Saturday, April 25, 2009

Still Alive After All!

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Sunday, February 03, 2008

The End

Goodbye, brainhell. Peace to you, my dear friend.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

So Will This Be On The Final Exam?

One of my New Year's resolutions for 2008 was to take more risks, to exercise more courage, to try to step outside my comfort zone at least once a day. And it has been my fortune, good or otherwise, that I rarely have to go seeking excuses to cross my ever-expanding comfort zone border: my life seems to regularly hand out prime opportunities, served right to my door on a sterling silver platter.

Today's little adventure was an MRI of my brain.

Being strapped into the dark noisy pounding tube for 45 minutes was strange and creepy and dreadfully claustrophobic, and yet not nearly as bad as I'd feared it would be. Probably, in large part, because over the past two years I've perfected my ability to put myself into a dissociative trance to a high art. And anyway, I'm not particularly anxious about the results of this MRI. I mean, I'm not suspecting brain tumors or degenerative lesions or anything more dramatic than just a little residual chemo brain damage, which may or may not show up on the scan.

What happened was, the last time I went in for my routine six-month oncology clinic visit, I complained about having memory and concentration problems and just generally being a spacey ditz. I figure the chemo brain phenomenon still hasn't fully resolved, so I asked the young resident if there was anything I could take for it, like maybe Ritalin or one of those drugs. He went back to ask the oncologist on duty, and the way she described it to me when she could finally stop laughing was he burst into her office with this incredibly hopeful look on his face and gasped, "A lady out there wants to know if there's a pill she can take to improve her memory. Is there such a thing???"

Now this brilliant oncologist is actually rather well known around these parts, though I'd never seen her before and had no idea she was even doing time at Our Lady of the Damned. So it was a huge honor when she sat down to casually chat with me. I liked her a lot.

After reviewing my chart and asking me some basic questions, she said, "You know, it's not really unusual for our memories to give us a little trouble, what with aging and menopause and all. What sorts of problems have you been having?"

"Well," I said. "Last week I locked my keys in my car."

"Ha!" she said. "That's nothing. Last week I locked my keys, my phone, and my emergency beeper in my trunk. And the whole 45 minutes while I was waiting for the Pop-A-Lock truck, I had to listen to the phone ringing and the emergency beeper frantically beeping, like all my patients were dying."

"Well," I said. "I missed my turnoff on the interstate. I was halfway to Shreveport before I even realized it."

"Ha!" she said. "That's nothing. One Tuesday I went to my Wednesday hospital by mistake, and I was on my third patient before I realized it."

"Ok," I said. "I accidentally sent a fuck-you email intended for my ex to my landlord in California instead."

"Whoa," she said. "Wow. Ok. I'm ordering you an MRI of the brain, stat."

Anyway, it'll probably be a week before I can get these results since everything kind of shuts down for Mardi Gras around here. But meanwhile, to tide us over, this morning after the MRI I went to the medical records department and obtained the results for last Friday's CT scans. And here's what they have to say:

Impression: Negative CT of soft tissues of neck, unchanged since August 27, 2007. Negative CT abdomen & pelvis, unchanged from August 27, 2007. Negative CT thorax, unchanged from prior exam.

100% negative, still clean as a whistle, not a trace of trouble anywhere! I've been free of disease for one year since my last chemo now, and though the odds are still uncomfortably high that the lymphoma could return, passing the one year mark means they are considerably less uncomfortably high. Prognostically speaking, this is a statistical milestone. Or vice versa. Anyway, the best possible news.

And now with a tip o' the wig to my wise spiritual mentor the Ever Ob. Rev. B. Dagger Lee, would you all please join me in singing along to the Great Goddess of Soul:

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

I Love BrainHell

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Breaking News: Cancer Blogger Lives!

Hello? Anybody still out there? I am well and fine, thanks for asking. Just not much in the mood for cancer blogging lately.

