2016 was a hellish year for me — no doubt about it, the worst health year of my life — jam-packed with high-octane events beginning in early January, when I experienced a stroke affecting my left and dominant arm from which I mercifully made a full recovery. In the spring, a retinal exam revealed a worsening of the sight in my left eye, due to dry Macular Degeneration. During the summer I discovered a gum infection that threatened to jeopardize the future of my four lower front teeth. This necessitated a root canal in September, which didn’t help the situation and a flap surgery in November, which actually worked.
After almost an entire year of struggling with health maladies , I couldn’t help but wonder what might go wrong next — obviously a big mistake.
The final medical test on my agenda for 2016 was a mammogram, prompted by a tender spot in my armpit . Imagining it a benign breast cyst which had troubled me in my premenopausal days, I underwent a mammogram and an ultrasound in mid-December. I received the diagnosis on December 23rd, my husband’s seventy-fifth birthday — happy birthday, dear Sir — when the radiologist called to inform me that I had a modest sized, malignant tumor in my right breast.
Breast cancer? Me? Surely there must be some mistake? I was a near vegetarian who’d even banned cheese from my post-stroke diet. I was a light drinker and had quit smoking cigarettes three decades ago. I’d never moved beyond a little pot in the drug-taking department . I’d never taken hormones as a means of birth control or to ease menopausal symptoms . I used cruelty-free, environmentally friendly cleaning products in my home. I was a writer who loved my work and enjoyed a low-stress lifestyle.
But my husband, who’d held my hand during the Ultrasound, saw the dark mass within my breast, himself — and no, there was no mistake, the mass turned out to be a malignant tumor. The newest of my ongoing list of maladies was breast cancer.
Isn’t life just crammed full of surprises?
During the consequently somber holiday weekend, my nineteen-year-old grandson told his dad how deeply impressed he was by my show of strength. Poor kid, his other grandma, also in her early seventies, died of cancer the week before my diagnosis. He must have been terrified that his grandmas were dropping like flies. The least I could do was exhibit courage under fire — although truth, if I thought falling apart might positively impact my health, I’d have given it a go.
What a blessing to be surrounded by family during the holidays . Our older son’s employment in Portland Oregon ended when the building he managed was sold , and opted to seek work in a drier climate for the sake of his own health. His plan was to stay with us temporarily, while he sought work in the Palm Springs area. But given my health situation and my husband’s increasing lack of mobility, he decided to remain with us for the foreseeable future . He couldn’t have come at a better time to brighten our spirits and would make much-needed repairs on our home during his stay.
We occupied ourselves with family activities during the holiday season, until our grandson’s return to college, and our younger son and his partner’s return to their home in Brooklyn in early January. A stand-out entertainment for me was treating us all to an evening at the Exploratorium in San Francisco. I hadn’t been there since my sons were young.
What fun that was! I enjoyed myself so much , I actually spent the entire evening, and was in the car, on my way home before remembering I had cancer — and when I did, I cried. Since then, my emotions have run the gamut from unbending intention to regain my health, to sobbing like a child.
Being an optimist by nature, I tend to stay strong and do what I must to not only survive, but thrive. In spite of my incredible run of negative health luck, I visualize myself strong and healthy.
On January 5th, my husband and I met with a surgeon at St Mary’s hospital in San Francisco, to review my options. She confirmed that I had stage 1 breast cancer, and offered the choice of a lumpectomy or a radical mastectomy. The thought of having my entire breast removed was so terrifying; I couldn’t wrap my mind around it. Instead, I opted for a lumpectomy, and the removal of the Sentinel node and one other node. If neither proved to be cancerous, the recommended follow-up treatment was a course of radiation, and the estrogen-blocking pill, Tamoxifen, to be taken for five years — after which I’d be considered cured.
And although my surgeon informed me that each cancer was uniquely individual, she advised, as well, against Internet searches on the subject of cancer, and seeking out the medical experience of other women.
But that’s not my nature. I was raised by a gutsy woman who’d protested the spraying of alleged “wonder chemical” DDT on food crops in the early 1950s, and was an outspoken critic of the fluoridation of the public water supply as a means of preventing dental cavities. She purchased organically grown flour and other products from Walnut Acres Farm, one of the first organic farms in the country, when I was a small child.My mom read environmentalist, Rachel Carson’s book, Silent Spring in1962, the year it was published. She and her two closest friends who joined her in protest all lived to be over ninety, while enjoying healthy bodies nourished by organic food.
