Saturday, May 8, 2010

A day at the beach


It wasn’t exactly the day at the beach that I envisioned (that one came and went in Barbados). But when I went to Sibley Hospital today to get the final work-up and do a dry run before my radiation begins on Monday they led me to a room with a ‘linear accelerator’ and a back-lit poster and ceiling of a tropical beach and palm tree. That is how you remember which machine you are on each morning for the next 6 and a half weeks of radiation (33 sessions, excluding the weekends, to be exact.) Another friend of mine who just finished her radiation was in the ‘Cherry Blossom’ room at Sibley. When they wrapped the warm white sheet over me as they stuck a pillow under my knees, the nurse said: “Just like a spa.” I told her I thought they had undersold their service. This was going to be easy. I had been telling people (anyone who would listen through my choked tears) that all I really wanted to do this summer was to be with my kids at the beach. That, to me, represents the height of luxury. Instead, I get a ‘linear accelerator’ with a fake beach back drop.

So radiation is the third leg of this stool. Flew through chemo, double mastectomy (love my new breasts!) But now comes the hard part. You think you should be over, but you aren’t. Your scans say you are cancer free, but the next three years you get to bite your nails with worry fearing a recurrence (3 years is the danger period for Triple Negative.) You are supposed to smile and look relieved because in everyone else’s minds, you are done. And you are, sort of. (What I have come to realize is you are never done.)

This week we had another television shoot in our living room. The kids called the neighbors, James and Nicholas, and told them to swing by early before school so they too could be on TV. Poor Luke. The poor guy is going to grow up thinking he is part of the Truman Show. Every morning when he wakes up he expects cameramen to run wires downstairs and producers to direct the kids to make him dance to ‘Rockin’ Robbin’ one more time. This time the Fox News Sunday team and Chris Wallace have made us this week’s ‘Power Player of the Week,” (for Mother’s Day). It’s a segment that runs at the end of Fox News Sunday (9 am Eastern on local Fox stations, repeated on Fox News Channel at 2 pm Eastern and 6 pm Eastern). I was shocked when I got the message. And then when Rose walked in with Luke and I introduced her to Chris, I told him, “This is the REAL Power Player of the Week.” To which he replied, “No, she is the Most VALUABLE Player.” So true. Tune in and see how Chris tries to make me cry when I talk about my kids (old TV trick for which I should have been prepared!)

Looking back the weeks after the mastectomy were a blur. In fact, the only way I know that it happened at all (because my brain has already neatly tucked those memories into a place of denial for which there fortunately is no key). On Monday I sat face to face with the young Saudi Arabian doctor, Wafa, who is doing her rotation with Dr. Shawna Willey - my brilliant breast surgeon at Georgetown. I showed her my breasts (I show everyone) - because they are so UNreal and I lost my privacy when I became a number in Georgetown’s medical recording system. (In fact, did I tell you there is another Jennifer Griffin in the Georgetown system who is 4 years older than me, also being treated for breast cancer and the only way they keep the two of us apart is because we have different birthdays? What are the odds? I must meet her someday. Tell me this isn’t an epidemic.)

I asked Wafa if she had been in my surgery. And she had. That’s weird. Because I don’t remember a moment of it. She said, ‘You went out quickly - really quickly.” I didn’t even have to count backwards. I told people beforehand I couldn’t wait to check into the hospital because I was SO tired and I couldn’t wait to meet my anesthetician (who by the way was named Dr. Jackson and explained to me that she would be giving me ‘propofol’ which had a ring to it because someone else famous by the name of Jackson used to use it to go to sleep at night and you know what happened next...) I went out fast, yes, because I was exhausted. I still can’t believe she was in the operating room and watching me be cut and lie there and I didn’t even know it. Weird. And corpse-like - like the guy who I had to share an elevator with on the way to PT in the bowels of Georgetown Hospital this week who was still unconscious from anesthesia, looked a little green and was snoring. I tried to wait for another elevator but he went down and then caught me on the way back up so I had to sneak past his dangling foot to pass into the elevator and stand there awkwardly with the orderly who was moving him somewhere.

