Cancer brings unlikely women together

It is not a group I wanted to be part of or even know about. But on the third Tuesday evening of each month, I stroll into a nondescript hospital meeting room, complete with tasty dinner offerings and savory desserts, and share information about my life with cancer.

I settle in with 12 or so other women who have stage four breast cancer that has traveled into bones and, in some cases, seeped into other organs such as the brain, pancreas and liver. This is a specific cancer as it does not go into remission and can only be treated.

I became part of this clan a few months ago after being diagnosed last November with a version of what the other women have. Keep in mind, I had this at least a year before diagnosis, hence my handing over the elaborate details of my illness to a medical malpractice law firm, which soon will decide if it has interest in taking on the case.

On my first trip to the group, one of my close friends, a former social worker, accompanied me and gave me her seal of approval. “It was a good session,” she said after we left.

Being terribly judgmental, at the first meeting, I noticed several of the women were overweight. Some needed to update their clothing. They lacked well-styled hair or a trace of make up. Ages ranged from 40s to 80s. Many have husbands — mine died five years ago. Several have successfully battled this miserable type of cancer for years. To keep me in reality, I was clued in that several had died and were still missed.

As the group talked, my early disdain subsided. The process is each person gives an update of their health status and what has happened since the last meeting. The two women who started the session each talked for 30 minutes — too long. The hospital leaders, kind and tactful, had to remind them to keep it succinct. I won’t need reminding, I thought.

I kept my status to the point, and the women gave me bits of advice regarding the relentless nerve pain I endure in my thigh from tumors pressing on nerves. Their advice was plentiful.

As a couple of hours passed, I started seeing the likeability of most of the women. They were friendly, had a sense of humor and were generous. One brought her guitar and sang a self-composed song cleverly entitled “I’m a Uni-boober.” It had been played before and clearly was a crowd favorite. Her baggy t-shirt did not belie the fact that what she sang about was true.

The song was surreal but this group embraced it. They embrace humor to cope — something I need to do more often.

After three hours, I headed home with my friend and knew I would return the next month. How nice to spend some time eating and talking with women who are dealing with many of same health challenges I am.

The next month, my daughter drove me and another woman in the group who could not drive as she is still recuperating from  brain surgery. I was more engaged and realized I belonged with these folks because I have what they have. My struggles are different — pain and more pain — but I’m not on chemo pills or a chemo IV like a lot of them. I simply take an anti-hormonal pill to keep my cancer tumors at bay. For that, I am thankful.

For now, my cancer is “stable,” which means the tumors aren’t shrinking,  but they aren’t growing either. After six months, my mobility is improved. No need for a walker, periodic use of a cane and the ability to walk faster and more assured. I’m able to ride my bike a few blocks and know I will progress.

I sadly missed the last meeting because I didn’t feel good after trying a new pain pill — oxycodone. But I’ll be at the next one. After all, these are my people.

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Has life handed me my last chapter?

In November, just after my birthday, and after eight months of dealing with progressively crippling bone pain, I was handed the medical diagnosis of breast cancer that had metastasized into my bones. This is a mother fucker because for months I had mysterious sore and broken ribs, severe back pain, upper leg discomfort, a gradual loss of overall mobility, and I witnessed first hand going from an in-shape, active woman to handicapped.

And to worsen the whole mess, not a single doctor diagnosed my illness over nine months nor did one show interest in the fact that I was becoming seriously ill. The doctors only took blood work, never a CAT scan, MRI or bone scan, any of which would have revealed I had aggressive, bold, gnaw-through-your-bones cancer.

So five weeks after being taken to the emergency room because I was paralyzed from the waist down one morning, emergency spine surgery was conducted to remove a cancerous martini pickle-sized tumor. I spent 10 days in the hospital and went home so my back could heal. I was on massive pain drugs — morphine, Fentanyl, Norco — and hoped that soon I would be able to start cutting back on pain killers and functioning in a more normal way.

Well, it has been seven months since then and only recently have I reduced pain meds to only Norco and started walking without a walker and only sometimes with a cane. Friends and family got me to daily radiation treatments. I’m almost done with 12 more treatments after 30 earlier this year. My appetite and moods are constantly changing. Water tastes bad as do many foods. I’m nauseous often. At night, I get glum and think about dying in a few years.

I really don’t know how long I have or what quality of life awaits me. I am told I will get better — maybe even back to normal. I’m not sure I’m being told the truth. Never has the road back to normalcy been so slow or seemingly non-existent.

I want my left leg and back to stop throbbing, which has me wondering if the radiation and all its miserable side effects have been worth it.

