For the past few months I've taken to saying, “If I didn't know I have cancer, I wouldn't know I have cancer. I like it. I made it up myself – unless I read it somewhere and forgot. If so, my apologies to whomever.
The point is I have hardly any cancer symptoms. In fact, after two years of fighting hard to keep my weight up so not to sink into frailty, I've gained an unplanned 10 pounds since September with no effort.
When I mentioned it to my oncologist, he told me to count my blessings and shooed me out of his office.
My real day-to-day health problem is COPD or, more to the point, breathing. But before the end of this month, I will have completed three months of pulmonary rehab and it has made a remarkable difference.
Before rehab, when walking from the bedroom to the kitchen, a distance of about 20 feet, I had to stop once, sometimes twice, to catch my breath. Taking out trash and going to the mailbox required two or three stops each way. And instead of one, it took two or three trips to carry in the groceries from the car.
The boundaries of my life were shrinking dramatically. Stairs required careful planning so not to end up heaving for air. And it wasn't just hills that were out of the question, it was inclines so slight that I'd not noticed them before COPD became my close companion.
Even showers were impossible, the air being too humid for me to breathe so I traded them in for sit-down baths.
When my primary care physician suggested that pulmonary rehab might be helpful, I was skeptical but I didn't have a better idea so I signed up.
On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, I've been spending a couple of hours on a treadmill of one kind or another, upper and lower body exercises, some involving Therabands, and on Tuesdays, such instruction classes as breathing exercises, energy conservation, the correct use of inhalers, nutrition for lung disease, avoiding exacerbations and a whole lot more.
Most of the upper-body exercises are done sitting down and at first I dismissed them altogether. What good could they do for someone who had done 50 pushups a day among other heavy strength training work until cancer brought that to a halt?
How wrong I was and I'm ashamed now at how dismissive I was. It was hard in the beginning but I've advanced more than I would have guessed. The treadmill too. At first, I could do only 10 minutes at .2 miles-per-hour. Last Thursday, I did 45 minutes at 2.4 miles-per-hour.
I'm not scoffing at any of this rehab now. Just a couple of weeks ago I noticed that I don't stop halfway to the kitchen anymore and I don't remember when that started happening.
As long as I don't try to walk at my former New York City speed, I now get to the mailbox and trash bins without stopping for breath, I can carry in most of the groceries in one go and I'm back to taking showers.
I'm not sure, however, that I'll ever do those slight inclines easily and I certainly won't be walking up San Francisco sized hills in this lifetime.
But most of all, it's the nurses, the three R.N.s who have been teaching us old folks with COPD how to make our lives more livable. They are amazing women – smart, informed, caring, hard-working.
On only my second visit, one of them called out “Hi, Ronni” as I walked in and I noticed that they did that with everyone, even with the new ones who had been there only once or twice.
They knew the details of our individual disease, recalled how well we had done at the previous visit, were patient with our questions and like all the medical professionals at OHSU who have helped me over the past two-and-a-half years, never appear to have a bad day.
The focus of all these people - the physicians, nurses, medical assistants, schedulers, therapists, etc. - is the patients' well-being.
I spent nearly 50 years working in media – radio, television, the internet. I loved the work itself but there was always a lot of ego floating around, fierce competition, deadline tensions and acting out.
No one was much thinking about the other guy. At our best, we worried about the work. At our worst, we worried about besting our colleagues.
As far as I can tell, that doesn't happen in the medical community (certainly not in the presence of patients) and after all the time I've spent with these people now, I've come to understand that they are different from those of us who are not in the helper professions.
The medical professionals I've been able to talk with personally all tell me they chose their careers, usually at a young age because they wanted to help people. They want to help people who can't do it for themselves and until I was diagnosed with cancer, I didn't know how selfless and hard-working they are.
I am so deeply grateful for them.