Saturday, July 3, 2010


First, I graduated from physical therapy. It was a few weeks before radiation ended. But there weren’t the usual Commencement speakers. Instead, I drove myself to Georgetown hospital - the scene of the crime. Not the initial diagnosis - that took place in Dr. Birnkrant’s office on M Street. Georgetown was the scene of the weekly chemo appointments, the teary initial meetings with Dr. Claudine Isaacs and Shawna Willey and the mourning of my breast loss in the office of the talented Dr. Scott Spear, who certainly did a fine job in the replacement category. On the one hand, Georgetown saved my life. On the other, returning to its bowels for physical therapy just two weeks after I had emerged from the operating room and then my drug-induced stay 7 floors up made the journey to the flourescent lit basement all the more difficult for me psychologically. I was always late for those appointments, as well. Fortunately, Blair and Joanna understood. In those first sessions they massaged vitamin E cream on the wounds. The scars are major, but I wear them with pride and the radiation made one of them nearly disappear. Go figure. At first I couldn’t lift my arms above my waist but by the end of twice weekly PT therapy, I could lift them straight up - even if it pulled and even if my shoulders pulled forward because every night my muscles shortened. I had to stretch them out again every morning. When I woke up, I would stretch and then again try to rehabilitate the range of motion in my Pilates session with Joshua Dobbs. Some days all I could do was lay on those long foam rollers just to massage the shoulder blade to release the tension in the pec muscle. I was/am so tight. The expanders are placed under your pecs - hence the no bra option for jogging. And the pec muscle got really angry during radiation - and by the end of PT I was pretty burned from the radiation.

Not bad enough to stop or interfere with the radiation sessions, but just bad enough to be very uncomfortable - like a sunburn. Strangely, after running out of Biafine and using a test jar of Miaderm from the radiation oncologist’s office, my skin is so much better. It is even looking like the other breast - the radiation did not encapsulate (grip and lift) as the plastic surgeon said it might. In fact they are still very Bionic woman looking and remarkably even. And for anyone going through radiation out there, please ask about Miaderm. Its cooling properties and whatever is in it heals the skin within 2 weeks. My skin was bright red when I ended radiation. It is now just a bit pink. Amazing really.

The last PT session, Blair had me raise my arm above my head and measured the range of motion with what looked like a slide rule or some instrument used to measure angles in geometry class. Tears welled up in my eyes for no reason and slowly filled my ear. It wasn’t that day per se and I wasn’t even sad. It was just the reminder of how far I had come. Anything could bring on the flashbacks. It all happened so fast, afterall. And then it was done. After I put my top back on, Blair gave me a hug and sent me out into the world. I was ready, but I still needed to finish radiation.

Memorial Day came and went. We spent it at my neighbor Chris Downey’s house with our other neighbors Joe Cicippio and his wife Elham from Lebanon. Joe, you may remember, was one of the hostages held in Lebanon by Hezbollah. He had been the comptroller for American University there and was kidnapped less than a year after he married Elham. He was held 7 years. Can you imagine? And yet he is the least bitter person I have ever met in my life. He doesn’t look back. He says he and Elham don’t dwell on it. Unlike some of the other hostages, they went on to aggressively live their lives. He even fought off non-Hodgkins lymphoma and Elham was treated for breast cancer. Georgetown’s Shawna Willey was the surgeon for both of them. Small world. Joe travels back to Lebanon. He began going there shortly after he was released by Hezbollah. I couldn’t help myself but the journalist in me wanted to know more. So while he and his wife said they rarely talked about that period, I made them tell me everything. He explained how each day they looked forward to something that was coming up - thinking the next day they would be released. Christmas then New Year’s then Easter. There was always something to look forward to. He said if he had known how long they would be held, he never could have gotten through it but living each day with hope pulled him through and they never gave up hope. And he didn’t lose his mind in the process unlike some of the hostages.