Cancer. Feh. You know, frankly, most days now I tend to forget all about it. Don't even think about it much. I feel a little guilty for not reading the cancer support boards any more, or keeping up with other cancer blogs. But my energies just seem to have drifted off elsewhere these days. I'm taking up new interests, and I mostly hang around with people now who didn't even know me when I had cancer, people who don't always think of me as Tragic Cancer Cootie Person. I'm carving a pretty good new life for myself.

But a couple of weeks ago a funny thing happened.

I had heard that an old friend named Frances, whom I hadn't seen in several years, had recently been diagnosed with lymphoma, and that she was undergoing chemo at, of all places, Our Lady Of The Damned. So on one of her chemo days I put together a little gift bag full of goodies and trinkets and headed over to pay her a supportive visit.

I set out in high spirits, full of good cheer. Going back up to the fifth floor chemo ward was kind of an exciting thing for me: I felt like a ragingly famous alumna returning to my old high school stomping grounds, proudly displaying a shiny cluster of Nobel medals pinned to my lapel. Except in my case the bling of success was a rack of ripply new muscles, a head full of unruly hair, and the unmistakable rosy glow of good health.

But my high spirits encountered a chilling little setback on the way up when I ran into my old buddy Scott, the only surviving member of the lung cancer gang I used to hang out with back in my own chemo days. I'd seen him once last summer at a big cancer fund raiser and he was doing well, recovering from the brutal treatment, growing a beard, hoping for a few more years with no active disease. But now the grim news was Scott's cancer is already back, and has metastasized to his bones. He told me he's trying one last round of chemo, but he's in severe pain, heavily addicted to morphine, weak, depressed, living alone with no family, not much money, no car. Suffering and struggling, but not ready to give up his last shreds of hope and independence for hospice.

Suddenly my spine felt like it was made out of ice cubes. I briefly toyed with the option of thrusting Frances's gift bag into Scott's hands and running off down the hall screaming, possibly even hurling myself through the next plate glass window. But thanks to many decades of cultivating an acceptably civilized superego, I managed instead to temporarily repress this initial impulse, politely wished him well, and continued on with my original mission. With a slightly heavier step I trudged on up to the fifth floor.

My first impression when I walked through the familiar double swinging doors was: Wow, they must have repainted the place with some amazingly brilliant white paint! I don't recall the walls being this bright. Or maybe they doubled up on the fluorescent light tubes. Everything was so white, so light, so bright! Almost blindingly bright. I blinked against the intense whiteness. In my memory, the chemo floor had seemed more like a dark tunnel.

I peered through the shimmering brightness until I spotted Mike, my old chemo nurse. He too was glowing with the eerie new brightness. He saw me, and slowly he smiled, a blindingly white smile. Slowly he stood up, slowly he moved towards me. His mouth was slowly saying something, and my mouth was slowly saying something back, and everything was perfectly normal. Except I guess the blinding light and the weird slow motion effect were making me a just little dizzy and disoriented.

In slow motion I said I had come to see Frances, and Mike's glowing finger slowly pointed to her room. Ah. I knew that room. It was the exact same room I had been in for my last chemo session, exactly one year ago. "Go on in," said Mike, his voice reverberating like an echo chamber. "She'll be glad (glad...glad..glad...) to see you. Her daughters are in there with her."

I squinted at the closed door. It too was glowing with the fiercely bright white light, like some kind of blindingly glowing radioactive shield. Even so, I could almost see straight through it to what was inside the familiar chemo room. I could almost see Frances lying on the same bed I'd lain on, brilliant sunlight pouring in onto the blindingly white starched sheets. I could picture her three beautiful smiling daughters hovering around her like angels, surrounding her with light and warmth and love. I could also see the one lone chair, pulled way back in the dark corner: the chair where he always sat, the Painter, the Designated Driver. With such vivid clarity I could see him sitting there still, reading his book: stern, aloof, annoyed, preoccupied, coldly indifferent to anybody else's feelings. And as I stared at the door and saw what I saw, the muscles in my throat clamped shut like a steel trap that would never ever again let oxygen pass into my lungs. I thought I was going to die on the spot.