I’m still haunted by all the set backs I’ve had: C-diff — a nightmarish illness from antibiotics whereby the colon becomes toxic and urgent trips to the bathroom become a regular occurrence for days. I’ve had other illnesses that reflect a compromised immune system. My esophagus and throat were burned by radiation making it horribly painful to eat for more than a week. I looked older and beat up. I’ve lost almost 20 pounds. I stopped wearing makeup and didn’t care. For a time, my clothes were baggy and unfashionable — it made treatment easier.

Yeah, you hear about this stuff and it means nothing because you don’t give a shit about cancer unless you or a family member gets it. It was one illness we don’t have in our family and I rarely gave it a second thought (except when my husband Tom so cruelly died five years ago from terminal brain cancer that in his case was hereditary).

I found the breast cancer beast while crossing my arms one night watching TV. A pronto mammogram followed by 18 painfully jarring breast biopsies confirmed three tumors — two of them malignant. But I knew there was much more — all that bone pain finally explained. Bone cancer as manifestation of breast cancer is not uncommon, and it is remarkably painful. How did that cancer in my lymph node work its way so lightening fast into so many bones in less than a year? That is because I had cancer long before it was diagnosed via a mammogram.  My radiation oncologist said I was one of the 10 percent whose mammogram did not detect the cancer.

To make matters worse, I have gone through all this without Tom. To have him at my side would have made this hellish cancer easier to bear. Most of the cancer patients and survivors I’ve met have a spouse to help them get through. It’s just another reason I feel damned sorry for myself.

My future is a big mystery. Even the next course of treatment is relatively unknown right now. Meanwhile, I want to be able to walk and bike outside again whether it is frosty cold or muggy as hell. I plan to figure out my priorities with the proverbial bucket list. And, for the time being, I am preparing to dance — with gusto — at my son’s wedding in July.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in acceptance, being single, faith, grief, importance of girlfriends, Uncategorized, widow, widowhood | 3 Comments

Retirement on hiatus

I tried to stop working full time last May. I quit my corporate job to get back to freelance writing. I wanted to further explore the world of volunteering, fitness classes, travel  for extended time periods using VRBO or Airbnb, exchanging homes with people in my favorite countries, and frequently doing things spur of the moment. I wanted to start a stage of life that would be fun and frivolous. I don’t know how many good years I have left, so I didn’t want to waste time working in an office.

Well, funny how things go. For almost a year, I’ve been freelance writing, but I’m doing it nearly full time in a newsroom downtown with my own desk and computer. My editors are a few feet away. I’m enterprising stories and getting assignments and enjoying the hell out of it. Some days, I’m taking photos for the publication (haven’t done that since 1979 when I was the editor of a small weekly in Marine City, Mich.). I’m working for the business magazine where I was a contributing reporter for 25 years. Imagine that.

I’m thankful for this job that unexpectedly fell into my lap after a talk with the editor who I’ve known for almost 20 years. It gets me out of the house and into a workplace where I can be a reporter and a writer — what I do best — and I can bounce story ideas off of my coworkers, making sure I’m not treading on their territory. They all have specific beats, and I’m more a general assignment reporter.

A city booster and longtime observer of Detroit —  during the years when calamity and chaos were the only ways to describe the city — now I get to write about its rebirth, week by week, month by month.

My work place isn’t always the liveliest or warmest place. Some days I barely talk to anyone and, that’s odd, because I’m very social. But it is the way this business publication operates. These are dogged reporters and editors who don’t socialize much (or maybe they just aren’t inviting me to the fun stuff.)  Almost all of them are married and raising kids and live in the suburbs.

It doesn’t matter. I have a life outside my job. I meet friends or my kids for happy hour after work. Soon, I’ll be packing my fold-up bike for organized bike rides downtown after work.  Endless events await now that spring is here and summer is next.

The adventures I want to have in retirement will have to wait a little longer.

 

 

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A sweet missive on New Year’s Eve

This year, I spent New Year’s Eve at my friend’s bar – a music club in the city. It’s a comfortable place to hang out  with friendly bartenders, a great micro-brew selection, quality food and live music almost every night of the week.

Tom and his buddies, during their boys nights out, always ended their evenings at this Irish pub with roots that go back to the late 1800s.

This year, some of my friends were going to sporting events or dinner but said they would drop by before the midnight toast. They arrived about 11, and the tone of the place, which attracts a young crowd, was astir. Patrons began ordering fresh beers and shots — Jamison’s, Jack, Fireballs, tequila.

Right before midnight, my friend George, who was my husband’s closest friend, and his wife told me they wanted me to come over to the look at the bar top. (This was not totally a surprise because I saw George earlier in the week and he told me he had something to show me next time we were at the bar.)

