At the bottom of today's story is the latest episode of The Alex and Ronni Show. Some of the conversation relates to this post and - god help us, there's more kitty talk.
On this date a year ago, I spent 12 hours under anesthesia while a surgeon and his many associates in that room poked around in my wide-open torso removing and/or rearranging several organs or parts thereof with the goal of saving my life.
Here is what I looked like directly after they stapled me back together and then carefully watched over me until I was allowed to go home 11 days later.
My friend and health care proxy Autumn Schoen, who traveled from New Jersey to be with me that week, took the photo at my request – I wanted to know what I looked like after such a formidable and frightening procedure. (Thank god they put you to sleep.)
What the surgeons did that day is called the Whipple Procedure, also known as a pancreaticoduodenectomy. (Yeah, just try to pronounce that.)
Although the surgeon had pulled no punches explaining how difficult it would be for me, particularly the recovery, I still was not prepared for how awful the first couple of months turned out to be.
Getting through that period is the hardest thing I've ever done. Nothing in my life comes close. Many mornings I seriously wished I had rejected the surgery and just let myself die.
Slowly, however, it got better. Before the surgery, I had stocked up on frozen foods since I knew I wouldn't be able to cook for awhile. Friends and neighbors generously shopped for me, cleaned Ollie the cat's litter box, took out the trash, drove me to medical appointments and that's just the daily, practical stuff.
They also were there with moral support through those first couple of hard months and the entire year following, too, as I gradually improved. Except for a couple of remaining small issues, I have designated myself 95 percent recovered.
Even better, several tests over the past five months show I am free of cancer, the doctors say. Since it's pancreatic cancer we're talking about and hardly anyone survives even a year, I must have been Mother Teresa in a past life to have gotten this far.
As I said in a previous post,
“This definitely is a grace – defined by Christians as an unearned, unmerited, undeserved favor from god. If like me, god is a tricky concept for you, think of it as the same kind of gift but from the universe.”
It is impossible for me to properly express my gratitude not only to those friends and neighbors who helped at home but to the dozens of doctors, nurses, technicians and the many other kinds of care givers and helpers at Oregon Health & Science University (OHSU) who have been there every step of the way with their unfailing knowledge, expertise, compassion, understanding, encouragement and kindness.
Getting to where I am, however, is not like healing a broken leg - finished and done with after six weeks or so. I am acutely aware that the cancer can return and often does, and that's not easy to live with.
Until a year ago, even with my long-term annoyance at television and radio commercials for prescription drugs, I had no idea how frequent and frightening cancer “cure” commercials are. I don't suppose it occurred to me, pre-diagnosis, that they could apply to my circumstance. That's different now.
These days, I am incapable of ignoring them and cannot bear to hear them. As a result, I have become masterly swift at hitting the mute button when those adverts appear.
Surely I've mentioned several times over this past year that the last thing I have wanted is to become a professional patient. Ha! How naive of me.
Nobody can take up to 20 pills a day, count them out weekly into their little container compartments, keep up with refills so not to run out (somehow, they never need replenishing on the same day or week) and not be reminded several times a day that you will always be a patient now.
I've tried to make jokes about how my doctors, lab attendants, nurses and others at OHSU are now the major part of my social life but it's actually not a joke – I see some of them more frequently than friends and in fact, some have become friends of a kind I don't have a word for. But it is a good thing.
So I've had to make peace with being a professional patient. And I'm getting good at it. When I gave a doctor the daily notes I had made over several weeks tracking the internal bleed (now fixed), he said, “I wish all our patients made lists like this for us.”
Until the cancer diagnosis, I had lived a remarkably healthy life for 75-odd years. The worst that happened was a bad flu every few years and I didn't give my well-being much thought beyond keeping up with exercise fairly regularly and relatively healthy food.
But I'm a different person now. I am not as comfortable in my skin, nor in my mind and I no longer trust my body. Too often a minor pain or twitch leaves me asking myself if it's cancer-related. I need to gird myself before checking each new set of test results online.
When I'm tired toward the end of each day – which is still much earlier in the afternoon than before all this happened - my thoughts turn dark. My more rational self tells me to let it go, just live, enjoy this extra time I've been given and I'm usually able to do that. Until next time, and then I start over.
I don't yet understand the consequences of the changes that have come over me. So much of this year has been – and still is - taken up with the busy-ness of having – or, having had - a terrible disease that there is not always time for usual tasks, let alone complex reflection.
But now that I am better, maybe I can devote some thought to how I am different and what, if anything, it means.
You're reading all this today because so many of you have been here throughout this long, strange trip and because today is a milestone, an anniversary of consequence in my life.
Before writing today's post, I re-read every “cancer post” I've written along with every comment from you, dear readers. You, collectively, have been my daily rock with your constant and continuing support, encouragement and kind responses.
I thank you from the bottom of my heart.
Now, on to the second anniversary.