“Are you sure you’re not pregnant?”

This past month, administering to my health has been my full-time job, with 15 cancer-related appointments over 22 days. I’m glad the month is almost over. Next month is slower on the cancer front, so far. Don’t want to jinx anything. Is radiation tiring me out? It’s either radiation or all these darn medical appointments.

Because you’ve been such loyal followers and you too must be getting fatigued, you’ve certainly earned a commercial break from our regular cancer programming. Oh, don’t worry, I’ll be talking about my health, kind of. I am more than my leukemia, I keep telling myself.

In my spare time, between my cancerous medical appointments, I decided to address one more minor problem I’d been having, the kind of problem older people get. A joint problem. The specifics aren’t important. On a non-cancer day, I trotted off for x-rays and an ultrasound of this joint.

I checked in at the clinic desk, and was promptly advised I had to sign a waiver that I was not pregnant. Well, that’s kind of funny, isn’t it? You can understand why I laughed aloud, can’t you? The woman behind the tall reception desk that hid my protruding belly found my laughter odd, I’m sure. I must contain myself a bit better in public sometimes.

I am so NOT pregnant. Trust me on this one. If I were, it might be time for a C-section, not radiation. Let’s set aside the whole “I’m too old” factor. In fact, I’ve never been pregnant, and, as a lesbian, getting pregnant would take a concerted effort. Perhaps the involvement of a fertility clinic, hormone treatments, in-vitro fertilization, or, if I couldn’t afford all that on my meagre disability pension, a male buddy’s donated sperm and a turkey baster. Furthermore, were I to get pregnant, with all the medications coursing through my body, I’d most certainly pickle my fetus. (Thanks to my dear friend, D., for the imagery.) I love children, but kids weren’t in the cards for J. and me. I admire my gay cohorts who pursue life with children, whether through birth, surrogacy, or adoption, but I am not one of them, for many reasons, including my health.

Still, many times over the course of my life, I’ve undergone medical procedures where I’ve first been asked whether I was pregnant. Saying no is generally not enough; I’ve often been asked to provide a reason, as I was on Wednesday.

How am I barren? Let me count the ways.

So I looked at the waiver form, with its extensive list of reasons why I might not be pregnant, and found they’d left one out (I hope this isn’t a surprise to you, dear reader): my rampant high-on-the-Kinsey-scale yes-I was-born-that-way homosexuality. So in the space for “other”–thank goodness there’s always a space for “other”–I recorded, in all caps for emphasis and just to make sure I was clear: “I AM GAY!” I trust they got the message, but I’m not sure they’ll be revising their form anytime soon. Still, I’ll bet they believed me, despite my spleen’s masquerading as a baby.

Older woman sitting at desk and signing form while smiling

Are you really asking me that question?

Fare thee well, spleen

Arm sticking out of car, person getting parking stub

Yesterday, my dear friend, L., accompanied me to the Cancer Centre so I could contribute more parking fees toward the new Cancer Centre fund. While I was making my financial contribution, I underwent my third and final zapping.

I’m pretty darned lucky in the scheme of things. I know people who have undergone day after day of radiation for one, two, or more months in order to shrink tumours. I have had only three little zaps to my abdomen, and I’m done, for now at least.

Somehow, over the course of this appointment, an impromptu visit with Dr. Radi-O’s resident materialized. I was as surprised as you are–tick, tock on the parking clock–and, because doctors need to review files and consult with one another before they meet with patients, my dear friend and I were moved to a very cramped day-treatment room to wait. Thankfully, L. is an excellent conversationalist in any situation; I, on the other hand, was quite distracted by the sounds of a poor patient vomiting behind me. I was even more dismayed by the fact that my beloved friend was facing this patient and I wasn’t. Another day in an overcrowded room at the Cancer Centre.

Then Dr. Radi-O’s nurse arrived to chat with me, followed by Dr. Resident Radi-O. Dr. R.R. and I chatted a bit before he asked me if he might examine my rotund belly. Because I am a woman of the utmost discretion, I asked him if we might perhaps find another location for his examination since there were a large number of patients, their family and friends, and nurses crammed into this very small area, and privacy curtains were nowhere to be found. Thankfully, my request was not considered unreasonable, and so we (L., the nurse, Dr. R.R. and I) scooted off to a nearby examining room, where Dr. R.R. promptly copped a feel of my ginormous spleen.