Frances, if you're reading this: I am so very sorry. And embarrassed! I swear, that was the very first time in my life I've experienced a full-blown panic attack. It was all there, the racing heart, the sweating palms, the spinning room; feeling faint, unable to breathe, a sense of utter dread and impending doom. I think I mumbled something about being late, threw the bag at poor bewildered Mike, and fled the hospital like I was being pursued by a rabid pack of ferocious fire-breathing land sharks. I sat in my car shaking and hyperventilating for fifteen full minutes before I could drive.

A few days later I mentioned the incident in passing to my therapist, with a mildly bemused and detached clinical interest. Wasn't this peculiar? I said. An actual textbook panic attack, straight out of the blue. How odd! Then I shrugged it off and moved on to something more important, more real.

But no. "Uh-uh, wait a minute," she interrupted. "Hold on. Go back: this panic attack, tell me, what does it mean? What exactly was it telling you?"

It took me a while, but I finally said it. It meant that my whole situation was pretty damn dire, something I've been kind of denying lately with all my happy-happy healing and forgetting and moving on. This panic attack was telling me that I went through something extremely huge and horrible and intensely devastating, and it's just not that easy to just move on and forget about it, to leave it all behind me like it never happened.

The illness, the pain, the terror of almost dying; the being without health insurance, the scary degrading hospital experiences, the dangerously uneven medical care; the loss of my beloved home and all my life savings and any hope of financial security; the slug in the gut of finding out that the person I loved and trusted was incapable of empathy or emotional support and not in love with me after all; the ongoing knowledge that my cancer, like Scott's, can always come back, any day, any minute, and turn my life into a living hell. This whole unthinkable nightmare hitting me all at once seems to have shattered something in my soul, and done some permanent psychic damage.

And now, even though the worst appears to be over and I'm coping extremely well, adjusting, healing, rebuilding, still, at a very deep cellular level, permanently etched in my very neurons, I remain deeply traumatized. And this buried cellular trauma can be triggered and might rise up to haunt me and debilitate me at any time. Fun, eh?

So in one sense there's healing and moving on, but another sense there's no such thing. No matter how strong or brave I try to be, reality will never be the same.

Anyway. As for blogging, I have to wait and see. I'm schedule for my routine six month CT scans on January 25th. Plus I may have to have an MRI of my brain because I've been having having some memory and cognitive problems that are probably just a combination of lingering chemo brain fog, chemo induced menopause, and/or post-trauma nerve damage effects. But worse possibilities have to be ruled out, though I'm definitely not looking forward to 45 minutes trapped in the Pounding Tube of Claustrophobia.

Anyway, various tests loom on the horizon. And if those are clear I think it's maybe time for me to officially sign off as a cancer blogger and wrap this baby up. If I decide to start another blog it'll probably just be a trivial chatty little what-I-ate-for-lunch dealie, amusing for me and my dogs and a few close friends but not so much to anybody else. Though I will post a pointer here if I do. Meanwhile, I'll keep updating Flickr from time to time to let folks know I'm still alive. Click on those pics in the right sidebar to follow the aimlessly meandering plot of my ever-improving days.

See ya'll around the blogosphere!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Adventure At Home

Excuse me while I briefly interrupt your regularly scheduled Mexico vacation diary to bring you these snapshots of tonight's five mile canoe trip around the perimeter of Lake Martin in the dark. There's a new moon tonight so it was very dark, except for the stars and our head lamps and the light pollution from several nearby towns. And very quiet, except for the tree frogs, crickets, katydids, bullfrogs, night herons, and owls. Lots of alligators out, more than I've ever seen during the day. Their eyes light up freaky red when a head lamp hits them, but I wasn't able to get a photo.

I'm trying to incorporate more adventure into my post-vacation life, especially outdoorsy stuff like canoeing, hiking, and horseback riding.
My camera's not very good at night photography, but you get a vague idea of the scene: silent canoes gliding across dark glassy water, passing ghostly cypress trees draped with Spanish moss. It was astonishingly beautiful. (That's Noble, a grad student from Budapest, riding my stern.)

Thank you. Mexico will resume tomorrow.

