Digging deep

I come from a family where “taking the hill” is a just a way of life. My stepdad Gordon, who adopted me as an adult, served in the Marines. He was part of the landing force at Okinawa in World War II, then on to Beijing to repatriate the Japanese after the war ended. Foolish optimism and financial need inspired him to enlist in the reserves when he returned stateside. So he ended up north of Seoul as a “demolitions expert” during the Korean War. Demolitions guys in Korea had a life expectancy of one month; he lasted a year. His discharge papers describe him as a sharp shooter. No doubt that his eye-hand coordination and his toughness kept him alive. If I’ve made any mistakes in this brief account, apologies to the cosmos. He never talked much about his war experiences. Just once, after too many beers in the back of a ski boat one summer day, did he go into detail: Then, he cried. We never talked about that incident. Even as he was dying of cancer 14 years ago, he proved that there are no ex-Marines. The unspoken code prevailed: Suck it up. Don’t complain. Think of the guys in your unit. Just get it done. And above all, don’t cry.

I’ve been thinking a lot about that family code during the last week, as I’ve ignored this blog, ignored housework, ignored paperwork, ignored cooking, pretty much ignored everything. I was exultant after the last chemo. Chemo is over. Chemo is over. Great joy; then depression. I have not always bought into the family code, especially not lately.

I’ve been blue because the chemo is done, but the breast cancer isn’t. The chemo nausea has now faded to memory, but I’m still more tired than I have ever been in my life, more tired than when I was pregnant, more tired that after that half-marathon workout in high school, more tired than after a college all-nighter. I wake up feeling normal, rush around trying to do normal things for a couple hours. Then fatigue sends me to the couch or the recliner. I can actually sit still, doing absolutely nothing, for more than an hour. I can soak in a tub without jumping up after five minutes to do something “productive.” I don’t have the energy do much more than scan the Times headlines. Actually reading a book seems too taxing. I can watch TV more than an hour or two without getting bored. I can’t seem to focus long enough to make a plan for my day, for the spring garden, for anything. This is not the normal state of things. I am a planner, a list-maker, a doer, a person who usually multi-tasks when the TV is on. But not now.

The doctors and nurses tell me it may be six to nine months before I fully recover from the chemo, before I feel fully myself again. It is poison, after all. At an ob-gyn education session yesterday, my new gynecologist informs six of us “survivors” that it might be most useful to think of breast cancer as a chronic disease. Recurrences, she says, can happen up to 20 years out. We have to be vigilant for the rest of our lives. I have breast cancer friends who still don’t feel themselves two to three years out. I meet women almost every week who thought they were “cured,” and then feel a lump. I hope that is not my fate, but who knows?

Then there is the road still ahead: I’ve had at least half a dozen doctors’ appointments/phone consults in the last week. There’s a gaggle of people pecking away at my health issues: oncologist, breast surgeon, shoulder surgeon, neck specialist, echocardiogram techs, physical therapists, ob-gyns, nurse practitioners, clinical study coordinators. It would be funny—what a fuss!—if it weren’t so serious. I’m to have a “re-excision” of my lumpectomy in early March. The margin of healthy tissue on one side was only 1 millimeter, not enough. So they’re going to cut away a little more tissue. It won’t be as big a deal as the first surgery, no placing wires through my breast to define the margins. No nipple injection of radioactive tracer. It’s still surgery. Then on to radiation for six weeks. Then hormone therapy. Then shoulder surgery to repair my rotator cuff. And throughout, like the metronome of cancer, infusions of Herceptin, the monoclonal antibody, every three weeks until next fall. Chemo is over, but the road remains long, perhaps neverending.

My Dad would not, did not, whine about such things. He was ridiculously, foolishly, admirably, brave to the end. He expressed more worry about how his death would affect his family than about the fact that he was dying. I am guessing he would tell me to dig deep, to get it done, to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

So, a couple days ago, thinking of Gordon and needing to do something drastic to push the blues away, I registered for the 100th Bay-to-Breakers 12K. I haven’t run regularly in two decades, choosing to save my knees for skiing. Frankly, I prefer hiking, rollerblading and cycling as day-to-day exercise. I’m about 20 pounds overweight, and I’ve never had a runner’s body, even when I was running track and cross-country in high school. But the Bay-to-Breakers is more than a foot race. It’s a quintessentially San Francisco event: A foot race in which the registration form reminds you again and again that “alcohol laws will be enforced” this year, and that nudity is now frowned upon. (Nipple tassels and leather jockstraps were the standard until last year.) It’s a run-walk in which people tie themselves together in themed “centipedes.” It’s a race that does feature a few hundred actual runners but follows them with tens of thousands of people jogging and strolling in mostly inappropriate costumes.

