Claudette


First dahlia of the season, a little late, because I was busier than usual in May, and so I didn’t get them into the ground until June. That’s all right, but it makes me a little sad to see how small the plant is. I started planting dahlias about six years ago, putting them in the ground in spring, lifting them out in fall, right after first frost. Storing the tubers carefully in a cool, dry place, to replant again the next spring. Each year, the tubers got bigger, and the plants put out more stalks, more flowers. After three years, I was able to gather great big bouquets for the house, and still have plenty of flowers left on the plant for the neighbors to enjoy.

But in 2015, chemo was followed by surgery was followed by radiation, and I was too harried and exhausted to keep track of everything — I could have gotten help, but I completely forgot to ask someone to dig out my dahlias at the right time. So they all died, rotting in the ground. I was so angry with myself when it happened.

Yet here I am, healthy again. In spring, I bought some dahlias again, put them in the ground. This one is Claudette, a variety I particularly liked, that I decided to repeat; the others are new. Claudette is lovely, even if she is a little small and spindly this year. She’ll grow. Sometimes, everything burns down, and you just have to start over. It’s okay.

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Perennial and Feast

I’ve printed out and proofed the layout of Perennial (thanks to Lethe Press and Matt at Inkspiral Design for the layout work!). It’s a little under 100 pages, all laid out, which seems short, but hopefully not too short for a charming little gift book. It’s kind of thrilling seeing my illustrations in there — I’m still such a novice with drawing, but I am starting to actually like my own style. It’s odd to think of myself as sort of an artist. Odd, but nice. And for this book in particular, very personal drawings feel right.

 

Moving on to the cookbook, I find that there is a particular thrill to compiling the Scrivener file to .docx. I still write all my fiction in Word, but for the cookbook, where I was moving things around constantly, Scrivener was perfect.

I’m going to print it out now, which feels a little wasteful of paper, but I think I have to accept that every once in a while, writers need to use paper. For this final editing pass, I just find it easier to see everything in print.

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Cancer log 192: Two interpretations

Today’s mammogram came back benign.  There’s been some pushback recently in the medical community against early mammograms, with a concern that they’re picking up very-slow-moving cancers that under normal circumstances might not develop into anything problematic until the person is fifty years older — by which point, they might easily have died from something else.
 
I was talking to Kevin last night, and he’s sort of settled into thinking that might well be what happened with me — they caught something that might never have actually bothered me if we hadn’t done mammograms, maybe we went through that whole terrible year of treatment for nothing, that almost certainly, none of the follow-up mammograms will find anything, and they’re probably a waste of time (but one he still thinks I should go through with, just in case).
 
I don’t feel that way. Part of it is that there were various aspects of my tumor that didn’t seem so slow-growing — on surgery, it turned out to be bigger than they thought it was from scans, etc. But mostly, I’m just not that optimistic, I guess. I’m in the better safe than sorry camp, and I’m glad we did the treatment, however grueling it was.
 
I also have no confidence that the cancer won’t return. Pretty much every time I go in for a mammogram now, I feel like it’s 50-50 what they’ll find. That may not be accurate, but it’s my emotional reality, and shapes my reaction not just to mammogram day, but to my plans for the future. Every time they say ‘benign,’ I feel like, ‘okay, that’s another six more months I can plan on being around for.’ I do make longer term plans, of course, but they’re strongly influenced by my heightened awareness of mortality.
 
The clock is constantly ticking in the back of my head now, which is a good thing in some ways, prodding me to make the most of my time. But I’ve been feeling some increased anxiety as well — I’m not normally an anxious person, but it fades in and out now. If it’s still around at my next internal medicine doctor check-up in a few months, I might ask her to set me up with a therapist who can do talk therapy and/or prescribe me something for it, because it’s distracting and unpleasant.
 
For now — more time outside, more gardening and knitting, trying to keep the to-do list from getting too long and the e-mail inbox from getting too full (both of those are anxiety-provoking, in a way that quickly gets paralyzing, which is counter-productive.) Maybe book a massage once in a while. Read and write.
 