The bar top at this place is interesting. Roughly eight years ago, the owner decided he wanted to layer the bar top with a variety of guitar picks. Many of them had sayings or initials or designs done by friends and customers. Some picks had professional logos; others were blank but colorful. After gathering the picks, he had his friends (Tom included) glue them randomly to the top of the bar. A layer a shellac was applied over them to give the top a waterproof but artful, music-oriented surface.

I vaguely remember hearing about this effort because the owner was upset that the shellac smeared what was written on many of the picks. But, irregardless, I think it was a great idea, and it still looks quite good.

Back to New Year’s Eve. As I walked over to the couple with their phone flashlights illuminating the bar top, I was told to look carefully. There among dozens of colorful picks was a pearl-colored one. In black handwriting I know so well read “Tom loves Marti.” Midnight struck and my friends gave me a hug.

I got a little teary but not overly emotional. A couple years ago seeing this would have made me sad and, no doubt, set off a swell of tears. That night, it made me feel good and reminded me that someone loved me a lot for many years. I’ve sat at that bar probably a dozen times since Tom’s death, never knowing there was a personal, little missive to me. Thanks, Tom, for the reminder. And thanks my friends for waiting to show me. It was a good way to start the new year.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Amen, what’s your phone number

I hesitated to write about this experience, but the material I have is too rich not to share. So here goes.

I met a guy at Mass. Yes, a Catholic Mass with all its refrains, kneeling, hand shaking and singing. I hadn’t even been going to church much this year, but one Sunday morning this fall, I decided to check out what is called a Mass Mob.

Simply explained, a Mass Mob is a trend in some cities (it originated in Buffalo) whereby a historic Catholic church in an urban neighborhood hosts a Mass — wide open to everyone. The Mass Mob typically is promoted in the media but also on its web site. A city church that normally might draw 75 people to Mass on a regular Sunday will enjoy 2,000 or more visitors. These events are one-day cash cows for the still- operating, majestic, struggling churches.

When I got there at 11 am, starting time, all the pews were filled and only a few folding chairs in the back were empty. I plunked myself down next to a guy who appeared to be alone. He said he didn’t think the person who was sitting there was coming back.

The church was beautiful and perfectly maintained. A few times during the well-executed Mass, I exchanged words with my seat mate about the marble alter that I read was shipped on a barge in the mid-1800s to become the altar of this church. The whole church was dripping with craftsmanship.

After Mass (I love saying this), Joe (not his real name) and I decided to take the architectural tour of the church, which led to coffee and conversation in the church hall. After most Mass goers had cleared out, Joe offered to walk me to my car. The conversation continued for a couple more hours as we walked around downtown and ended up getting ice cream. It was like we were following a 1950s courting manual, but we just went with it — meeting at church and strolling on a perfect fall day.

As I got into my car, he asked for my work email. I guess he didn’t want to be too bold asking for my phone number.

The whole occurrence made me smile the rest of the day. I went to Mass with absolutely no intention of meeting anyone and look what happened.

The next day, I got a very nice email at work from Joe. This was followed up with a few long phone conversations. It took about two weeks for us to go out. He lives about 40 miles from me and has a demanding job. My schedule was busy too.

But, finally, on a Sunday afternoon, we met for a movie, walked around town and had dinner. We mused over the Mass meeting, chuckling, not even sure we had that much in common.

We learned more about each others’ pasts. I found out he goes to church about twice a month; he found out I don’t. I learned he doesn’t drink; he found out I do. He told me he’s been single for 30 years. (Red flag?) I told him about me being a widow for almost four years.

It was a pleasant experience, and there’s no telling how or if it’s going to play out. But, either way, I plan to stay open to these surprise encounters.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Yeah, I should have bought American…

Tom believed strongly that we should buy only American cars made in America. Because we lived in the Detroit area, he felt we needed to support our local industry. I understood the concept and went with the program, but I happen to love European cars.

This past spring, even though my 2009 Pontiac G6 was still going strong, I acted on my desires and started shopping for a Mini Cooper. The Detroit area only has one of these precious, trendy dealerships where everyone wears black and the waiting room has all the Keurig coffee and purified water you can drink. So I headed there — to a suburb a good 35 miles from my house.

The buying process was stressful. I dickered on the price, style and color of the car over the course of two weeks. I walked out unhappy with the first offer (I found this worked well on previous car purchases). I wanted a monthly lease payment I could live with. I hashed out monthly payments if I traded my trusty Pontiac, and I looked at getting rid of some of the Mini extras, such as an upgraded stereo system and an arm rest, to get the price down. The process did not go smoothly.

