Get Your Kicks on Route 66

Around the year I was born, and well into my adolescence, women who were 66 years old were pictured like this, because, indeed, most of them looked and dressed and wore their hair like this. My grandmother did, although she never drove a convertible.

Me, age 66.

However, things change, and now 66 looks like this. Oh, and there’s a worldwide pandemic going on. And today is my 66th birthday. And to help reduce the spread of the virus known as SARS-CoV-2, which stands for Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Corona Virus 2, I am socially isolating myself in my house. I’m making it feel less isolating and more celebratory by spooning up some Ben & Jerry’s brownie batter ice cream that one of my friends had delivered by a driver who dropped a bag on my front steps, rang my doorbell, and ran off before I could see who was at the door. Because that’s how we behave when we’re all socially isolating.

Do I know how to party or what?

I will not belabor the details of this epidemic, except to point out that people can die from SARS-CoV-2, otherwise known as COVID-19, also glibly referred to as ‘Rona. Which is why we’re all supposed to stay at home, wear masks over our noses and mouths if we do go out, keep a distance of at least 6 feet from other humans, and wash our hands a lot, so we don’t catch it or spread it. Since doing my job as a home care physical therapist was getting increasingly dicey, it was fortunate that I had vacation time scheduled these last two weeks.

Today was supposed to herald my last weekend off before returning to work on Monday. But as things now stand, I won’t be returning to work on Monday. ‘Rona has pretty much gutted home health physical therapy, and a lot of other things. There are some folks getting in-person visits, and some other folks getting tele-visits by phone. But there are no elective surgeries going on, to fix or replace arthritic joints, for example, so no steady stream of post-op patients from orthopedists. And otherwise, when your own doctor doesn’t want to see you in person, but does a tele-visit instead, there’d better be a damned good reason for sending strangers to visit you at home, even if these strangers happen to be nurses or rehab therapists or nurses’ aides.

Needless to say, though, our home care patient census is way down. And I have a lot of paid time off hours racked up. And I was feeling more and more anxious about making home visits again next week and potentially exposing myself to more germs, despite the masks and the gloves and the hand sanitizer and the bottled soap and the paper towels and the aprons and gowns and shoe covers we all carry around as part of our home care tools.

And then I had a bit of a scare last weekend. I woke up on Saturday feeling weak, exhausted, and wobbly, with aching sinuses and a headache, and a dry cough, and some sniffles, and a slight fever. I definitely felt like I was coming down with something, but I figured it was most likely a severe bout of spring allergy symptoms, which would go away if I took an antihistamine. They didn’t go away, and after three hours of agonizing about whether I should or shouldn’t, I called our employee health COVID-19 hotline and got tested for the virus the next morning. And got the results 24 hours after that, which were thankfully negative. Negative, as we all know in the world of cancer, is indeed a really good thing.

But I still didn’t want to go back to work. I had a lot of good reasons not to, but two stood out. One was the long and late-term side effects of radiation treatment for my breast cancer, which left me with scar tissue on my right lung, years of fatigue, and a barrage of respiratory issues that finally resolved a few years after treatment. Most recently, it also may have contributed to the formation of calcifications in my right coronary artery, which showed up on a scan a year ago. Luckily, I have not developed heart disease or lung disease or high blood pressure or any other ongoing systemic diagnoses. But all of these can increase the risk of catching and having a severe bout of COVID-19. The other reason for caution was my age. Being 65 or older itself increases one’s risk.

So, I had at least a couple of good reasons to request a leave of absence, and yet, I was reluctant to play the age card. Not sure why, really. I don’t know what 66 is supposed to feel like, but I don’t feel like I’m 66. And I don’t act like I’m 66. And I’ve had no further signs of cancer since 2009. I suppose it hasn’t helped to hear all these stories about how courageous we health care workers have been through this pandemic. But I personally do not need to prove my heroism, thanks very much.

The cancer card: if you’ve got it, play it.