Writing is my greatest therapy, always, so thank you all for listening.
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Cancer log 191: Mammogram Day

Plan for today: scan some materials in for my students to read (excerpt from Russ’s _How to Suppress Women’s Writing_) and send it to them, then head to Loyola for six-month mammogram. Try not to stress. It will probably be fine. Take laptop with me, spend any free time between 9 and 12 on e-mail. Come back, meet Chris and go over what he’s doing for me today (he’ll start by watering the lawn, finishing up the party dishes, and taking out any remaining party trash from yesterday’s union BBQ, but after that, I’m hoping to get him started on cataloguing how many extra copies of my books I have, and then setting up a quick clearance sale on my site. I’ll let y’all know. Also starting the Patreon daily posting, woot.).

From noon to 3, try to write. I’ve gotten comments back from several people on stories (THANK YOU!), and I think I know how to fix “Skin Deep” now, or at least know more clearly what was wrong with it. (Essentially, I rushed the character development for one character, so her motivations for a fairly dramatic action felt unclear and implausible. The fix is probably going to involve going in and writing another scene or two from her past, so you can see why she did what she did.) Russ (agent) also read the first four chapters of the novel that I gave him and sent me comments late last night, so I’m itching to get back to that.

At 3, I meet with a representative of the League of Women Voters to tell them about what’s been going on with the library board, the last three months. They usually send an observer to the various boards, but they didn’t have anyone available to cover library (local folks, especially younger folks, the League of Women Voters could really use a little of your time and energy!), so they’re sending someone to get a report from me. (Matt Fruth, if there’s anything in particular you want me to pass along, please feel free to send it.)

I have time tomorrow morning to finish grading and prep before class, so then I relax for a bit, hang out with the kids, maybe knit or putter in the garden. There’s a local Indivisible meeting at 6:30 at Edwardo’s, and I’ve been meaning to check them out, so if I have the energy, I’ll go to that. But mammogram day means all bets are off, even if the news is good, as we expect it to be — it’s just a stressful day. If I want to tuck myself in bed this evening and eat leftover strawberry-topped cheesecake from the BBQ, that is totally okay.

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Cancer log 190: Cast

Well, that was interesting. Not sure what I’m feeling right now, to be honest. A little sad, I think. But satisfied that I agreed to be part of this.

Plastercasting courtesy Elizabeth Vandermolen, an art therapist with Loyola. Part of an Oak Park Art League breast cancer project — usually the plaster cast would then go to an artist, but I’m going to be doing my own. We’ll see how it goes. The show will be October 13th at OPAL, and I think all are welcome? I’ll find out more and post info.

 

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Cancer log 189: Reconstruction, round 3

I went in today to consult with the doc about whether to do another round of post-lumpectomy fat transfer. He had told me at the beginning that it typically takes 3-4 rounds to gCancer log 189: Reconstruction, round 3.et to symmetry. I honestly hadn’t been sure if I would come back for a third surgery, because he’s released the worst of the scarring and improved the appearance notably. But esp. in a swimsuit, or a form-fitting top worn without a bra, the difference is still pretty notable, and it does bother me.

We talked today, and it was a little bit of a ‘let’s be realistic’ conversation. He think he probably can’t get it perfectly symmetrical, because given the scarring and the radiation, the ‘envelope’ that he can insert fat into just isn’t very elastic. There was apparently this kind of fancy bra contraption, called Brava, that for a while people were using to stretch out the skin of the breast, but for whatever reason it’s mostly unavailable right now, which clearly frustrates the heck out of him, because he brings it up every time we meet.

But that said, he does think he can at least reduce the scar tissue a little more, and add a bit more volume; I decided to go for it. Waiting to talk to the scheduler now, so not sure yet when exactly this will be.

I continue to have ongoing complex feelings about plastic surgery as a woman, as a feminist. I glanced at brochures while I was waiting — for breast lifts, for facial skin tightening procedures. I am so glad I had the original breast reduction in 2011 — it made my life much more comfortable, made me more capable of physical activity. That one was simple, because it was a choice in the direction of comfort, of pain reduction, and I honestly didn’t care whether it made me more or less attractive.

These other choices are more tempting, more dangerous. What kind of example do I want to set for my daughter? What kind of woman will I be, in the community of women? The lines are getting blurrier, and I am unnerved by how blasé I am becoming about surgeries.  The facial youthening procedures were surprisingly tempting — not actually for dating, but for professional reasons. Author photos, book tours, academic promotions. Beauty and youth sell.

