Guest blogger: Tessa

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Seriously, how does my mom rock being bald like this? I think that before she started chemo we were just scared. We didn’t know how she would be and of course we assumed the worst because with cancer everything seems to be the worst. So we imagined how bad it could get, how different she would look, how we would totally lose the mom we were used to… But now that she’s almost finished chemo she’s still mom. Look at her, she’s gorgeous. Yes, she was sleepy but not every day. She felt sick, her hands and feet were awful and red burning and uncomfortable, and it was bad, but not the worst. I guess most things in life are luck-of-the-draw. We got unlucky with cancer but we could have had it way worse, and a lot of people do. I know that a big part of why cancer seems so much less scary now is because of how strong my mom is. Everyone says it but I don’t think a lot of people understand that strong isn’t having something bad happen and saying “it’ll all be good”. It’s waking up at three in the morning when your daughter sleepwalks to invite her to sleep in your bed in case she ends up sleeping through her alarm the next day. It’s making dinner, it’s telling your kids that you will really be okay and live til you’re eighty, and it’s taking off your hat in the movie theatre when you have no hair, because it doesn’t matter.
If I had any other mother I wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning, but her strength is contagious. It’s there every day, just look at her.
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Hello anxiety, my old friend (to the tune of Simon and Garfinkel’s Sounds of Silence)

The anxiety level that I had maintained throughout the end of October, November and up until the 17th of December was staggering.

“Here, we’ll just draw some fluid out of that grapefruit you’re hiding under your arm (I exaggerate) and we’ll get the answer in two weeks.”

Two weeks. Are you serious? I told my closest friends at work, one sister, my man.

“Shoot. Not enough fluid to be conclusive. Let’s draw out some more. See you in two weeks.”

Seriously, again? I tell two more friends at work, and my manager. I want to keep the circle small, since, hey, this could be making a cantaloupe out of a grape. I carry on at work, I purposely DO NOT look up breast cancer online (lie—I looked it up twice while at my office, two nights at home). I have really interesting projects to do that require real creative thought and collaboration—those are great to keep my mind off it. I can no longer rest my right arm at my side without feeling these things, and they hurt all the time. Maybe from being jabbed and sucked by needles. I took a very strong pain reliever saved from some dental surgery for a couple of days, and then, several times, I actually didn’t hurt at all and forgot all about the lumps for a while. My friends at work are wonderful. Interested to listen, a hug here, a squeeze there. I cry a little, but since I’m revealing nothing about the situation to my kids, I’m getting pretty good at not breaking down. My manager pledges his support and walks the talk. He is excellent, and understanding. On the Friday night before first chemo, I work at the office until 10 o’clock at night to tie up a project. He raised an eyebrow, but only a bit. He understood.

“Oh yes, well, still not enough stuff drawn out—we’ll do a core needle biopsy guided by ultrasound—guaranteed to get enough stuff. We’ll see you in two weeks.”

WTF??? Is this some secret biopsy calendar that runs on 14-day increments?!?

So, the doctors say they’ll for sure have enough info from pathology and results from the bilateral breast MRI (OMG the weirdest by far test of them all; more on that later when I’m drinking) that I will meet with my oncologist on December 17 to hear my firm diagnosis—cancer of the what?—treatment plan and prognosis, and begin chemo on the 18th.

One thing here. My son Graydon was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia in 2001 on DECEMBER 17. Same date. So freaky. And starting chemo the very next day meant I really had no reason to wait until the 17th to start worrying about the chemo, since I already knew I was getting it. So I just let anxiety step in and hold a square dance.

On the 16th, my manager took our little team, minus one, out for lunch. Our missing member couldn’t make that day, and I was cramming work in to the very last minute for my oncologist appointment and the four-hour infusion that awaited me the next day. It was a welcome escape from thinking about you know what, and we talked out Christmas traditions in our families, and food, and not about C. It was grand.

The next day, the missing member of our team dropped by my office to talk about a feedback group she thought I’d like to be involved in. I was explaining to her what my health situation was when I had a phone call:

“Hi, Jacquelyn, I know you had a big appointment with Dr. Brezden today, and wanted to start chemo tomorrow, but I don’t think we can do that. We just don’t know enough about what we’re treating. There are two ways we can go, another needle biopsy or an excisional biopsy where we take a whole lymph node…”

I lost my shit. Poor Julia was there as I sputtered and choked and cried. Since when was calling off chemo like taking away a baby’s blankie? All I wanted was the damned poison coursing through my veins, and would I ever get it? She hugged me and consoled me, then got my best work friend and ex-manager to come to my office. I had to go to pre-op right away. My surgeon had snagged an hour in the OR, and we were using it to cut out a sentinel node. Leslie-Ann came with me as I composed myself, and asked the surgeon good questions, and made some jokes, thank God. She gave me a little gold pin of a flying bird, which I have worn to every appointment since.

