Cancer Ever After

Musings on Infertility, Adoption, Parenthood and Cancer

You might be undergoing chemo if. . .

Chemo is boring. I was expecting more. More drama, more symptoms during it, for the people getting treatment besides me to look sicker.  Just more. I’ve officially had five Chemo’s now and, well, Chemo day is a bit of a snoozefest.

It’s the days after that bring the not-so-fun.  Here is my fun list of ways to tell if you are undergoing Chemo (as if the five hours hooked to an IV getting tons of poison injected into your body wasn’t telling enough).  What fun things would you add to the list?

You might be undergoing chemo if….

  1. You redefine biker chic with your stylish chemo beanie.
  2. Four-letter words are no longer the dirty ones. Three-letter ones like ANC, WBC, RBC, MCV, and MCH are.
  3. Eighteen hours a day is your optimal amount of sleep. And you can fall asleep standing up, in the shower and at the dinner table (mid-sentence into a pile of spaghetti).
  4. You’re pretty sure you know what swallowing a taser feels like. (But you are way too smart to actually DO this to compare mouth sores to swallowing a taser.)
  5. Orange juice and green olives is your favorite food combination – because the crazy appetite from steroids combined with the weird taste issues from chemo make for very interesting bedfellows. Trust me, you will regret consuming this combo EVERY time.
  6. You entertain fantasies of sawing your legs off from the hip down, just to see if it’s less painful that way.
  7. You sleep with post-its on your face, your mirror and your fridge, because you ask the same question three times in ten minutes and still forget the answer. Chemo brain is REAL. And the reason I keep consuming OJ and green olives is that I forget how the gross the combo is every time.
  8. You have sub-classified the types of vomiting, because one word just doesn’t give you the layer of nuance you need to describe how your day went. And you TALK about vomit and poo. Because body fluids are a big part of your life, and sharing your day is an important way of connecting with others, right?
  9. Attempting a BM feels like a feat of bravery worthy of a Congressional Medal of Honor.
  10. You take a picture of your poo when you finally manage to go, because dammit, it’s worth celebrating!

 

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Unfair

My last post was a little more controversial than I realized. I was asked pretty directly if I thought it was fair to compare infertility to cancer.  For me, yes.  Infertility shaped how I experience and deal with cancer.  Yet, I also know that my journey with cancer is not everyone’s.  My prognosis is positive – this isn’t the case for everyone.  My treatment doesn’t involve hospital stays or blood transfusions – that is the norm for many.  It will take me about 8 months total to beat this, some people fight for years. Others have metastatic cancer or untreatable cancers that fight daily, just for the right to live another day.

I don’t believe our fights are the same at all.  I do think that infertility has made this battle easier for me than it would have been if it was the first major obstacle in my life.  I used to pass out every time blood was taken.  They stop taking the vials if you do this, which made this an obstacle to building my family. This was unacceptable, so I overcame this fear. So much so, that I even survived them taking 19 vials of my blood.

My husband and I gave up dinners out, cable, and quite frankly lost a few friends during the infertility war, because we weren’t a whole lot of fun to be around. We couldn’t go out to dinner, said no to activities and trips so that we could pay for treatments. I gave up drinking on the advice of my doctors, gave up soda, worked out twice a day.  Infertility consumed all of our time and resources and we didn’t have a lot of emotional reserves.

You would think this all changed when we had our girls, our miracles. It did, I’ve never been happier, but trust me, the first year with newborn twins is rough.  We didn’t leave our house for non-essentials for at least 9 months.  I burned every meal I attempted to cook for the first six months. Hell, I’m lucky I managed to keep my job on the 2 hrs of sleep I was getting a night in a series of short 20 minute naps.

Just when the girls started sleeping, we were blessed with the chance to adopt. The chance to adopt with an amazing whirlwind, but kept us in the same state.We would work late into the night on fundraisers for the adoption.  Our reasons for not sleeping and scraping by changed, but the overall state of our lives wasn’t really different.

I’ve had two surgeries as part of this cancer, but I’ve also had 7 surgeries in the last five years- what was two more? My overall health issues, have helped me have perspective for this journey and our current lifestyle has made this an easier transition than I would have guess.

For me, being told that I need to stay home because I’m neutropenic and my white blood cells aren’t high enough to fight off an infection; doesn’t really change my life a whole lot. A lot of what I hear in my support group, just doesn’t apply because it was already stripped away from me throughout the last five years.  I guess, it’s just not the same shock to the system.

Don’t get me wrong, the thought that I could not be hear to see my children grow, to finally have time to just enjoy being married to my husband tears me apart, but infertility and adoption have taught me that sometimes you just have to have faith.  Sometimes you are not the one in control and I can only focus on the things within my control. Infertility gave me experience reading the medical studies and interpreting them to make sure I can advocate for myself, but my time in treatment also gave me ability to know when to stop googling.