The discussion that ensued was highly edifying, to say the least. I ignorantly had not realized that the radiation would have to build up in my system over my treatments and in the weeks following in order to take full effect. My concern that my belly does not seem to have shrunk at all over the past two weeks was allayed by both the nurse and Dr. R.R., who reassured me that the treatment would indeed be effective. And that my radiation side effects would probably get worse as it did. I have anti-nausea pills at the ready, but you know already that I am not a puker.

What I also had not realized was that the intent of this intervention is to kill my whole spleen, not just a part of it. Dr. R.R. explained that a spleen as large as mine is not functioning like a healthy organ would anyhow, so killing off the whole thing shouldn’t have much effect on my functioning.

This new information does raise several new questions for me, though. If I’ve been told for years I need my spleen, but my spleen will be dead soon, what will happen to my poor overtaxed liver? Will it protest? Will it miss the company? Will it get depressed? I could search the internet for answers to these questions, but I think I’ll wait until I see my trusty medical team next week. You know how strongly I feel about the dangers of internet health research, especially for anxious people like me.

An open letter to the Honourable (?) Premier Jim Prentice

Dear Jim:

Let’s dispense with the formalities, shall we? I’m not one to wade into political matters but I am terribly discouraged over your recent decision to put the new Calgary Cancer Centre on hold. I understand that in times of austerity there must be cutbacks, but this? The new building was slated to open in June 2020, and I was hoping to be at your side at the ribbon cutting ceremony. (God knows the Conservatives will still be in power in Alberta.)

crowded waiting roomI’ve written before about how overcrowded our current Cancer Centre is. There just isn’t enough room for all of us cancerous folk in this building, which forces some cancer care programs out to other sites in the city. Cancer patients are so cramped for space that we’re hanging from the rafters. Why, just last week, I was seated in a crowded alcove beside a chair with barely enough leg room to accommodate a Smurf. Thankfully, two of my ailing co-waiters brought their own chairs–wheelchairs, that is–and two others came alone, so no one had to sit on the floor.

Your job isn’t easy, Jim, especially since oil prices started tanking so soon after you took office. Have you considered nixing a few promised new schools instead of the Cancer Centre? I understand that suburban parents may be angry, but from my work I know that children are highly resilient. Sick adults, not so much. Maybe you guys could take a look at your own salaries and pensions and kick in a bit as well. And what’s that Heritage Trust Fund for if not a pressing project like this? You could always delay that darned south Calgary ring road, if you believe cancer trumps traffic.

Don’t get me wrong, Jim. I’m grateful for my free provincial health care and for your government’s willingness to cover the expense of my prohibitive cancer drugs. I know not all provinces provide such generous medical coverage. Still, I’m a bit upset that the drop in oil revenues has resulted in the delay of this essential building.

I also understand that Albertans aren’t so happy with the possibility of a provincial sales tax. (Does anyone ever welcome a tax hike?) Just so you know, I’m in the minority on this one; I welcome such a tax. I don’t have the time–too many medical appointments–or energy–that’s cancer for you!–or bucks–disability pension and all–to shop much anymore, so I doubt I’ll even notice it. Maybe you could earmark that revenue for this building.

Also, I’d welcome the redirection of my hospital parking fees to the building fund. I’ve been visiting the Cancer Centre quite a bit this month, and by month end, you’ll have earned close to $100 from me in parking costs. The inevitable appointment delays in an overcapacity building help me reach the absurd daily maximum at every visit. So feel free, Jim, to use the money I’m giving you toward the new building. You’re welcome.

Thank you for your kind attention to my concerns.

Sincerely in cancer,

Annie

“I love you” on the second date? Why not?

When I was training to be a psychologist, I learned early on that physical contact between therapists and clients, however well meaning, can sometimes be misconstrued or lead to other inappropriate behaviours. Maintaining that physical boundary keeps me and my clients safe.

My own therapist loosened me up a bit on this front. At the end of every session, she would shake my hand warmly, often with both of hers, despite The Rules. Her handshake was affirming and comforting and caring in ways that are hard to articulate. It took me months to tell her how much this gesture meant to me, and it helped me to rethink my own feelings about appropriate physical touch with clients.