The next day I drove myself to St. Mike’s for 6:45 a.m. I was calm. My surgeon signed my right arm. The anesthesiologist was late. I’m always the late one, with kids hanging on behind me. Felt a little nice being the one waiting on someone else for a change. My man arrived while I was still in recovery. His kind face was the first one I saw. His first words made me smile: “My sweetie, I was not expecting you to be looking so pretty.” Which words took on even more poignancy when I saw that I had a fat lip as a result of some tube manipulation. I looked like a female member of Fight Club.

The largest, most soul-sucking anxiety was how to tell my three kids that their invincible Mum was sick, and it wasn’t a sore throat. Tessa was writing exams at university until December 18, so I couldn’t get public about the cancer until after then. It took a lot of faking, lying, dodging—and was it tiring and confusing. I told Graydon on the afternoon of the 19th. I expected a complicated reaction, since I’d been his cancer fighter for two and a half years. It was. With drugs at the ready, I took Luka to pick up Tessa and her cat Benny and boyfriend Myk at the airport. We drove home. I couldn’t do it. I tried all night, but I couldn’t. I gave up and decided to tell her in the morning. She was in shock. Hell, so was I still. I told Luka later that morning. We were out running Christmas errands (I hadn’t done much of that), and Tessa kept crying. I told him in the car. He looked up breast cancer on his phone and sent me texts about how good the survival rate was. Later, he said he sent the texts because he didn’t want to make Tessa cry again by talking about it. That’s an incredible child. His Christmas was looking pretty dismal, his birthday, on the 21st, was looking like a non-event in light of my news, and still he thought about his sister’s feelings.

My kids are incredible.

Friday’s tribute to mom-to-be guest blogger Helen, good luck, here’s my first-birth story

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This is who my first labour brought me: my beautiful Tessa. And this is the picture I took to the birth of my second child, Graydon, so I could concentrate on why I was labouring again.

On Mom-to-be Tuesday, guest blogger and web editor Helen said buh-bye with her last post before she delivers her first little bundle of love and spit-up. She asked if readers remembered their first birth, and for any advice. Remember Helen, you asked.

I remember it all. My husband and I attended birthing classes together. I hired the instructor to be my birthing coach because we didn’t know how long my husband could hang in, and we wanted an experienced person on “our” side if we both lost our minds during labour. I read all the bad parts of “What to Expect when You’re Expecting” and asked every mother I knew or met about the worst parts, so I would be prepared. At the tour of the hospital I asked to sign the paper requesting an epidural. Can you believe I had to wait until I was actually in labour?

The baby I was carrying didn’t want to leave the warm and squishy place she lived in, and had to be induced several ways before labour started. Then I did that for 20-odd hours, then pushed with no epidural (how barbaric that seems now that the art of the epidural is so refined) for three hours, much of that off a monkey-bar-type apparatus. Then I said, “That’s it. I’m done. Cut it out, I don’t care. I’m finished.” And I just laid there, no pushing, no panting. My husband and the birthing coach told the nurses I meant it, so they woke up the doctor (who was quite snarly at 5:45 a.m.) and it was off to the OR, where Tessa was delivered by forceps and strapped to my body because I was shaking so hard no one would let me hold her on my own.

Are you scared yet?

The thing of it is, once you have that baby on you instead of in you, all the pain, no matter how little or not, is worth it because of what it brings you.

And I had two more babies, so obviously it wasn’t that bad. And epidurals are SO GOOD NOW. When I had Luka seven years ago, both kids were in the room with us (at the shoulder end, of course, I am no Discovery Channel subject) and I was laughing and joking throughout the actual delivery. It was so cool. I should have had a fourth.

My best advice? Nature takes over, let it. If you think you might want medication, tell the atttending doc and nurses that you want that option, and that you want them to tell you when it the option of using medication is ending. Don’t forget to breathe (it is so easy to forget). Let other people do stuff for you as long as you can. Bring the baby to the office, and let me know when that is! Best of luck and best wishes to the three of you.

XOXOX