I’m going to try to just concentrate on writing better books, though.

I’ll leave you with this, as the author considered gastric bypass surgery:

“What those doctors offered was so tempting, so seductive: this notion that we could fall asleep for a few hours, and within a year of waking up, most of our problems would be solved, at least according to the medical establishment. That is, of course, if we continued to delude ourselves that our bodies were our biggest problem.

After the presentation there was a question-and-answer session. I had neither questions nor answers, but the woman to my right, the woman who clearly did not need to be there because she was no more than forty or so pounds overweight, dominated the session, asking intimate, personal questions that broke my heart. As she interrogated the doctors, her husband sat next to her, smirking. It became clear why she was there It was all about him and how he saw her body. *There is nothing sadder,* I thought, choosing to ignore why I was sitting in that same room, choosing to ignore that there were a great many people in my own life who saw my body before they ever saw or considered me.”

– Roxane Gay, _Hunger_

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Cancer log 188: Sleeping better.

This is just a small good note. After the chemo and the chemo-induced menopause (summer 2015), I found that I was sleeping badly — I’d wake up every three hours, very disruptive. I took to mostly using some kind of sleep aid; even a quarter dose of NyQuil turned out to be just enough to keep me under. If I missed it (while traveling, etc.), I slept poorly. So I was semi-resigned to continuing it indefinitely; my doctor said it wasn’t a problem to take a little every night if I felt I had to.

But this week, I had enough leisure time (yay, summer) that I felt like I could risk sleeping poorly again. So four days ago, I stopped taking it. The first night, I did wake up once, but went right back to sleep. The other nights, I haven’t woken up in the night at all. And I’m getting up a little earlier — 5-ish instead of 7-ish, but I think I’m okay with that. The NyQuil was, I think, making me a little groggy in the mornings and possibly keeping me asleep longer than needed.

So, yay. Most of the side effects of chemo are gone now. Happy to be rid of this one, finally.

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Cancer log 187: Hot flashes and size changes.

Very little to today’s follow-up with my oncologist, everything looks fine, only two things worth noting:

a) we talked about switching me from Tamoxifen to the other med whose name I’m forgetting, but which you can’t go on until you’ve not menstruated in at least a year, which now applies — the disadvantages are that the new med is likely to bring on hot flashes and other menopause symptoms. The advantages are…unclear. It’s been the standard of care, I think, and she’d sort of prefer that I made the switch, but there’s not enough evidence that it actually has long-term recurrence reduction that she’d push for it. We decided to leave it for now, but I’ll probably try switching over at our next six-month appt. As she said, if there are going to be hot flashes, better to have them start in winter than in summer…

b) she asked about my weight loss, and I told her that I hadn’t actually lost any pounds, but that I’d been lifting with a trainer once a week, strength-training, and that was probably what she was seeing, because I had gone down about a dress size and a half over the last year. A fair bit of fat turned into muscle, I think. She said that sounded right, and that she’d particularly noticed it when listening to my…lungs? It was so straight and clear? I was honestly a little confused by that bit and not sure I was hearing her right, but I didn’t want to make her go over it, but she seemed approving, so I guess it’s all good.

Turning fat into muscle and continuing to take Tamoxifen (or the other med) are basically the only things I have any real control over, in terms of reducing risk of cancer recurrence. So I’ll keep on with it. The kids used to play this great board game when they were little, called “Go Away, Monster!” That’s a little bit how I feel now, when I think about cancer recurrence — stay away, monster. You’re not wanted here.

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Cancer log 186: To reconstruct or not to reconstruct.

When I started the post-lumpectomy reconstruction process (covered by insurance), they told me that it would be a series of 3-4 fat transfer procedures. I’ve done two so far, and I admit, I’m glad I did them.
 
I’d had a double breast reduction in 2011 (one of the best decisions I’ve made, making me so much happier — I just wish they’d found the cancer in the tissue they removed then). When they went into to do the lumpectomy in 2015, my surgeon had to deal with the way normal breast morphology had been affected by the reduction, and as a result, I ended up with much more scarring / puckering than normal.
 
