PDF of entire Sept 2013 magazine issue if you can’t find a hard copy around town. Janna is an amazing woman and one who I truly respect and admire for all she is, stands for and has done for the Portland community. Also be sure to check out Janna’s photography & her first show on Facebook