I may not be able to give physical hugs to clients, but I’m a proponent of verbal hugs. I let clients know I care about them or appreciate them or have learned from them, but I save “I love you” for people who don’t pay me for my time. Cancer has only increased my urgency to tell people close to me how I feel about them.

Although I have never initiated a hug with a client, I have become more open to a hug from a client. I can also understand a client’s impulse to offer a hug as a way of saying thanks or acknowledging I’ve helped. Or, more recently, as a show of caring upon learning of my leukemia diagnosis.

Keep these thoughts in mind as I tell you about this week’s visit with my superhero Radiator, Salima, who has now zapped me twice. While I’ve chattered anxiously and peppered her with questions both times, she has been patient, professional, and responsive. Her job cannot be easy, dealing with fearful patients day in and day out, but she exudes limitless kindness and warmth.

As we were saying our good byes this week, Salima gave me a hug and told me she loved me. I have no idea what prompted her affectionate gesture; I had not been especially engaging or likeable the two times we’d met. So I was taken aback, but I responded as any decent person would: I told Salima I loved her too. And then, because I couldn’t help myself, I said: “But Salima, we’ve only met twice. Isn’t it a bit soon to be talking about love?”

The Rules may not be quite the same in Salima’s profession as in mine, or maybe they are but Salima has interpreted them differently. She has to touch her patients on a regular basis, whereas I don’t. But I appreciate Salima’s interpretation of appropriate physical boundaries, especially in this setting. There was nothing untoward about her parting gesture; she was just letting me know in her own way that she cared about me. Cancer is a scary beast and the Cancer Centre is a scary setting. In that context, I understood the good place Salima’s affection came from.

Am I going to start hugging my clients and telling them I love them? No, I’m not; I could get in trouble for that. But I’m going to keep sharing my verbal hugs freely because there’s nothing wrong with them. And Salima reminded me how nice it feels to be hugged when you’re not expecting it.

Snoopy hugging Woodstock

 

Why watch the pot if it’s never going to boil?

My faithful readers, maybe you were wondering how my day went yesterday. Maybe you had much more important things to busy your mind with. I understand, but indulge me for 500 words, would you? This won’t take long.

Yesterday went just fine in the end, although the day was a bit long and emotionally draining.  I had a full morning at the Cancer Centre, first seeing Dr. Blood, and then undergoing Zap #2. During our considerable wait between appointments, we saw a number of patients who were indeed really sick, patients young and old with kids and spouses. At one point, I got upset imagining what these patients and their families were dealing with. Thank goodness J. was there to remind me that the doctors were trying to make these patients well.

In all this hubbub, I neglected to take my anti-nausea medication to ward off potential side effects of the zapping. I wasn’t particularly concerned about this omission until I told my Radiator, who was. I assured her I’d take the pill when I got home if need be. As I’d discussed earlier that morning with my favourite nurse practitioner, I may be a farter–this is not news to you–but I’m not a puker.

So J. and I rushed home, J. rushed off to work, I rushed off to pick up Jelly from the dear friends who cared for her that long morning, so I could rush back home to vomit in the privacy of my own washroom. Or at least to wait and see whether I would. And then I decided that that part of the plan was crazy. Should I sit around waiting for something that may not happen, or should I grab my pill and rush to the yoga class I attend on Tuesdays when cancer doesn’t interfere? (I’ve asked Dr. Blood to change her clinic day, to no avail.) I didn’t want to soil my as-yet-unblemished car, and I didn’t know whether downward dog would make me queasy. Still, from past experience, I really didn’t anticipate that watched pot boiling.

Labradoodle doing upward dog.

Wish my form were this good.

It turns out I arrived at yoga in the nick of time, and I made it through the class, which helped me to decompress after a stressful morning. I was really glad I had gone. Oh, and I didn’t vomit. (I told you I’m not a puker.) Even better, my farting didn’t start until the class was over.

For me, this split decision to go to yoga made living with cancer tolerable yesterday. (These decisions have much less to do with bodily functions than you might think.) My rigid routines, and all my activities outside cancer and doctors and hospitals, are my needed escape from my life with cancer. If it’s not yoga, it’s walking the dog or going for coffee with a friend or even seeing a client. When one called this week, I happily slotted her in between my various medical appointments. Why not? I may never forget that I have leukemia, but at least I can focus on something else for a bit. We all need a break from the hard stuff sometimes.