(She was clearly somewhat personally offended by her surgical results on that front, and kept apologizing to me, even though I didn’t blame her at all. She got all the cancer out! With wide, clean margins! What more could a girl ask?)
 
So I wanted reconstruction, and after two procedures, the scarring / puckering is notably improved, and the breast has more fullness than it did. But it’s still not that close to a match for the other, and the lack of symmetry does bother me.
 
Mostly, in clothes, I don’t think it’s noticeable, but you can see it when I’m wearing swimsuits. I tried on a bandeau top the other day, and the difference was pretty obvious there. Not that I’m necessarily going to actually wear a bandeau top anytime soon, because I’m almost 46 and it feels a little scandalously bare, but I’d like to have the option.
 
On the other hand, surgery is a pain, recovery takes longer than I would like, it makes it hard to exercise for weeks afterwards, so I have to regain lost ground in fitness every time — all of which is irritating enough that I find myself a little paralyzed. I should be scheduling the next reconstruction surgery…but I’m not sure I actually want one.
 
And all of this is slightly complicated by the fact that I actually kind of prefer being a B-cup (on the left) to my surgically reduced C-cup (on the right). I’d originally, when doing the reduction, kind of wanted to go down to a B, but my plastic surgeon at the time had resisted it strongly — in retrospect, I really wish I’d pushed harder for that. With a B, I could skip wearing a bra much more often — now, if I go more than a few hours without one, my back starts to hurt. I could exercise with lighter bras, and just in general, shopping / dressing would be simpler. At this stage in my life, simplicity has a powerful appeal.
 
If I could wave a magic wand, I’d make them both B’s, remove the remaining scarring, and be done with it. But in the absence of magic, I’m just not sure additional surgery is worth the results. I suppose I’ll wait a while, see if I change my mind. One of the things the plastics guy said was that there was no rush — normally the fat transfers are done roughly three months apart, but I could space the procedures out years if I wanted to. So we’ll see.
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Cancer log 185: Back in three

I had a routine mammogram on Monday, which is not the most fun way to start spring break.  Exacerbated by the fact that they had trouble pulling up my records again (which has happened each of the three times I’ve gone in, some problem with my MRIs crashing their computer), so it took much longer than it should have to get a result.

Then they pulled me into a room and did an ultrasound, which is not normal procedure and was anxiety-making, and then once it was done, the tech went off to get the doctor to read the results.  That was a scary stretch, I have to say; I was semi-convinced that they had, in fact, found cancer again, and I was silently talking myself down from getting completely stressed out.  I was imagining telling the kids about it, now that they’re two  years older and would understand more, and wondering if UIC would be able to give me as much financial support as they did last time, and I wasn’t really worried that they wouldn’t be able to treat it, but I did start dreading the prospect of going through another year like 2015.

I can do it again, if I have to, and of course I’m grateful that the docs have gotten so good at treating my particular kind of cancer when caught early, but god, that was no fun.

Finally the doc came in, an endless time later (probably less than five minutes).  The result is probably fine, but there were two issues — a small darkness near where the port went in and came out (on the right side, which is not the cancer side from before), which they’re almost positive is just a seroma (fluid left over from surgery).  Also, they can’t see one of the clips on that side, which seemed to really confuse the doctor; he said it had probably just shifted far enough back that it didn’t show up on the scan, but still, better to be safe.  So instead of having me back in six months, they’re having me back in three, and I suppose it’s good that they’re so extra careful with me, but sigh.

And now I’m in Florida at a conference, and I have been trying to relax a little, but I admit, I have had some trouble with feeling an intense urgency to do ALL THE THINGS, and feeling super-frustrated that I can’t do them all simultaneously.  Which might be a teeny tiny bit connected to my exacerbated sense of my own mortality.  Maybe.  A little.

I tried to take an hour to watch a tv show, and I just found myself getting tense again.  So far, I’ve felt best when I was a) writing or b) swimming (and thinking about writing), so I guess I’ll keep focusing on doing those things.  Although it’s also fun talking with all these lovely, brilliant people.  I’m guessing that after another day, I’ll be able to relax a little more.

I am grateful that I am not normally subject to anxiety, because I have to say, it’s very unpleasant.

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