That night when Annalise was going to sleep, for some reason she was out of sorts. Overtired and a bit weepy. She said she had had a hard day and that she was sad two of her best friends were leaving for another school. I said, “Let me tell you about a bad day.” I then went on to ask her if she had known the man we had been sitting at dinner. I told how he had been a hostage for all those years in Lebanon and how he always looked one day ahead - not more. Suddenly, she was intrigued with Joe’s story. We Googled it. She was amazed. Suddenly, her troubles didn’t seem quite so overwhelming. I felt a little manipulative telling her Joe’s story but I felt there was no time like the present to continue learning that life is tough and you cannot wallow or feel sorry for yourself. She went to sleep in my arms.

It’s been a crazy few weeks. The end of radiation was really an anti-climax. I knew it would be. It’s the end of the road - though I have follow-up sessions with a host of doctors almost every month for the near future. And I’ll have another operation to switch my expanders for silicon in about six months.

The last day of radiation was not emotional. I asked Andrea to meet me there and videotape it. I had had some amazing conversations in the lobby each morning. A whole new set of characters. There was Vergin, the wife of a Turkish doctor. He looked so sad and depressed. She knit to calm her nerves. It reminded me of Annalise when someone asked her about this year. She said, “It’s been like knitting, Mom. You go up the mountain and then down the mountain.” She always puts it just so. I sent Vergin Rebecca Katz’s books. She then brought me a winter white scarf that she had knitted and placed in a Whole Foods bag. Then there was the mother from our elementary school whose son was in Kindergarten this year. I didn’t recognize her at first and she hadn’t told anyone at the school or her son what she was going through. It broke my heart, but I know others who have made the same tough choice. They tell me that their child had already lost grandparents to cancer and they just didn’t have the heart to tell them. I don’t know how they did it. Then there were the ladies who were speaking about which private schools their kids were going to and how much it all cost and frankly those conversations are so annoying, especially in a cancer lobby. Then there was the young Jamaican sounding woman who nearly cried as she told me how she couldn’t get her mom to eat. On and on.

On the last day, June 24, Andrea followed me into the room with the Chernobyl warning on the door. A yellow radiation sign. I showed her the fake beach lit up poster. I showed her how I lifted my arm above my head and they drew on my tattoos and lined up the beams of light. They tried to keep the sheet from lifting too high and revealing my raw, red breast to the camera. They didn’t know that I didn’t care. It’s so detached from me. They zapped me. I saw the doctor, Joan cut up my id card like it was an expired credit card and off I went.

I must admit to feeling a bit drained. I flew to Northern California just days after radiation ended. I took the girls. Poor Luke is at home. I miss him like I left a limb at home but he just doesn’t travel well right now. My friend Anne-Marie says that I stare off quite a bit. I am a bit sad, though I love California. It is the land of my organic people. The Whole Foods in Mill Valley put ours so much to shame that it was embarrassing. And when we stopped at Swanton farm - an organic strawberry farm en route to Santa Cruz - it was so wonderfully crunchy that there was no one at the till. It was the honor system and everyone just left their money for their strawberry shortcake and chocolate covered strawberries and truffles. What a place. Home to the Slow Food movement. I got a t-shirt that says Slow Coast.

In DC when we got on the Virgin America plane (which some have compared to flying inside your iPod because there is so much technology and so many ways to entertain oneself.) When we got onboard, the pilots let the girls come up to the cabin and sit in the cockpit. Perhaps Richard Branson hasn’t heard about 9-11. I snapped a photo and it reminded me of the time the Austrian Airways flight put me on a jumpseat in the cockpit en route back from Athens to Cyprus. I was a newlywed at the time and had been away in China for a month and missed Greg and pitched a fit when they tried to bump me from the flight because they had overbooked. To quiet me, they told me to pretend I was an off duty stewardess and they would put me on the jump seat between the two pilots. I did and it was the most beautiful take-off and landing I had ever seen. This was long before 9-11 and never would be allowed to happen today. The pilots kept turning to talk to me and I kept wanting to say, “Turn around. Pay attention!”

Anyway, our Northern California journey is likely to become an annual pilgrimage because it is just so nice out here. The strawberries taste better. Stinson beach is my idea of heaven and my dear friend Anne Marie Johnson who flew out to take me to chemo during my darkest days when it was really looking bleak picked us up from the airport with her two lovely children and I haven’t had to think about anything except what to do with the rest of my life.