Vacation Diary, Day 4

Monday, October 29, 2007

Yet another perfectly gorgeous day! I rose with the sun and girded my loins for adventure with an artistic tropical fruit platter prepared by my beloved Jesus from a colorful array of locally grown papayas, star fruits, and melons. He also brought me a pot of steaming hot te negro con leche, a freshly squeezed pineapple-mango cocktail, and some of his fresh baked banana macadamia nut bread made from, you guessed it, the local Uruapan harvest du jour. Is it too soon to ask him to marry me?

Eduardo Ruiz National Park is less than ten meters from the hotel's door, so that's where I headed next.

This insanely lush, brilliant emerald green, tropical rain forest feels more like Costa Rica, or Brazil, or my wildest mystical jungle fantasies, than Mexico. And it is a horticulturist's wet dream. Majestic white Angel Trumpets of wild Brugmansia drape over shady trails that meander through galloping herds of giant banana trees alongside the rushing Cupatizio River. Sixty foot tall houseplants on steroids tower over it all, while wild red Poinsettias grow to be the size of houses. Wild orchids hang in purple clusters from the trees; wild bedding Impatiens billow in clouds of rampant color along the river banks. I mean, seriously, isn't that an unsettling oxymoron, "wild bedding Impatiens"? Sort of like "fierce packs of feral poodles roam the tundra."

But enough with all the jungle prose; I'll just tell you this magical place was beautiful beyond words and let some photos do the talking:

Me with Park Naturalist

Ruiz National Park, Uruapan

Ruiz National Park, Uruapan

Ruiz National Park, Uruapan

Eduardo Ruiz National Park, Uruapan

Four Muchachas With Naturalist

Wild Brugmansia in Ruiz National Park

The afternoon's exciting adventure provided a striking contrast to the morning's dazzling tropical treasure chest. It entailed riding horseback from the Purepecha village of Angahuan, along a steep rugged trail in dry scrubby mountain terrain, to visit a former village that had been buried in lava from the 1943 eruption of Paracutin volcano. Black lava rock covered all but a few protruding remains of an old church.

(Note to self: MUST improve Spanish pronunciation. It's a truly sorry state of affairs when I try to say, "Help me! I am terrified of this crazy horse!" and it somehow comes out sounding like, "Hello, I am a world famous rodeo hotshot, please bring on the life threatening dangers.") Let me tell you, riding down the side of a steep rocky perpendicular cliff on Sr Caballo Loco was at times el trauma grande.

But in the end it was much more fun than scary, and the magnificent scenery was worth every moment of terror.

Me Pondering Paracutin



Paracutin Damage



Hiking In Volcanic Lava

Horseback Expedition to Paracutin

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Vacation Diary, Day 3

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Another perfect day for traipsing around Morelia! Or for doing pretty much anything, for that matter. But traipsing happened to be my activity of choice, so after breakfast I traipsed on over to the Alfredo Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art. The museum is housed in an amazing 19th century French-influenced mansion located in the Bosque Cuauhtemoc, or Cuauhtemoc Forest (actually a big lovely mid-city park with lots of trees).

Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art, Morelia
The museum

There is a permanent collection of Zalce's work here, but lots of other delectable delights for the eye were on display as well. It's a fabulous museum with thirteen exhibition rooms. I could have easily spent 15 or 20 years inhaling the colors.

Alfredo Zalce
A Zalce

Zalce himself

Another room in the museum, with non-Zalces

Another non-Zalce. (Why the hell didn't I write down the names of the other painters? As if the entire art world is divided into two categories: Zalce and non-Zalce. Yeesh, I'm so embarrassed; my apologies.)

After a couple of heavenly hours at the museum (it would have been a lot longer if the gift ship hadn't been closed on Sunday), I traipsed over to a delightful cafe for a latte and cookie break (where I valiantly refrained from taking advantage of internet access). After that I traipsed over to the Jardin de las Rosas, a lively little urban plaza where bands were playing, children were gamboling, and local artists were displaying their work.