One afternoon, I headed to another dealer to test drive a used Mini. The price was perfect, but they could only scrounge up one — it was a manual and I wanted the ease of an automatic. So that day I went back to my sweet 23-year-old, well-meaning Mini salesman to find out what he could do for me. He was clueless, but management, by now noting my affinity for the brand, had reworked “things” and had a whole new vehicle waiting for me. It was loaded with amenities, had four doors and was gray with a black roof and trim. It was beautiful and I caved. By trading my G6, I got the monthly lease payment I wanted. I felt a little melancholy saying goodbye to the Pontiac that was originally Tom’s car, but I finally let it go. The Mini was mine for three years.

The car offers, as promised, a go-kart-like ride and is fun as hell to drive. I felt good in it.

But as I drove home, I couldn’t get the Blue Tooth to work. Now, keep in mind, I knew nothing about operating a Blue Tooth and just figuring out the turn signal on this technology-laden car was challenging. But I tried everything, including spending considerable time with the manual later that day. Still no Blue Tooth. I also realized the car had no CD player. (Mini considers CDs to be obsolete.) I was disappointed in myself that after all those trips to the dealer, I hadn’t even checked for a CD player.

My foreign-car savvy neighbor took a look at my car a few weeks later and declared the Blue Tooth faulty. The car ended up at the dealership for three days. (I was given a nice loaner.) Finally, my service technician, a young, lanky, fashionable lad with great self esteem named Alan called to say the Blue Tooth was fixed. Again, I headed back to the far suburbs.

Life was good — for a couple weeks. When the weather went from summer to chilly, the tire warning light came on telling me my tires weren’t properly inflated. I called Alan to ask what to do. He said take it to a tire store and have the tires properly re-inflated to suit the colder climes. Weather changes can impact these fragile, run-flat tires.

That same day, a drivetrain warning came on. Again, I called Alan who said that was bad and to bring in the car. I didn’t have time for awhile, so I drove it around with the warnings on and ended up taking the car back in two weeks. This time, it was something major, which they fixed. But while fixing it, they found something else wrong having to do with seals. They told me politely that it would be two weeks to get the part from Germany.

At this point, I decided I wasn’t going to let this  car stuff get to me. After all, I had another nice loaner. As it turned out, they called me a week later and surprised me that the car was repaired and ready for pick up.

To show my displeasure, I brought back the loaner with an empty tank of gas (it is supposed to be brought back full), and told the service tech the least they could do for all this inconvenience is pay for my gas.The service manager agreed.

I truly believe Tom has a hand in this. He would not have liked that I bought a car made in England.

Meanwhile, the car has been driving great. But this past weekend, the Blue Tooth stopped letting me play music off my smart phone — again. I still had access to the phone though. This morning, to my delight, it played music on my way to work. Tomorrow? Who knows.

I have a feeling this is going to be a long three years. I’m already considering what Ford or Chevy I’m going to buy when this lease is up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Many years ago, I also supported the Japanese auto industry by buying a Honda Accord. We were buying so I wanted a vehicle with outstanding quality and longevity. It later became our son’s car and he drove it into the ground — running a paint business out of it and using it during law school in Austin. It made it to more than 200,000, a respectable lifespan.

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A widowhood blog evolution – what’s next?

For nearly two years, this blog has centered primarily on my life experiences going from longtime married to widowed. It has been a valuable outlet for me, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed the feedback from readers.

But as I write my 41th blog, it might be reaching the end of its usefulness. I don’t know how much longer I want to wax about life as a widow.

Truth is I’m single. For better or worse that’s my status.  I’ve accepted it for the most part, but it doesn’t mean I don’t get wickedly jealous of my friends and family members who have a longtime loving spouse. I resent that, as they age, they will have the security of a life partner.

As I get older, I try harder to be more gracious. As someone who is known for speaking their mind, I have become much better at keeping my mouth shut. It enables me to keep the good friends I have and make new friends. Only occasionally do I offend people now.

Getting back to the blog — I have this body of blogs that knit together a lot of the emotions and misery I’ve had during these last few tough years. With a little editing, I might have a short book on mid-life widowhood that could be useful for other widows or those going through a painful divorce. Note to self: Look into self publishing.

The dilemma now is what to write about next? Clearly, there’s enough blogs about the single life, dating and sex (although I could continue in this vein). My sister-in-law suggests writing about life as I move through the 60s. That might cause me to lose the few younger readers I have — or provide wisdom for their future.

Detroit has become a reason for too many people to write books and articles, and I’m already doing that for a living.

I’m a master at handling Type 1 diabetes and other autoimmune illnesses, but, after almost 52 years with them, I’d rather write about something else.

What does that leave? Any ideas, suggestions? Please share.

 

 

 

 

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