Again, the only reason I know I had the mastectomy (because I really don’t remember it or the weeks afterwards) is that when I look for my jeans, they aren’t where I left them. My closets are so clean and my jeans have been stacked on the top shelf by a well-meaning Croat (Anamarija Muvrin) and it hurts for me to reach for them. (By the way, she also put all of my favorite exercise clothes on the top shelf just out of my reach.) The way I know that I am improving at Physical Therapy is that it hurts less and less to reach my arm up above my head to reach those jeans. (I can still punch, by the way - because that is a short jabbing action.)

Speaking of exercise, I still chuckle when I think of the kind e-mail that I received during my treatments (chemo, that is) from General David Petraeus back in March. He said that a little bird had told him I was nearing the end of my treatments. I thought, what a guy, with all that he has going on with CENTCOM, two wars and more than a few wounded warrior families to think of, the fact that he remembered this wounded warrior made me smile and warmed my heart. So I wrote a smirky little note back saying. “Thank you, sir. I am feeling great. In fact, I am in the best shape of my life. Let me know when you are up for a run and I will lap you around the Mall. Yours, Jennifer.” Well, less than 24 hours later his scheduling secretary had written me an e-mail trying to schedule that run at the end of April. Imagine my horror. I am in good shape for a CHEMO patient but not to run with CENTCOM CINC. So, fortunately, the run was around the time of my surgery so I bowed out gracefully and put it off for another day (and invited him to Pilates - but he said he was scared of the equipment. Scared?!) We all have our phobias!

Running without a bra was always mine.

Not anymore. The other day when I picked Annalise up from Girls on the Run after school and she dashed down the street after a friend and a friend’s mother and before I knew it, I was running after her. And before I knew it I felt light as a feather because my breasts weren’t moving. I could run and even without a bra my two rocks didn’t move a millimeter. I was so excited (and so liberated) that I kept running like Forrest Gump. I went home and got my iPod (won’t tell you which one) and ran down Massachusetts Avenue to Sheridan Circle (without a bra.) I felt like a million bucks.

“You have one NOT miss your chance to blow....this opportunity comes once in a lifetime.” (I have reverted to Eminem as I gear up for phase 3 - radiation. The tears flow just as readily but somehow don’t sting quite as much or last quite as long as in the beginning because I am starting to see the light at the end of this tunnel.)

It was so easy (running without a bra). I passed a woman riding her bike down the hill past the British Embassy. I just caught a glimpse of her t-shirt, which said “Race for The Cure.” A sign. Or a symptom of this epidemic.

It reminded me of another sign last fall that I saw on a lamp post when I ran my Mass Ave route one Saturday just after I was diagnosed - it was a mile marker for the Komen 3 day walk. And it said, “Don’t forget to stretch.” I have never bothered to stretch enough.

Exercise. Nutrition....

I tried to explain to Annalise (9) the other day why it was so important for her not to eat sugar (i.e. candy) on an empty stomach. (There is research suggesting Triple Negative breast cancer has something to do with shooting insulin levels.) She had just sneaked up to her room to steal from her ‘secret’ stash of candy. I intercepted her on the stairs. I sat her down and tried to explain to her and to disguise my fear and horror how with her body chemistry (which is so similar to mine) she shouldn’t eat candy on an empty stomach. I put it in terms she could understand. “You know how Nick Jonas has diabetes?” She nodded. “Well, he also can’t eat candy.” She nodded and looked at me as if I were a little nutty. And I said, “Sweetheart, I don’t mind if you eat candy after dinner when you have a full stomach.” I then added, “I will always be honest with you. I don’t want to scare you. But I will always be honest and please feel free to talk to me about boys, alcohol, drugs...” That’s when she cut me off with a very pre-teenage look and a raised finger. “Mom,” she said. “Stop right there. I will never drink alcohol, do drugs or abandon small puppies...” Puppies? Who ever said anything about puppies? That made me laugh and then I realized she was really too young for any of this talk. I realized I was getting ahead of myself. But I now see white sugar on the same plane for teenage girls as alcohol and drugs.

Monday I turn my body into Chernobyl. In the meantime, I will celebrate Mother’s Day with my kids and Greg and my mom, who lives nearby. (Not that everyday now isn’t Mother’s Day. This one will be particularly sweet.)

Happy Mother’s Day... and don’t forget to stretch.