Happy Birthday/Chemoversary to Me!

img_3948When you have cancer, it feels like you have to celebrate EVERY milestone. Last year, days before I turned 36, I took my 12th weekly ferry ride to the neighboring island hospital for my  final Taxol infusion. Before that we commuted to Seattle for 4 rounds of dose-dense A/C chemo every few weeks. Five months devoted to injecting my body with poison, done. The first stage of tri-modal treatment, done. The first few months of life with 2 kids, done! The first half of my thrities, done!

One year ago, at the last minute, I invited a few friends and family along to my last chemo, because, well, why not! It had become normal part of life for me, and it felt important to share some of that experience and acknowledge the milestone in some way. After the three hour infusion process, the nurses presented me with a few tokens and my mom, husband, 2 daughters, a couple friends and their babies all rushed off to catch the ferry. We missed it. We pulled up to the landing just as the boat was pulling away, so the celebration was extended for a few more hours. We did some nap time driving around San Juan island until the next boat. Such is life in the islands, life with small children, and in treatment. Lots of getting there and back. So much hurry up and wait. Endless amounts of getting through it.

And then we went on a birthday vacation to Utah. It felt necessary to celebrate another year of life in an extra special way, with a trip to a mountain ranch where a good friend was working. It was a rendezvous with a handful of my sisters and a visit to Zion National Park, in a totally different landscape and climate than where we lived. A true getaway. I don’t like airports and it was an ordeal, but the flight to Las Vegas was just a couple hours and that seemed doable with 2 little people and a suitcase full of frozen breastmilk (and some dry ice). Baby Daphne was 4 months old and already traveling! It was hot and sunny and a welcome distraction from the thick of cancer treatment. We took walks, visited with the animals, had a dinner out. I made it to another birthday, fatigued and damaged from chemo, but not as sick as I could’ve been.

Maybe it was the Turkey Tail supplement I was taking, my age, or my typically strong immune system that kept me from getting totally knocked down. Maybe it was the physical support and the ample time to rest, or the distraction of my children. It was probably all of these things. If only it had worked.

Sometimes I think I would’ve rather been really sick for 5 months if that meant the drugs would’ve done their job and killed off my cancer. Sometimes I regret not stopping or switching chemo sooner when the mass in my breast did not shrink, but instead seemed to grow. But hindsight is always 20/20 and hopefully it did something to kill off the cancer that was circulating in my system. There is just no way to really know, no one right or wrong answer with this cancer business. Even oncologists are limited in their understanding and experience, and they can vary significantly in their (recommended) treatment. I discovered this through my personal experience after I transferred care in the midst of it and even more so after joining online support groups (unfortunately after chemo) and learning about the experience of many others. Even with a similar diagnosis, some women were prescribed one drug instead of another, and/or treatment in a different order. With a rare and aggressive diagnosis, getting to know a new oncologist, especially at a small rural hospital (they only attend once a week), is a process and a challenge. My second doctor had obviously not examined me before I started treatment and had not been able to see how my breast and symptoms had changed. I only saw her a few times and felt like she was just getting familiar with my case by the time I finished chemo. And surgery was definitely happening back in Seattle anyway.

There are times I regret prioritizing convenience over consistency and level of care. But the value of reducing our 4 hour commute to 1 felt worth it at the time, mostly because of my newborn and toddler. I wish, at least, I had reached out for the support of others in my situation sooner (during chemo), because that might have encouraged me to speak up or ask more/the right questions. Maybe it would’ve changed my treatment plan or outcomes. Maybe not. It was all just so overwhelming, in every way, at the time. I was just trying to survive.

It is kind of a bummer that my birthday is now tied to my chemoversary. I am still not sure what I will end up doing to celebrate this year, but I am passionate, more than ever, about celebrating at least as many days as you are old. So I think my solo trip to California and the YSC Summit a couple weeks ago counts as a beginning to my month-long birthday party. And we just planned a trip back east to see family in Buffalo in another month, so that can be the drawn-out end. Meanwhile, spring is upon us and the daylight and new growth is inspiring. Maybe it is time to get back in the garden and on an exercise routine? Maybe weekly massages? I just went to my first ceramics class since before I had kids, so I will say that is part of my self-celebration too. Here’s to my 37th trip around the sun and all of you that have been part of my journey over the last year.

While completing the first phase of treatment one year ago feels like an accomplishment, I did end up taking a another chemo orally during radiation. Like the rest of cancer treatment, for me, it wasn’t a fight or a battle, but something I unhappily endured. I hope I will live long enough that these two milestones can one day be separated in my mind again. I hope my luck will carry me past the enduring impacts of chemo. Regardless, I will continue to celebrate as many milestones as I can, in whatever way I can, with gratitude that I can. I am here. And I own a lot more hats now.

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