Our adoption was a leap of faith, and so is this journey.  I have to believe in my team of doctors. I have to have faith that the treatment will work. I have to acknowledge this is out of my hands and focus on what’s in my control- how I manage the day-to-day and how I make sure I’m there for my children and my family. There is a higher power at work here.

Mostly, I just believe that I will beat this.  Dying is simply not an option, I have far too much to live for. So I will do what I’m told, I will work to manage my side-effects and I will arrange my days so that I have energy at the most important times – morning time and bedtime. Because that is what matters.  Time with my family. It reinvigorates me, gives me a reason to laugh and reminds me just how much I am loved.

 

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Which is worse? Cancer or Infertility?

One study of 200 couples seen consecutively at a fertility clinic, found that half of the women and 15% of the men said that infertility was the most upsetting experience of their lives. Another study of 488 American women who filled out a standard psychological questionnaire before undergoing a stress reduction program concluded that women with infertility felt as anxious or depressed as those diagnosed with cancer, hypertension, or recovering from a heart attack. – Harvard Health

I heard many sentiments similar to the study above when we attended support groups for infertility, but I’ll admit, it seemed hard to believe. I’m here to tell you it’s the truth, at least for me.  Some of this may simply be a matter of what came first.  Infertility was the first battle this type A could not finagle her way around, or circumvent.  It took all of my strength, research abilities and resources to find our family.  I couldn’t stop the miscarriages, I couldn’t make myself get pregnant.  

The impact that had on my life, my friendships, my family relationships is hard to quantify.  The experience forever changed me, and changed the very core of who I am.

Cancer is quickly shaping up to be  the same.  Yet, it’s a little easier. I’m familiar with not being in control. I’m familiar with pouring through medical research. I’m familiar with peppering doctors with questions and researching side-effects of drugs.

So far, cancer treatments are also easier than infertility treatments were- in terms of quantity:  it’s fewer doctor appointments, fewer heartbreaks, fewer disappointments and far less money.   That’s right folks, cancer is going to cost me about 1/5 of what our adoption did, and about 1/10 of what it took to get our girls. This is part of why cancer is not as stressful.  So far, we aren’t worried about having to sell our house, having to sell a car, having to make some really tough choices.

And yet, this may change.  Right now the path seems straight forward with cancer. Finish the treatments, kill the cancer. And yet, it doesn’t always work that way.  If my PET scan shows activity in the next couple of week, I may retract these words, but for now Infertility is far worse than cancer has been. Even with the horrible side-effects from cancer. Because I can tell myself they are temporary.

Statistics are on my side.  For infertile couple the national success rate for IVF hovers around 40%, the clinic we ended up at was closer to 60%.  The chance my doctor quoted of me surviving this cancer is 97.5%.  I’ll take those odds.

What makes infertility so much harder than cancer?

Almost everyone is supportive when you have cancer.  It seems like everyone knows someone who had cancer, they are familiar with chemo and radiation and they offer to help. There are also far more resources for people who have cancer. Livestrong, Cleaningforareason, Susan G. Koman. Cancer is an ugly, terrible disease that impacts far too many.  And everyone has rallied to find a way to cure it.

These same voices were silent for the most part as we underwent infertility treatments, or even when I was on bed rest through my pregnancy.  Not once, did someone say, “When can I bring you dinner?” “Why don’t I help you mow the yard.” I went to the doctor 3-4 times a week, constantly had shots and mood-altering medicine and most treated it as if I was just having a lot of sex.  That couldn’t be further from the truth.

Infertility is clinical, invasive, painful and involves a ridiculous amount of needles.  Some of it is simply unfamiliarity.  Infertility is not spoken of as often, it’s often treated as a source of shame or blame. It took our families a long time to see  the strain infertility put on us emotionally and financially.  When I was on bed rest, it simply didn’t occur to people that my husband was visiting me every morning and evening and still taking care of the dog, the house, cooking meals (so I would eat) and getting the nursery ready.  Very few came forth to help during that time. I was on bed rest for five months, and few visitors darkened our doors.

You get far fewer offensive sentiments offered to you. “If God wanted you to have a baby, you’d have one.” This one riles me the most, it implies that God is punitive.  That he deliberately chose me to lose three babies because of something I’ve done.  I don’t believe that. Others simply share stories of people that kept trying and one day got their miracle baby.  It does happen, it depends on the root cause of the infertility.  As I’ve said before infertility is not the same thing as sterility, there is a small possibility.  7% of infertile couples who forgo treatments do get pregnant on their own.  Yet no one felt the need to share the stories of the other 93% who weren’t able to get pregnant without help.  Their stories are far greater and yet they were silenced by lack of support and heartache.

It’s just a matter of life and death. This one may seem strange, but because I don’t feel like I’m dying, I’m simply not worried about it. With infertility it was my entire future at stake, it was my hopes and dreams. I worried every second of every day, that I would not find a way to have children.