Finally I remembered something that happened while I was going through breast cancer treatment. Being overwhelmed and feeling like garbage back then, I’d forgotten to pay my credit card bill. So, a few months went by and I got a statement saying I was going to be charged a late fee. I decided to call the credit card company and explain, but I was reluctant to play the cancer card. Why? Because I somehow felt like a fraud blaming my negligence on cancer. Why? Because…I don’t know. But some part of my psyche kicked in to save me from myself and said, “Kathi, for goodness’ sake, you’re not ‘playing’ anything. It’s the truth! You have cancer, you idiot! Just tell them the truth!” So, I did. And they were lovely about it and erased the extra charges and gave me more time to pay off the balance. And I hung up and cried with relief.

So, I got a hold of myself and admitted that I didn’t want to get sick, end up in the hospital, and maybe die just yet, especially after surviving cancer. And all that could be more likely to happen because I was older than I used to be. And being older was not a crime, just the truth. And of course, my employer was completely understanding and even thanked me for volunteering to take a leave of absence. And I am enormously relieved.

It’s not the most exciting birthday gift I’ve ever gotten, but I’ll take it.


It’s My Age, Not My Speed Limit

About six months ago, I got two snail mail letters from the Social Security Administration. I’m happy to report that, amid all the bloody, effing nonsense the current administration & the Senate put us through last year, with government shutdowns, games of budgetary chicken, etcetera and ad infinitum, the SSA was not one of the agencies that got shut down. They were at work, their employees employed and getting paid. Thank goodness. I found this out because both letters required me to contact them. One of the letters requested that I confirm the existence of an old, modest, employer-funded retirement pension, which I had entirely forgotten existed. The other letter instructed me to sign up for Medicare before my next birthday, when I would turn 65.

Medicare? Really?? Am I that freaking old???

I should explain that, as a homecare physical therapist, I have good, employer-based health insurance and work for a healthcare system that includes a hospital, which comes in handy. I also know a lot about Medicare, because most of my patients have Medicare, or one of its optional plans that are managed by insurance companies. Which means that most of my patients are older than I am, and are retired. Increasingly, I have noticed that a lot more of my patients are much closer to my age than ever, and a lot more are in fact younger than I am. And some of those younger folks are also on Medicare, either because they retired early or are disabled.

In any event, I hadn’t been thinking much about my next birthday six months ago. I was not overly gob-smacked when I’d turned 60, so another half-decade didn’t concern me much. But seeing the word Medicare in a letter addressed to me just slapped me upside the head with this huge dose of reality regarding The Future. Or maybe I should say, THE FUTURE!!! All caps. Ominous, murky, uncertain.

Suddenly, I had to do some adulting that I had been putting off, adulting that had to do with preparing for THE FUTURE!!! Yes, I followed orders, and signed up for Medicare. But I only need Part A, which is free, because I already have my other health insurance. And I did confirm that my little pension exists. So then, while I was at it, I made an appointment to consult a retirement planner/financial advisor, which I’d also been putting off. I am not planning to retire for some years yet, maybe five. But up until then, thinking of retiring, and getting older, and possibly being broke and sick, has filled me with something like the dread and panic I experienced when I was diagnosed with cancer eleven years ago. However, I made the damned appointment, and it made me feel A LOT better about my prospects for being able to afford to retire someday and maybe not end up bankrupt. We won’t even get into the threats from the aforementioned administration and Senate to screw around with either Social Security or Medicare. I’ll just say that I wish a few folks in particular would evaporate. Immediately.

So then I made a follow up appointment with another retirement planner who was a bit further up the ladder than the first one. And she was wonderful and pleasant and she made me feel better as well, and we are checking into some stuff and plan to talk again.

So. Here we are. Today, which is my birthday, on which I turn 65. Which, bureaucratically and actuarially speaking, is old. Or the beginning of being old. Or the beginning of having to admit to being a senior citizen for real, albeit a young senior citizen, and not just a quasi-senior citizen who could arguably consider herself to be in late middle age. The AARP has been sending me invitation letters since I turned 50, which I think is really pushy. I’ve been able to get discounts for things like coffee and movie tickets for a while, which is nice. It’s been a mixed bag, this I-am-sort-of-but-not-really-a-senior-citizen-yet state of mind. But there’s no escaping it now. I’m in the old column. All this tsuris from a letter telling me to sign up for Medicare! Ah, well…

So, here’s a little of what’s changed, what hasn’t, and what I’ve learned in 65 years.