 

Not every deer in the headlights get hit

I know you guys have good imaginations. Just last week I asked you to imagine my excessive farts going up in flames, and I’m sure you did just that. In retrospect, so sorry I put you through that.

Fawn looking straight into headlights in darkToday, I want you to imagine what it was like for me to enter the Cancer Centre for the first time. (I don’t want you to imagine what you would feel like entering the Cancer Centre for the first time because…well, God forbid.) This first time, a cancer virgin, I was a basket case. Maybe “deer in the headlights” is better. I may have spent weeks in the adjoining hospital as an inpatient, but when I had time to wander, I never walked into the Cancer Centre. Who hangs out in the Cancer Centre if she doesn’t have cancer?

Now that J. and I are experienced Cancer Centre visitors, we can spot the cancer virgins from a mile away. They look terrified and overwhelmed and confused, just like I must have looked that first day. I wish I could pull them aside and let them know they’ll be well cared for–that part I trust–and everything will be okay. But for some of them, everything won’t be okay, so I put on my most welcoming face and hope that helps.

As a Cancer Centre regular, I now know the receptionists by name, I know where the washrooms are, I know I have to weigh myself whether I want to or not, I know where to wait and that, if I’m lucky, the Cookie Ladies will arrive with their wares before I’m called in. I know that there’s a gift-basket raffle every year around Christmas, and, after buying several tickets each year and not winning, I make a pact to be alive to throw my money away again the next year. Knowing the routine makes it easier for me to cope.

Last Tuesday, my deer reappeared when I went to radiation for the first time: I wasn’t sure exactly where I needed to go or what I needed to do. I knew only that someone would be expecting me at 10:15 a.m. I approached a different receptionist–“I’m here for that special glow,” I told her–and entered an unfamiliar treatment room. Everyone I dealt with was very nice, walking me through the procedure step by step. Still, anything new is scary, especially when it has to do with cancer.

Tomorrow, when I show up for my second zapping, I’ll know where to go and what to expect. I may have different Radiators but I’m sure they’ll be as nice as last week’s. And, just as I did last week, I’ll imagine them flying through the air in their spandex superhero outfits, shrinking my spleen into oblivion.

And so I ask you to remember, in case you’re ever the deer in the headlights, that often the deer doesn’t get hit and die. Sometimes the deer manages to dodge the car or the car avoids hitting the deer. And the next time the deer sees those bright lights, she’ll know just what to do. Everything will be okay, right?

P.S. Good thing I abandoned the virgin imagery, don’t you think?

I’m glowing, but not in the way I was hoping

Yes, I’ve survived my first zapping. Upon my arrival at the Cancer Centre, my two very kind Radiators walked me through the process before taking me to meet the ominous looking machine. They used my nondenominational crosses to position me on the bed, and then moved the bed according to some mathematical formula that I might have better understood had I excelled in geometry. Then they vamoosed so they would not be subjected to the high doses of radiation that I would be. The machine moved around my body in ways that appeared completely random but were anything but, I’m sure. I had no idea when I was being zapped and when the machines were just thinking about what to do next. Before I knew it, I was done.

I had received a thorough pamphlet on possible side effects of the procedure that I avoided reading until I was in the car on the way to my first treatment. No point feeding my rampant suggestibility. I understand that side effects of radiation may be cumulative over time, and I may feel my worst a few weeks after treatment ends. With abdominal radiation, gastrointestinal effects are not uncommon. I won’t delineate all possible GI effects-I can’t see that adding to your reading pleasure–but I’m sure I’d remember if farting was mentioned. Flatulence, passing gas, whatever you want to call it. (Oh, don’t be squeamish, you do it too sometimes.)

And so, in the interest of honest reporting, my first night post-radiation was spent battling terrible, painful, sleep-depriving gas. Sure, it could have been something I ate, but I doubt that. I slept between 2 and 6 a.m., and spent the rest of the time in the basement so poor J. would not be awakened by my fumes. In fact, to rule out food as the offender, I forced myself to have the leftovers of the potentially offending meal the following day, and, indeed, I did not have the same reaction. So I’ve determined, with my completely uncontrolled study, that Day 1’s radiation side effect was really, really bad gas.

