Saturday Diary / Coping with cancer, keeping it light

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For a couple weeks, I felt a little like a steer waiting to be cut into roasts and hamburger. I had the same look: Magic Marker-drawn blue and red lines, crosses and dots all over my left breast and ribs and under my arm.

I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining. Actually, I found the marks kind of funny, though not funny enough that I would show them to anyone except my husband.

And I was quite happy to have them: They were my guarantee that the technicians were, in the earliest days of my radiation treatments, zapping my breast in the right spot. Then they were replaced with four tiny tattoos -- "tit tats," as some of my fellow patients call them.

You have to have a sense of humor about these things.

You see, I am a breast cancer survivor. Have been since I was diagnosed Sept. 21. Self-pity does nothing to help healing. As the saying goes, laughter is the best medicine.

Besides, I'm a lucky survivor. No mastectomy. No illness-causing, hair-killing chemotherapy. That's because my tumor was small and caught early -- thanks to a mammogram and a skilled radiologist. And because my wonderful surgeon, Norman Wolmark of Allegheny General Hospital, got it all.

I had a lumpectomy Nov. 3 and started radiation Dec. 20 (with some needless trepidation; it's painless). After 33 daily, Monday-through-Friday treatments, I will take a five-year course of a hormone drug called Arimidex, which my oncologist, Adam Brufsky, tells me should leave me with a mere 6 percent chance of the cancer recurring.

I'll take those odds.

But don't let me pat myself on the back too much. I have allowed myself a few dips on the emotional roller coaster -- such as that groundless fear of radiation.

I had one particularly bad day in October when I became convinced that the basically lucky life I have lived for nearly 59 years was over. That this breast cancer was going to kill me.

Fortunately, my husband, who has been a rock through all of this, also is quite sensible. "Well," he said, "if you are going to die from it, I suspect it won't be for a long time and you'll have plenty of time to think about it. For now, we have a plan of attack and we should spend our time strategizing."

Made perfect sense when he put it that way, and so that is pretty much how I have looked at it since.

Nevertheless, the first time I saw my scarred breast I had some bad moments. Still do on occasion.

It's kind of dented. On the other hand, my days of going topless on Caribbean beaches are long behind me anyway.

Like I said, you've got to keep a sense of humor, so I've pretty much gotten over that, too, again with the help of my supportive husband. He likes me just fine the way I am.

I was moody during the time I spent at home -- I took about 10 days off before the surgery so I wouldn't sit and stew at work, and I was off about three and a half weeks post-surgery. But I vented by writing a journal, most often about other, non-cancer things, on a website administered by CaringBridge.org.

Caring Bridge helps people with illnesses or their caregivers to keep in touch with friends and family.

The musings I wrote -- on home contractors who kept me waiting, the escapades of my cats and the throwing away of unnecessary items such as Playbills and letters of condolence on the death of our golden retriever Max, for instance -- kept at bay the emotions about my breast cancer.

I wrote about the day my 16-year-old, indoor-only cat Grizzabella scared me to death by going out a window (left open by a contractor) and sitting on the porch roof, and the day my long-haired black cat Scrappy got into white paint for the first time (and I did as well!). Caring Bridge readers told me I made them laugh. And I guess the stories made me laugh, too.

The only day I cried was when I threw away those condolences for Max, who died of multiple myeloma after a long, brave battle. "If I can be half as brave as Max was, I will be truly proud of myself," I wrote. A friend wrote back that I had brought tears to her eyes, too.

Something about heading into my surgery scared the heck out of me, and I fretted about it quite a bit.

Marilyn Holmes, nurse for Dr. Wolmark, told me that I would have a wire inserted into the breast to carry dye to the sentinel lymph nodes. (They are biopsied during the surgery to determine as quickly as possible whether the cancerous tumor has spread to the nodes under the arm.) I was under the impression the wire would be inserted without anesthesia and worried that I wouldn't be able to tolerate the pain.

As it turned out, I did get a local anesthesia for that procedure and barely felt the injection. Boy, did I feel stupid. I looked pretty stupid, as well, sitting for a couple of hours waiting for surgery with a wire sticking out of my breast.

In retrospect, that was funny, too.


Pohla Smith is a staff writer for the Post-Gazette ( psmith@post-gazette.com , 412 263-1228).


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