If you will refer to the photo above, you will see me, on the left, dressed as Hermione Granger, ready to go to work as an outpatient PT, on Halloween Day, seventeen years ago. On the right, you will see me a week ago. You may note that my hair looks pretty much the same in both photos, except for the color. In the left-hand photo, I’d started having it dyed to hide the incipient gray. And in the right-hand photo, it’s obvious that I stopped having it colored about three years ago. Aside from that though, I’m wearing the same expression on my face. And I know I had the same attitude.

I can also report that, after much trauma and tedium, I weigh the same now as I did then. The texture may be a bit different, but the volume is the same. Between then and now, I was diagnosed with breast cancer; treated for it; gained about twenty pounds because of the fatigue, the tamoxifen, and other collateral damage; got rid of ten pounds with arduous effort; got stuck with the last ten pounds for what seemed like forever; and then finally lost those last ten pounds in the past couple of years. And remained in the N.E.D. camp all this time. So, fuck you, cancer! But I digress…

What I’ve learned is not so much that I give even less of a rodent’s derriere than I did twenty years ago, but that I am a lot more certain about what is and what is not worth caring about. I care about the opinions of people whom I esteem as intelligent, thoughtful friends. Everyone else can go pound sand. I know that a lot of small things are worth caring about because they really are the big things. Things like those everyday exchanges of pleasantries with folks you encounter during everyday errands. Things like the teasing affection of good friends. Things like making art, and laughing, and being kind, and adopting two feral cats that have taught me a whole new level of patience and sanity and satisfaction. I have learned to value how the accumulation of these small things is what matters, what makes life worth living, how these things can imbue us with a social conscience and a sense of community and compassion. I’ve learned to tell the difference between rational skepticism and passing needless and ill-informed judgment. I’ve learned that sometimes you have to draw a line in the sand. I’ve learned that I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I’ve learned that age is not a diagnosis, but that I do need more maintenance as I get older. I’ve learned again what I knew as a child, that I can do “nothing” and still enjoy myself, and that I really do learn something new every day.

Life is short. Electrons are forever. Well, maybe.

There Is No ‘After’ After Breast Cancer

Last week, before the start of October, I watched a film called “Love, Gilda,” a loving tribute about Gilda Radner. A comedic genius, she was the first person hired years ago to be part of the cast of a new NBC show called Saturday Night Live. I can still do a creditable imitation of one of her most famous characters, Roseanne Roseannadanna, whose perennial tagline, “It’s always something,” later became the title of Gilda’s memoir, in which she described her experience with ovarian cancer. At one point in the film, you hear Gilda singing a ditty she made up to help her get through treatment. The lyrics express a sentiment many of us who’ve been treated for cancer can relate to when we are scared, but hoping for the best:

I am well, I am wonderful, I am cancer free.
No little cancer cell is hiding inside of me.
But if some little cancer cell is sneakily holding on,
I’ll bash and beat its fucking head and smash it till it’s gone.

In September, 1988, she was told her cancer was in remission, but by December, it had returned. On May 20, 1989, she died of Stage IV ovarian cancer at age 42.

Ten Years After

In July, 2008, I was first told my biopsy was positive for breast cancer. Last week, on September 24th, I had my “ten years after” mammogram. I had to wait an entire week before I got the results. I suppose it was fitting to watch “Love, Gilda” while I was waiting. Finally, on October 1st, this past Monday, I was told the mammogram was negative. I got a written report confirming this, but also stating that my breast tissue was found to be dense this year. It doesn’t say how dense. It only makes a non-committal statement, with no recommendations. Now, I have to chase up a copy of the actual radiologist’s report to find out what density rating I was given. Further diagnostic imaging is often recommended for significantly dense breast tissue because it tends to hide cancer and make it hard or impossible to detect on a mammogram, even on a tomography-assisted 3D mammogram, like I got. The last time I had a similar experience was 2012, and my surgeon sent me for a follow-up breast MRI. That MRI was also, fortunately, negative, but getting it was a memorably stressful experience. Frankly, I can’t even wrap my head around dealing with this possibility right now, so I haven’t yet gone to get a copy of the full report.