Cartoon dog says: "I'm seriously getting tired of getting blamed for ALL the farting that goes on in my house.Thank goodness for the dog, who has come in handy at many points during my illness. Rightly or wrongly, I’ve blamed a lot of things on Jelly over the years. There was: “Sorry my dog ate my lab requisition. Could I get a new one?” (True story.) And: “I would have eaten my lovingly prepared low-sodium lunch but my dog beat me to it, so I ate chocolate chip cookies instead.” (Another true story.) And most recently, “That smell? Of course that was the dog, J.” (Maybe not so true.)

So, to be honest, when I talked about that special glow I’d be emitting when we next met, I wasn’t referring to what would happen if you lit a match anywhere near my excessive methane gas emissions. I was aspiring to be radiant but not on fire. J. sometimes gets upset with me for assuming the burden of all humankind, but I must acknowledge my significant role in Canada’s spike in greenhouse gas emissions on January 13-14, 2015.

The worst seems to be over, at least until next week. I think it’s safe for us to go for coffee now, so long as we steer clear of open flames.

 

My crosses to bear

I have a meeting with a very large machine today. Yes, I take an anti-nausea pill and then I head to the bowels of the Cancer Centre for my first zapping. Dr. Radi-O (thank you faithful reader for your suggestion) was true to his word, and my radiation intervention plan is starting. I’m calling the plan the Miracle of the Shrinking Spleen.

In preparation for this procedure, I am sporting three crosses on my upper body. I would show you but I’d have to lift my shirt a bit too high and I’m not that kind of girl. The crosses, which have been drawn in permanent ink, are there to guide my zappers to exactly the right spot. As a nice Jewish girl, I feel a bit discombobulated by my crosses, but I understand that Jewish stars would not have been a plausible substitute because they do not have a central intersection point. Over the course of the week, I have become increasingly comfortable with my crosses, even befriended them, since they are there to help this process along.

Flying superhero with ray of light going through himThe Radiators (my name for the radiation technologists–has a superhero feel to it, doesn’t it?) will be carefully positioning a very large machine over my body and, as I understand it, lining it up with my crosses. 30 seconds later I will be on my way. Three Tuesdays in a row I will undergo the same zapping, and six weeks later we’ll see if I am one of the 50% of patients who, in Dr. Radi-O’s experience, respond to the intervention. By “respond”, I mean “shrink”. And by “shrink”, I’m referring to my ever-expanding spleen. By 6 weeks post treatment, I’ll know, although I’ll know long before that by my (hopefully) magically shrinking girth. I measured my waist circumference this morning so I’d be able to follow my progress. No, I won’t tell you what it is.

I am hopeful that the radiation will do what it’s supposed to. There is some security in knowing that 50% of people are helped by the intervention, because there is no atypical minority group to aspire to. I usually aspire to the atypical minority, as you know. This intervention was made for me; my body can’t be noncompliant even if it tries!

Up until yesterday, I was telling people I was not at all scared about radiation. Sure, I kept myself a little busy, but I WAS JUST FINE! Then last night, I woke every hour from dreams of personal radiation disasters. Obviously I was a psychologist in denial. You knew that already, but I’m a little slow to catch on.

Just to warn you, next time you see me, you may not recognize me. First, I may be able to do up my pants. (I’ll no longer look like an overgrown sk8ter boy.) Second and more importantly, I may just have a special glow about me. Here’s hoping.

 

One piece of advice: delegate, but not to me

Tomorrow we had planned to get on a plane to Southern California, where we would vacation until next weekend. As you know, that didn’t quite work out. Both J. and I have been pretty sad about cancelling the trip. But in the spirit of not being a downer, especially before the weekend, I’m going to tell you a vacation story from many years ago. I am going to see if, by making myself laugh, I might cheer myself up a bit. Thanks for indulging me.

Many years back, J. and I took a highly anticipated trip to San Francisco. We were going to see our people, if you know what I mean. We had a wonderful trip. We explored interesting and scary neighbourhoods, walked our socks and butts off–San Fran is known for its hills–ate lots of good sourdough, saw lots of otters, and had a grand time.

Then the trip ended, as trips are prone to do. We were sad but resigned to having to leave. Funny, though, we couldn’t seem to find our flight when we checked for it on line. We headed off to the airport, assuming we’d sort everything out once we got there.

