Wednesday, November 17, 2010

After Cancer - Chop Wood, Carry Water (by Susan)

There is a little anecdote I remember reading in a book about Zen Buddhism.  Here is how it goes:
Q:  What do you do before enlightenment?
A:  Chop wood, carry water.
Q: What do you do after enlightenment?
A:  Chop wood, carry water.

The meaning is, of course, that when you have a great mental shift, outwardly everything stays the same - it's just the way you experience it that changes.  It also means that the mechanics of daily life still must go on even when you are "enlightened".  You still need to work, still need to eat as long as you are a physical being.  You don't get out of these activities by being an enlightened person. 

The same thing is true of surviving cancer - you go through a huge shift in your perspective but no one can see it but yourself.  It seems that the doctors patch you up just enough to put you back in the saddle - they bundle you off back to work and then wave goodbye (if you are lucky).  You think "Wow - I'm a survivor!  I made it!"  and then you just have to go back to the mundane life of earning a living and taking care of your responsibilities. When I survived my own cancer ordeal I somehow thought that I should just get some lottery money, or the government should subsidize me as reimbursement for all of the pain and hardship that I had been through.  Sadly, this was not the case - as soon as I was healthy I was back working again.   The difference in perspective comes in when you treasure that moment of  talking to a friend on the phone, driving to the supermarket, or  drinking your morning cup of coffee and looking out the window at a new day. Activities that used to be boring or taken for granted become precious when you think that you could have lost them forever.

I think George has been going through the same thing lately.  It is part of being a cancer survivor.  He is really looking great - having his hair, eyelashes, and eyebrows back makes him look like his old self.  But it takes longer to feel like your old self on the inside.  It takes time to trust your body again and believe that you have time.  

As for me, I wake up every morning gving thanks for having George in my life.  Taking walks, going on bike rides or runs together, eating out and having him enjoy the meal - these are wonderful activities.   Just lately he has gotten his spark back - laughing more and being generally feisty and ornery.   We are so looking forward to a warm holiday season filled with loving friends and family to cap off our Fabulous Fall.

On the food side, I have been sticking pretty well to the vegan diet, and I have some good news.  I finally got my blood work done and my cholesterol has dropped 45 points from where it was a year ago.  This is all without any drugs.  I have not changed my exercise habits or lost any weight (my weight has stayed the same), but my cholesterol dropped dramatically.  The drop all came in the LDLs - my HDL and triglycerides stayed the same.    My cholesterol is now in the normal range.   I am still trying lots of new recipes and have become quite used to the vegan lifestyle to the point where I don't miss animal products at all.    When I do eat them now I don't even like them any more.  Dairy feels gunky and meat has a weird texture.  However, a really fresh salad can taste heavenly.  I have had some people ask me about my calcium intake.  The answer is that you can get plenty of calcium from leafy green vegetables, grains, and beans.  I am getting a bone density scan next month so I will see if there is any difference there from last year.   

Next week is Thanksgiving.  I will be bringing some vegetable dishes (but NOT eating Tofurkey).   No matter what you eat, the important thing is to give thanks for the people you love.    So maybe I should revise the statement to be, "After Cancer - chop wood, carry water, and LOVE it!"

Thursday, November 4, 2010

all clear at two month post-chemo check-up

Just got back from  my two month post chemo checkup. The GREAT news is that everything seems to be going really well. Yeah, me! Yeah, my body! Man, it's a sunny fall day here in Colorado and I am just diggin' being alive and (relatively) healthy.

A few more details as I continue my habit of sharing all the minutiae of my illness with you, my faithful blog follower. You'll remember that I had some funkiness going on in my back - what looked like a compression fracture in my T7 vertebrae. You can see from the MRI picture below (click the image to get a larger view) that the vertebrae is slightly trapezoidal in shape (should be square) and it's a bit discolored (indicating some healing going on in the bone).

And let's talk for a second about the MRI machine to get this kind of picture of your thoracic region. If you're claustrophic, you wouldn't like it! The top of the tube is about 4 inches from your face. I kind of thought it was cool - like being inserted into a torpedo tube. But if close quarters aren't your thing, you might want to get some pre-medication to calm the nerves. And talk about loud - wow! Kind of like a crazy, techno beat that you can hear and feel through your whole body as the magnets in the MRI clank back and forth. In my case, for 45 minutes. Even with earplugs I came out of it with my ears ringing and feeling pretty spacey.

Anyway, I went to my neuro-surgeon last week to evaluate the MRI and he thought my back didn't require any treatment. My core is stable, I'm in no pain, etc. So, no situps for another 6 weeks or so and avoid any heavy lifting over my head and I should be good to go.

The other medical issue I've been dealing with is some inflammation in my left arm from some veinous blood clotting. My care team decided to start me on some blood thinners and they have definitely reduced the swelling in my arm. It doesn't hurt which is nice, but no free style swimming until the symptoms go away. It's a slow process - I've been on the blood thinners for a couple of weeks and there's been some progress but the symptoms are not completely gone yet. So irritating but not life threatening so we'll work through it ok.

Today I saw my oncologist and everything looks ok from a lymph node perspective. I've felt some weird tingles in my neck which had me pretty freaked out but the word is that this is being caused by the fact that I'm starting to get sensation back in my neck from the incision done when I had the biopsy in March. So those tingles are in fact a good sign and have nothing to do with tumor growth. Yeah!!!

On the conditioning front, I'm definitely making slow but steady progress. My weight has been pretty stable but I'm trading the jelly roll around my middle for some muscle mass in my legs. I now have a 1-pack on my stomach. Getting to a six pack may not ever happen but will definitely be slowed down by the fact that I can't do any situps for another six weeks to give my back time to heal. On my bike rides, I'm seeing definite improvements in times and how I'm doing relative to other riders. A month ago I would start with folks but basically do a solo ride at a slower pace than everyone. Now I'm almost, sort of keeping up with some of the folks. Of course, my goal is to crush them like a nut athletically but so far I'm not there. But spring 2011? Starting to look like that might be possible - heh, heh, heh. I did a fun (and hard for me) mountain bike ride last Saturday (track info here) and a hard climb up a local road (Flagstaff) on my road bike on Tuesday (here). Both good, hard rides that I probably couldn't have done last month.

On the mental health front, I'm doing pretty well. I continue to have some fears of a cancer recurrence. My oncologist says that given how I've responded to treatment that a relapse would be highly unlikely but not impossible. Last Sunday I had a day of just mild depression - moping around the house, not really feeling like doing anything and just feeling worried about my health. As the months go by and I continue to regain my health I suspect that these days will occur more and more rarely. Just another wicket to go through on the croquet course of cancer/chemo recovery!

So that's it for now. And just a gentle reminder - I know that ALL of you are getting your yearly checkups of all your hardware, yes? You all promised me that you would do this when I posted on this topic earlier this year and I haven't forgotten. So make sure you're staying on top of your health exams, get to the doctor if you're experiencing any weirdness that persists longer than a couple of weeks and let's all be around for a long time to drink beer and ride bikes!