On October 1st, the same day I was told my latest mammogram was negative, I found out that a friend, sister blogger, and breast cancer activist had just died of metastatic breast cancer. In the past week or two, I’ve gotten a lot of bad cancer-related news involving friends. One friend’s daughter, whose leukemia was in remission, recently found out it had returned. This same friend’s sister died of metastatic breast cancer right before Christmas in 2015, so she, like me, is not a fan of the pinkified merchandising of breast cancer in October. A few days ago, another friend with metastatic breast cancer took a turn for the worst because her chemo is no longer working. Yet another friend who, like me, had been treated for breast cancer ten years ago, found out two days ago that she has bone mets in her pelvis. Today happens to be the birthday of yet another activist/blogger/advocate I knew who died of metastatic breast cancer last year. And finally, I got an email telling me about a memorial service that will take place next weekend, the day after Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day, for another dear friend who died of MBC almost a year ago.

I could go on. And on. The fact that it’s now “breast cancer awareness month” is so beyond redundant and pointless for me these days, that after blogging for almost ten years, I don’t think I can say anything else that I haven’t said already. Metastatic breast cancer continues to kill about 40,000 women and men in the U.S. every year. Breast cancer is notably sneaky and can metastasize decades after it is initially treated, no matter what stage one was first diagnosed with, including Stage 0, also known as DCIS. We are none of us out of the woods. Ever.

Add to that the fact that the political climate in this country is deeply and alarmingly polarized. Indeed, some of the actions and beliefs of our so-called leaders are outright threatening to women and to every aspect of our lives and health.

Is it any wonder that, after long, deep self-reflection, I had to conclude that my depression, which has been at bay without medication for about five years, has returned? And my fatigue, which I thought was finally manageable, has worsened in recent months. So, I’m back on the medications I used to take. And they are helping. But getting through each day is still a slog.

So, no, even after ten years of being NED, I’m not finding it easy to cope right now. The last thing I want to do today is go out and get a copy of the radiologist’s report on last week’s mammogram, to find out exactly how dense my breast tissue was perceived to be this time around, and then to contemplate whether or not, despite the negative mammogram, I need to go talk to one of my doctors about getting another breast MRI.

I imagine that there are people who feel like throwing a party when they are still NED ten years after they were first treated for breast cancer. I wish I could say I’m one of them. Instead, I’m once again realizing that there really is no such thing as “after” after breast cancer. The Stalker stalks forever.

Ten Years Later: What to Let Go & What to Keep

Now and Then

As of this July, it will have been ten years since that fateful Thursday when I was told my breast biopsy was positive. Thus began an accumulation of anxiety, misery, and paper. You’d think, in the age of patient portals and electronic medical records, that even cancer would generate less paper. It does not. And did not ten years ago.

At first, I did a fair job of handling all the paper that people kept giving me. I’d scan and store documents I needed to keep on a hard drive, then discard the paper. Conscientiousness soon gave way to the cancer tsunami, however, and I found myself too overwhelmed to do anything but throw it all into a pile as soon as I got home from yet another medical appointment. To this pile I added every piece of mail I couldn’t immediately recycle, including the few bills that still arrived via snail mail. Had I not long before set up online automatic bill payment, I might well have tossed things like mortgage and utility bills into this pile and forgotten to pay them. As the piles grew too tall, I’d toss them into paper bags, and shove them under the kitchen table. When you’re single and have cancer, this is how you cope with stuff you can’t cope with, because you can barely cope with the stuff you have to cope with.

Three years ago, seven years post-diagnosis, my fatigue had relented enough that I finally felt equal to doing some spring cleaning. I bought a small shredder. I began to tackle some of this paper, which by then had grown to several bags and boxes, tucked not just under the kitchen table, but in the corners of every room in my house except the bathroom. I estimated at the time that I managed to dispose of about 400 cubic feet of old paper that spring. And still had a long way to go.

The following year, I decided to buy a patio fire pit. My thought was that I could just burn some of this shit, that it would be easier than shredding, and that the ritual of scorching away the old trauma in a cauldron would be fun. Turned out it wasn’t as easy as I thought it would be. In fact, it was more work, and it did not, as I’d hoped, enable me to catch up. But on October 30, 2016, I did have one satisfying fire, in which I burned some old records from diagnosis, surgery, and radiation, and thus sent Pinktober on its way.