Now, before I go any further, I should note that the roles that J. and I have now clearly established–she is the project planner and crisis manager, I wisely defer to her in all situations but challah baking–were not as set in stone at that time. We were earlier on in our relationship and, basking in the glow of first love, J. was blind to my many areas of shortcoming (incompetence?).

And so I had, in fact, assumed responsibility for booking our flights, a task that usually fell to J. I had found great deals in both directions on two different airlines, so I booked them and printed out our itineraries. I was so proud of myself! I booked a flight, something I used to do competently on a regular basis before J. came in to my life.

Angry woman at airport check-in arguing with confused agentLo and behold, upon arriving at the airport, our scheduled flight was nowhere to be found. Airlines had just started that code-sharing thing, so we were passed back and forth between American and Canadian airline check-in personnel, but nobody seemed able to help us. Then a very wise agent, at the Canadian desk of course, had a moment of brilliance: he realized, to my horror, that the mysterious one-way flight we were looking for was indeed departing shortly, from Calgary to San Francisco. Yes, indeed, I had booked two one-way flights in the same direction. Whoops!

And so, upon realizing my mistake, I burst into tears, while my very capable crisis manager calmly asked me for my credit card so she could book us on to the next flight home. $400 later (the price of one of those flights, as I recall), the great deal I had found wasn’t so great after all. Good thing I married a partner who is so good in a crisis, don’t you think? Needless to say, I have been denied all flight and hotel booking privileges since that day.

There are several morals to this story. First, take a vacation before life gets in the way. Second, take a vacation–that’s just in case you didn’t hear me the first time–so we can enjoy it vicariously. Third, if you want to extend your next vacation a little longer, let me book it for you. And finally, delegate to your better half–there are so many reasons J. has earned that title–the tasks he or she is better at. We all (except J.) have domains of incompetence.

I guess my first two were enough, after all

Yesterday was quite the whirlwind at the Cancer Centre. We visited two floors, saw two doctors in two different areas, and were inundated with new information. I should have taken notes. Thank goodness J. was there with me.

First off, Dr. Blood told me that, despite the pathologist’s searching high and low, my malignancy count remains at two, not at three as I was fearing. The doctor may soon be ready to name a new diagnosis after me because I am such a stellar example of atypicality.

Although others have expressed concern, I’m not sure how much I was fearing another cancer since I’ve got two malignancies already and they haven’t killed me yet. I feel a bit invincible on the cancer front, whether rightly or wrongly. For a long time, I’ve thought that some health issue other than my leukemia would kill me. As I’ve said before, cancer is the least of my worries.

I was more keyed up about the possibility of radiation, to be honest. We found the crowded waiting area for the radiation oncologist in the basement of this filled-beyond-capacity building. The few chairs were full to the gills with people who looked very unwell, and me. I just look pregnant. I’ve determined the sicker you are, the lower you go into the bowels of the Cancer Centre.

The doctor, whom I have yet to name–Dr. Zap, Dr. Glow perhaps? I’m open to your input–was very nice, direct, and realistic. He plans to administer low-dose radiation three times one week apart, and to follow up at 6 weeks to see whether the procedure has worked. If effective, this procedure can be repeated a few times if needed without any major organ damage. The doctor informed us that zapping reduces spleen size about 50% of the time. I’m just hoping to fall in that 50%. If it doesn’t work, Dr. Blood has some other possible chemotherapies to shrink the spleen, but let’s not even consider that yet.

Dr. Buzz, Dr. Burn–I need your help here–also summarized possible side effects, including lowered blood counts, nausea and vomiting, and tiredness. I perked up at the thought of a little nausea; I could benefit from a brief aversion to food. (Sometimes I really shouldn’t share my inside eating-disordered voice.)

Bassett hound sleeping on couch. Because it was a long day hanging out with other cancer patients, I came home and practiced the tiredness side effect by sleeping soundly for 1-1/2 hours on the couch. And, after a quick dinner and a few more hours of inactivity, I had no trouble falling asleep last night for another 8 hours. I was out cold, so thanks for not calling. I want to make sure I master this exhaustion thing before I really need it.

Why was I so pooped? To all outside observers (except J.), I was cool as a cucumber leading up to this day. What, you think I was a little bit stressed? How could you tell? Usually I just let things roll off my back, don’t I?