I was just traipsing along merrily minding my own business when I suddenly fell madly, insanely, head over heels in love with a half-finished painting that was still on its easel. The woman who was working on it turned out to be the well-known (though not by me at the time, because when it comes to art I was raised in a cave by wolves) Michoacan painter, Evangelina Abonce.

Of course she wouldn't sell me the unfinished piece. But maybe she was flattered that I was so taken by her work out of all the hundreds of paintings in the park that day, especially since I obviously had no clue who she was. She showed me two smaller Día de las Muertos themed pastels she had just finished. But these two also weren't for sale, she said, because she was planning to enter them in a juried show the next week. Alas, by the time they were ready to go on the market, I would have taken my pesos and traipsed all the way back to Deep Inferno. Here was this magnificent but cruel artist, tormenting me in the park with no works for sale!

Well, I tried to be a good sport and forget about the pastels, but my heart simply refused to move on. It was breaking. I loved them so much! I couldn't imagine living the rest of my life without them. Señora Abonce finally took pity on my forlorn looks, or maybe she just wanted me to quit moping around stalking her booth so she could get back to work. Anyway, she sold them both to me for $1200 pesos. My Spanish was totally inadequate to express to her how happy and how honored I was, but when they come back from the framers I'll email her a photo of them hanging in my shack along with my best attempt at immoderate gratitude.

Pastel By Evangelina Abonce

Pastel by Evangelina Abonce
Aren't they magnificent?

Sunday afternoon: I bid a sad farewell to beautiful Morelia and headed for Uruapan. But one look at the hotel in Uruapan and I forgot all about Morelia. I never wanted to live any place else for the rest of my life! The hotel is the Garden of Eden! A veritable tropical paradise, a hotbed of luxury. Lush colorful flora abounds: bougainvillea, roses, birds of paradise, Royal Poinciana trees, enormous banana plants, huge tropical ferns. Somebody pinch me: this has got got to be heaven. Spent the afternoon lounging on my balcony reading Paul Auster.

View from Hotel Room, Uruapan
The view from my hotel room

Hotel in Uruapan
The view from my balcony

And then, just when I thought life couldn't possibly get any better, dinner was served in the hotel restaurant. Simply unbelievable. I had an exquisite freshly caught local trout with a macadamia nut sauce made from regionally famous macadamia nuts and a very nice Chilean wine, delivered by Jesus, the world's most handsome and attentive maître d'. This culinary zenith was followed by an excessively decadent dessert comprising absolutely perfect crêpes glazed with a burnt goat-milk macadamia chocolate sauce, and topped with vanilla ice cream.

Please: shoot me now. If I get any happier I may explode and take out half of Mexico.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Vacation Diary, Day 2

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Woke up obscenely early, eager to explore the delights of historic downtown Morelia, which houses more than 1000 colonial buildings and churches. The day dawned to perfect weather for drooling on notable Spanish architecture and important social realist murals.

I set out walking, but not three meters from the hotel door I was riveted in place by my first Amazing Sight of the Day to write home about: the manhole covers of Morelia are elaborately adorned with the images of three kings! There is nothing like this in Deep Inferno. I would have brought some home with me but I was afraid it might be tough to sneak them through customs, and anyway I was already in their bad graces for the ink pen fiasco.

Manhole Cover With Three Kings
I milled around the sidewalk admiring this exquisite manhole cover for close to five minutes, blocking foot traffic and attracting dubious stares. I'm beginning to suspect that maybe I don't get out often enough.

Oh, and you know what else is really cool about Morelia? And all of Mexico, I guess: zillions of old style Volkswagen bugs! And buses. By the time I finally made it to the corner, I had counted 37 bugs and 12 buses, and it only took me seven minutes to walk half a block. And then there was the whole hair gel thing, where I got totally sidetracked trying to catalog the creative array of dramatic hair sculpting styles favored by the young males of Morelia. And shoes, of course: I am always intrigued by foreign shoes. And did I mention the graffiti? You can tell an awful lot about a city and its people by the graffiti.

Winner, Best Graffiti Award
Splendid example of culture jamming outside a classroom at an elite secondary school in Morelia.