While I have no plans to leave my husband and children behind, if treatment doesn’t go as planned, I can find contentment in the fact that I have a husband and children who will survive me. My greatest hopes and dreams are part of my life each and every day.  They are the reason I fight, they are the reason I will win.  If my family is my reason for living, imagine not having that taken from you.  That is why infertility is worse. It takes away the life you dream of.  It robs you of your joy.  Cancer can’t do that- not to me.  I have too many blessing in my life to be thankful for.  My children remind me to smile and have fun even as I go “blech.”

 

 

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Questions

There are two questions I’ve been asked recently that threw me for a loop.  The first, had me actually doubling over in a fit of laughter, as I attempted to answer.

“You do know what causes that don’t you?”

This question accompanied a gesture toward my three very rambunctious children.  I was tempted to show the scars on my arms from the numerous shots and bloodwork that accompanied each attempt to have a child.  This scar tissue presents a problem in accessing my veins these days.

There are also the scars that don’t show.  The losses, the cumulative effect of three pregnancies in three years.  The fear of being able to carry to term, the worry that our adoption would fall through.  The sadness over not having a “normal” pregnancy. Grief at not having a “normal” birth experience.

I was tempted to show my latest budget as we continue to pay the bills that brought us these three wonders.  My retirement is decimated, we refinanced the car.

Instead, I doubled over in laughter, shook my head and said, “You have no idea what causes this.”  The gentleman looked at my strangely and walked off.

These days, I don’t have the time or energy to educate on infertility, which I would have done in the past.  My life is too blissfully full. I just love that you can’t tell when you look at our family all that came before. We look fertile. We look blissfully normal.

Which leads me to the other question.

Is he yours?

So far, I’ve only been asked this once and I thought I was prepared for when the day would come.  Because we fundraised for our adoption, pretty much everyone we interact with knows our son is adopted.  I don’t mention it to strangers, because it doesn’t matter. He is my son, and saying adopted son feels like a qualifier.  It will be part of his story and he will have his own thoughts on the matter as he grows, but I will not introduce him as adopted.

I have, through the course of work, met a couple people who mentioned they had adopted and then I’ll share, but it’s personal and it’s at my discretion.

My son doesn’t look like me.  I have blue eyes, the palest skin you’ll ever see, and surprisingly, still have some hair.  It’s blondish-brown. He has a warm, olive complexion, and the cutest brown curly hair you’ve ever seen with dancing brown eyes.

I’m sure this is what spurred the question.  But there are so many better ways to ask.  “How old is your son?” (and then let me correct).”What’s your son’s name?” Assume he is and let me say otherwise.

There is a final question, I get these days as it’s becoming more apparent that I am sick. “How do you do it all?” There is no magic to it.  I just take it one day at a time.

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It Was the Best of Times. It Was the Worst of Times

From everything I’ve read and from talking to other Cancer patients, the second round of chemo is typically worse.  For some of the meds, it’s more of a cumulative effect and you might not feel them until the second round.

Because of this, my mom had offered to take the kids after my second treatment.   With Tim having bronchitis and me having chemo, we both thought this was for the best, but DAMN it was hard.

Turns out, Chemo #2 was both better and worse.  They adjusted my anti-naseau meds, so that part was a lot better.  But we still had my lovely constipation issues which have more of a cumulative effect.

See that lovely pregnant-looking belly? No I’m not pregnant, that’s what the side-effectsof chemo can make your belly look like.  It’s as uncomfortable as it looks.

image

 

So while, I was glad the the med changes helped with how I felt overall after chemo, I must say, some problems were rather, well,  large.

It was hard without the kiddos.  I didn’t realize how much they distract me from how I feel and how I manage to force myself to do more when they are around. And my mom had them for a week, which feels like forever when you are throwing a pity party of one.

While I missed them greatly, I had a really happy/sad moment when we tried to FaceTime them.  The girls were having so much fun, they couldn’t be bothered to talk to us, and Baby H started crying when he saw our faces.  Needless to say, it was a very long week because we didn’t try that again.  I had to resort to picture updates.

Cancer is teaching me a lot about letting go and letting others do things for me.  Prior to this, we’ve spent very few evenings or nights away from the kids.  We both work and it feels like we already get so little time with them. But we are a man down in our house and we need the break.  This is stressful for us in a thousand little ways, and I just get so tired.

I can only  play “Let’s put mommy to bed” as a game with the kids so many times. They want to run and play.  Even Baby H is walking now, they are constantly on the move, and when I’m tired I have trouble keeping up.  It’s not fair to choose only sedentary activities.

So despite wanting to spend all of my time with them, I have to let go, at least a little.  This helps me make my time with them the very best time.  I can be rested so that we can do fun stuff together. And that’s what counts.

 

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