Since then, life has thrown a few new curveballs at me, once again involving health care, stress, fatigue, and an accretion of paper. But finally I decided to purchase a new and better shredder. It was delivered last Friday, and is pictured in the photo above. It handles a lot more paper, and works a long time before getting over-heated. So, this past weekend, I dragged out some more piles and boxes of old records and got to work.

As luck would have it, the first pile I came upon contained all the receipts for veterinary bills from January of last year, covering the final wretched weeks of my cat Fiona’s life. Indeed, the one on top was for the day she died, when she was finally diagnosed with abdominal cancer and sepsis, and I had to let her go. All of the sorrow and agony of those weeks came back to me, all the heartache of watching her suffer, of not getting an accurate diagnosis until the very end. I sat and wept all over again. A while later, I came upon the pile of paper pertaining to the surgery I had to have last April, to remove three disks from my neck and fuse the bones to keep my spinal cord from being compressed. I thought I’d kept up with that mess fairly well during the several weeks I was out of work recovering. But I swear medical records seem to propagate themselves. Remembering the whole nasty thing made me feel tired and achy, and reminded me that cancer isn’t the only fantastically shitty health problem that can muck up your life for a long time.

But my new shredder worked splendidly, and I was beginning to see parts of my kitchen floor that I haven’t seen in months. So I plowed on. And near the top of the next pile was a copy of the pathology report from the surgery that removed half of my right breast on August 14, 2008. Bloody hell. Once again, memories I’ve already processed a million times came flooding back in vivid detail. And I had to stop. And cry.

Back to the Beginning

Shortly after I was first diagnosed, I ordered a bunch of DVD’s to watch while I was out of work getting slashed, burned, and poisoned. Chief among them was a boxed set of the old TV series, “Absolutely Fabulous.” If I had to feel like shit, I figured I could at least give myself a reason to laugh my ass off now and then. I charged them to a credit card I didn’t often use. After four or five months of the cancer tsunami, and shoving my mail into bags, I finally opened the most recent bill for that credit card, and discovered that I had not yet paid it and had incurred late-payment charges.

I remember how astounded I was at the time to realize how utterly and completely I’d forgotten about ordering those DVD’s in the first place. I’d watched them by then, but the memory of how I came to possess them went into that slush pile that our brains seem to create the instant we are traumatized by a cancer diagnosis. You know what I’m talking about. Suddenly, without your conscious awareness, your brain tosses everything in your world that is not immediately pertinent to cancer into a black hole.

It was hardly surprising then that I’d forgotten something as trivial as a credit card bill for a box of DVD’s. I sat there, looking at this piece of paper, wondering how I was going to explain myself to the credit card company. But I was already so tired of explaining myself, mostly to people I knew, who had, sad to say, no genuine understanding of what the hell I was going through, and would instead wonder aloud why I wasn’t “over it” yet. So, how was I going to explain to a total stranger that their bill had ended up in a paper bag under my kitchen table for months on end?

My next reaction was to feel guilty that I’d “let” cancer mess up my sterling credit record. As if. Finally, some kindly voice in my head made a simple suggestion: just tell the damned truth and play the damned cancer card. I had so far been reluctant to use it. But if ever there was an apt circumstance, this was it. So, gritting my teeth, I did. And the nice woman on the phone wiped out the late charges and told me to take all the time I needed to get caught up. I remember sitting there afterwards, relieved and grateful. And crying my eyes out and feeling stupid. And having a talk with myself about self-acceptance and coping and forgiving myself for having a cancer card to play at all. And about how playing it didn’t make me a weak person, just an honest one.

Then and Now

Grief is a tricky bugger. So is memory. We think we’re done mourning, and a piece of paper we’re about to shred can shred us instead. But after enduring remembered heartache this weekend, I decided it was okay, that I was okay. Because it’s not ten years ago and it’s not last year. And I’m still here. And my heart is still not too shredded to feel and remember and value what and whom I’ve lost.