According to the notes in my travel journal, those were my main impressions of the day. But now that you mention it, I did see some spectacular architecture:

Church in Morelia

And classical musicians serenading diners at sidewalk cafes:

Musicians in Morelia

And vivid, often disturbing revolutionary murals:

Mural in Morelia

And we can't forget the ubiquitous balloon vendors:

Balloon Vendor

I spent the entire afternoon wondering what the hell they do with the leftover balloons that don't sell by the end of the day. Is there a giant warehouse somewhere on the outskirts of the city that threatens to levitate off its foundation on particularly unsuccessful days? Must do more research.

Saturday night: W00t! More margaritas! Accompanied by fancy dinner on top of a swank hotel that overlooks the baroque Morelia Cathedral which was built between 1660 and 1744. Every Saturday night the entire city gathers in the streets below for the illumination of the cathedral, which is accompanied by fireworks, orchestras, and choirs. It was an impressive sight, and I deeply regret that I forgot to bring my camera. But clearly this is a very cultured city. According to prominent signs on numerous street corners, they are currently recruiting more choir members who sing alto.

Illuminated Catherdral in Morelia

Thanks to all the walking (plus the margaritas), I have been sleeping very well in my Zalce bed.

More sights of the city:

Young Musicians in Morelia
Young musicians compete in a battle of the bands in a plaza in Morelia

Musicians in Morelia
Classical musicians play and painters exhibit their art in the Jardins de las Rosas.

Aqueduct in Morelia
The aqueduct in Morelia was built between 1785 and 1789. It measures 1600 m (5251 ft) in length and is borne on 253 arches.

Zalce Mural, Morelia
There were so many breathtaking murals by Alfredo Zalce and other painters, I could have happily spent an entire decade studying them.

Vacation Diary, Day 1

Friday, October 26, 2007

Flight into Morelia uneventful. Except my ink pen exploded all over my Customs & Immigration paperwork, right where it warns with such firm and official authority, "DO NOT MARK HERE." Brief panic!! as I envisioned my life of hard labor in a Mexican prison camp alongside scary felons who tore off their mattress tags. But the worldly flight attendant just sighed and handed me several more blank sheets, until on the fifth try I finally got it right. Whew. I am now a member of the Jet Set.

Arrived in town around 8pm and by sheer luck of the draw I ended up in the coveted Alfredo Zalce suite at the hotel. Each room is assigned an artist: the Van Gogh room, the Gauguin room, the Miró room, etc. Alfredo Zalce is the famous-son painter from Michoacan with whom I have recently fallen deeply in love, so imagine my delight upon discovering that a reproduction of his work is decoupaged onto the headboard of my hotel room! Also on the walls and other furniture as well.

Zalce Suite in Hotel, Morelia
Headboard in hotel room

Since Morelia is in the same time zone as Deep Inferno (small world, eh?), I didn't have any jet lag so I tossed my luggage in the room and wandered outside to explore the city. Morelia was teeming with night life. It seems very cosmopolitan, and obviously a university town: people of all ages wear black and sit in open air cafes, shouting passionately about art, music, and above all politics. I quaffed a margarita at a sidewalk cafe and enjoyed myself immensely.

(Note to self: please try to remember, especially after several margaritas, that the 'C' in the shower stands for caliente, not cold.)

Alfredo Zalce
A few days later I ogled this Zalce engraving in the Alfredo Zalce Museum of Contemporary Art in Morelia.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Back Home

Hola, amigos! I'm back home safely from my trip to Mexico, with a soul full of vibrant colors and a heart full of happy memories. It was the best journey ever: I had many amazing adventures, learned about different cultures and customs, picked up a lot of Spanish, bonded with some very dear friends, ate way too much delicious food, and discovered that a margarita a day does indeed keep la turista away. Everything was brilliant, and I think I can truly say these may have been the very happiest ten days of my life.

I'll spend the next few days uploading and organizing photos and eventually telling some stories about my exciting travels, but meanwhile here are a few tantalizing snapshots to hold you over.

And hey, it's great to be back!