I am pretty sure these costumes are not rated PG.

It’s a public declaration. It’s a party. It’s a way to start whittling away at the middle-aged flab. It’s a crazy thing to do while still in active treatment for breast cancer. But it’s a way to feel strong again. It’s a way to push back the blues. It’s a way to say, “No!” to breast cancer. I’m sure my knees won’t like it. I’m sure I’m going to remember why I stopped running at about age 30. No matter. This is sucking it up. This is digging deep. Gordon, this one is for you. This one is also for me.

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About leftbreast

I have had breast cancer. I was diagnosed at 47, and am now 49. I have finished "active treatment," two surgeries, chemo, radiation, monoclonal antibodies. These days, I only take a drug to suppress my uptake of estrogen, since my tumor was highly reactive to that hormone. I have been married to my husband Pete for 21 years. I have a stepdaughter, Maureen, 30, and a daughter, Erin, 10. I've been a freelance magazine journalist for 20-plus years, covering everything from Chinese foreign policy to Catholic nuns to endangered species. I have had a great life. I have lived in Asia and all over the United States. I have spent nights with tree-sitters in Oregon and with astronomers at the Mauna Kea observatory in Hawaii. I've been to a cocktail party on the poopdeck of a British destroyer docked in Shanghai. I've taken the bus to Tibet, and tramped through the cloud forests of Panama with biologists. A magazine sent me on a raft trip down the Colorado through the Grand Canyon; another sent me to cooking school for a week. I have spent time with celebrities, presidents and heroin dealers. I love my work. I have a loving, supportive family and more friends than I probably deserve. I have had the space and time to camp, ski, cycle, garden, cook and spoil my pets (an Australian shepherd, a German shepherd and a tabby cat). If it all ended tomorrow, I would have to say that it has been a really, really good ride. When I was in thick of treatment, I was simply fighting for more time. Now, I'm trying to connect the experience of cancer with the rest of my life, with the time that's been won. I hope the cancer never comes back, but if it does, I'll be ready. That's what this blog is about.
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4 Responses to Digging deep

  1. Andy Conn says:

    Heather,
    Whenever I meet someone that went to Tam the first thing I asked them was did you have Gordon Millar. Some did and some did but this in not about their answers but about the fact that I would ask everyone. I held Gordon in very high regard. My father for all is brilliance was not a great father. Seriously, would one expect a raging angry narcissist to be able to father a hyper-active HHHD son effectively. But you and I were blessed to live in an actual village. There were other Dads to pick up the slack. Because of my friendship with your step brother Paul I got to spend a good deal of time in Gordon’s company. Gordon was always clear in his intentions, expected us to carry out basic commands and was the king of the rye half smile. Your dad was one of the men in my life that helped me to understand what respect was all about.
    He was so incredibly loyal to your mom and that helped me to learn what commitment in a relationship was all about. His total adoption of you as his daughter and I mean way more than the paperwork taught me about unconditional love. His unapologetic manner and his commitment to his very skewed politics taught me to stand up and argue with an adult about viewpoints and he did listen before he told Hal and I to button it.

    I did and still do keep Gordon on a low but sturdy pedestal. In his honor you should totally dress has a hairy 1960’s radical hippie and imagine him following behind with a gun and a Rototiller.Good luck in all your races!

    • leftbreast says:

      Andy, Gordon was a rare one. Hal just came over, delivering Erin after a sleepover, and while his politics are closer to Gordon’s and my politics are closer to yours, we sat by the fire and talked for four hours. After he got clean, Hal became the true vessel of Gordon’s spirit: clear, loyal, unapologetic, kind, a guy’s guy. We are lucky to have Hal around, and we were all lucky to have Gordon in our lives.

      I imagine your Dad was a tough Dad to have, but glad that you were in our village.

  2. Heather, Best of luck to you on the road ahead post-chemo. I read every blog you post. I look forward to your post-cancer blogs as well!

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