I am my mother’s daughter, after all…
I had the first surgery on January 25th, and a second on the same breast to widen the margin for error, a month later. Neither node was cancerous.
Ding Dong, the Wicked Cancer’s dead!
Now, I’m two months past my second surgery. After considerable perusal of books such as Knockout, by Suzanne Somers, recounting her successful recovery from cancer without conventional treatments, and a series of in-depth interviews of alternative medical practitioners, as well as Heal Breast Cancer Naturally: 7 Essential Steps to Beating Breast Cancer, by Dr. Veronique Desaulniers . I also gleaned information from medical websites ranging from the conventional, such as Susan B. Komen .org, and Cancer.org, to a variety of alternative sources such as the lengthy Mother Jones article, The Business of Cancer — and in particular, a nine part documentary titled The Truth About Cancer, featuring alternative medical practitioners from around the globe.
This plethora of medical information raised pertinent questions that made me seriously question the wisdom of attempting to heal my weakened immune system by poisoning my body. Radiation for stage 1 breast cancer, with its potential side effects of nausea, vomiting, appetite loss, and damages to breast, lung, and heart tissue, seemed like a less than idea healing modality to me. And Tamoxifen, chemical treatment, has its own set of of side effects: common ones listed are hot flashes and other menopausal symptoms , and a reduce sex drive which I didn’t experience when in menopause nearly two decades ago. Why then, would I wish to experience them now?
Two pertinent facts about cancer have resonated in my brain. Cancer loves sugar and loathes oxygen. With this in mind, I made my gut level decision to heal my body via an organic food diet consisting of lots of cruciferous vegetables, moderate protein rich in Omega 3 oils, such as wild-caught salmon or sardines, low carbohydrates, good fats, such as avocados, coconut and olive oil, and immune boosting supplements, such as mushroom extracts, plus a shit-load of vitamins. In the interest of oxygenating my body, I’ve added twice a week Pilates classes to my once a week Yoga class, with a Zumba class a week , in addition to my daily walk with my dogs,
I was lucky enough to find an MD who supports my decision. A bold choice, perhaps, to flout accepted medical treatment — but there’s no lack of boldness in my makeup.
I’m still uncertain about how to monitor my cancer-free state. I’m unwilling to submit to frequent mammograms, which deliver significant radiation to my recovering breast. The tumor I had removed was malignant, but slow-growing. The pathologist said it had probably been inside me for several years before my doctor felt it with a manual exam, and the mammogram and ultrasound revealed it . I’ve since learned about Thermograms, a modality based on signaling heat from inflammation that are over eighty percent accurate. There are as well, certain blood tests that indicate cancer markers. Perhaps a combination of all, along with regular manual exams…
I plan to resume writing and have with the completion of this new blog post. A dear friend, an editor of erotica, offered to set up my Amazon Author Page, which I eagerly accepted. So far this year I’ve been accepted into three anthologies, and taken second prize in a prestigious literary competition under my legal name.
My sex drive is returning. My husband and I enjoy an open marriage. My breast — although a bit less perky than it once was — is still pretty in spite of two, inch-and-a half long scars that are healing rapidly. I intend to come through this hair-raising experience with my sense of humor and adventure intact.
My father died of stomach cancer in 1960, when he was forty-nine and I was sixteen. The surgeons cut him open and sewed him back up, saying there was nothing more they could do. Back then cancer was a death sentence, although it wasn’t customary to inform patients of their impending demise. But my father, an editor and translator of technical books, including medical dictionaries , must have realized he was dying.
After his death a poem was discovered among his personal papers, attesting to his deep regret in departing this world, in which he’d found so much to live for. The poem, titled Sunsets, was lengthy. Each stanza dealt with another aspect of the life he was loath to part with — and each concluded with the haunting refrain, There Will Be So Many Sunsets Left Unseen.
Our home faces west. I observe many sunsets. Each time I do I remind myself , there’s another one seen — and wasn’t it lovely to behold.