February 2010

Something About Mary

I know it’s cliché to wax poetic about one’s lover on Valentine’s day but I don’t care. I’m seizing the day—every last gooey, sugary, chocolate-covered drop of it—to blog about Mary.

Like good lesbians, we met in San Francisco’s Mission district. She was gathering herself for the leap to grad school in San Diego. I was working at Sunset Magazine. Strangers, we arrived simultaneously on the doorstep of a friend’s party and chatted as we waited to be buzzed inside. She didn’t know it, but I’d trailed her down Valencia Street. Her red raincoat bobbing and weaving in front of me. She exuded a sense of upbeat urgency and I caught myself wondering who she was…wondering if we were going to the same place…wondering how she walked so fast! When I finally caught up to her, in front of our shared destination on Bartlett Street, I was smitten. She didn’t know me yet she held my gaze with a warmth, openness, and authenticity I’d rarely seen. This woman had her shit together. She had nothing to hide. I was in awe. Soon, I would be in love.

That was more than eleven years ago, and, whoa Nelly, it’s been a wild ride. Like most couples, we are the yen to each other’s yang. We love each other like crazy, drive each other nuts, and spend more than our fair share of time in therapy figuring out how to ride in tandem—each motoring toward individual and shared goals with no one getting run over in the process. We’ve chipped away at some big life lessons, but my cancer diagnosis felt like skipping from 8th grade to college in “relationship school.” Every day, or so it seemed, we blew through another grade. As our intimacy deepened, layers of fears and insecurities sloughed away.

The first welcome casualty was my decade-old fear of finishing second place behind Mary’s job in the race for her affection. The minute the shit hit the fan, Mary dropped everything. And I’m not talking about the average person’s “everything.” Last winter, Mary was on the brink of tenure—a six-year-long slog toward the finish line in a cut-throat academic job that left little room for error. (And by “error” I mean taking time off to care for your partner.) Academia is a relationship killer and we were limping toward the finish line, bandaged and bruised but still together, when the C-bomb dropped. Without a moment’s hesitation, Mary put her work aside to go with me to every appointment, research treatment options, contact surgeons, answer the phone, walk the dog, run out to fill prescriptions, change my bandages, and empty my drains. And she wasn’t just a nursemaid, this woman was by my side mind, body, and spirit.

My anxiety was show stopping. Every morning, I’d wake up before dawn to ruminate about my impending death. Without fail, Mary would wake up, gather me in her arms and talk me off the ledge. She’d help me round-up my shiny new collection of cancer fears, pack them up in a box, tape down the lid, and stow them on the top shelf of my mental closet. Day after day, morning after morning, she led me out of my dark place with patience and compassion.

When I hit rock bottom, I packed up my emotional bags and checked out of my body. That escape route that was only made possible because I had Mary to lean on. And lean I did. That weekend she drove me to Louisville to see my family, sat through a 2-hour visit with an alternative practitioner without batting an eye at his bizarre treatment approach or his stratospheric rates, stood in a line (20-women-deep) for a dressing room so I could try on a pair of jeans to fit my new cancer-fit figure, and, on our way out-of-town, drove 20 minutes in the opposite direction to buy me formaldehyde-free nail polish.

Maybe, most amazingly, is that through it all, she never let me see her sweat, never let me feel like a burden, never made me feel like my mood swing, fears, and mental check-outs were anything other than 100 percent normal and acceptable. She never added her own fears to my own raucous pile. Instead, she skillfully caught each one by the tail and caged it until she could release it safely in the company of a close friend or family member.

After more than ten years of loving this woman, I am still in awe. And I am more in love than ever.

Radiation Mishaps Make News

As I’ve discussed here, I suspect radiation played a role in the onset of my breast cancer. How big of a role? I’ll never know. But between the ages of 12 and 14, I regularly received blasts of radiation for the monitoring of scoliosis. I don’t know exactly how many x-rays came my way in total, but I do know that protecting my breasts was never mentioned.

Later, as a health writer, I grew increasingly wary of medicine’s willy-nilly use of radiation. My concern escalated in 2008 when I wrote a piece for Time Magazine about the potential hazards of CT scans, especially for children. The basis of the story was two studies indicating an increased cancer risk associated with multiple CT scans. I was blown away to learn that each CT scan packs as much radiation as up to 500 conventional x-rays. Of course, CT scans can be a life-saving diagnostic tool and should absolutely be used when necessary, but my reporting found that they are widely overused.

Not to mention, the operator-error factor. One of the most disturbing tidbits I uncovered in reporting that story was from a CT technician who admitted that even though newer scanners can be adjusted to give children up to 50% less radiation (a standard recommendation), many technicians simply forget to reset the machine.

Needless-to-say, I was thrilled to see the New York Times tackle the issue of radiation safety these past couple of weeks, and I want to help them spread the word. What first grabbed my attention was this article about the lack of radiation safeguards. The people most often in harm’s way? Cancer patients.

Thousands of radiation errors are made every year, many of which are never reported to the FDA. Here are just a few of the most egregious examples from the NYT’s coverage, When Medical Radiation Goes Awry:

  • Patient A had just completed treatment for a brain tumor and received additional radiation intended for Patient B, who had breast cancer.
  • A 31-year-old woman with vaginal cancer was overdosed because of confusion over the method of measuring the strength of radioactive seeds…causing an overdose of radiation to her rectum and vagina.
  • A doctor implanted radioactive seeds in the wrong location in a patient with prostate cancer. The radiation oncologist then failed to promptly interpret a post-implant CT scan, which would have revealed the error.
  • A patient with breast cancer received a 50% overdose for 10 treatments because a wedge (a gadget used to shape the radiation beam) was mistakenly left out.
  • Another breast cancer patient, 32 years old, received 27 days of radiation overdoses (three times the prescribed amount).

Thankfully, I’m not the only person who was flabbergasted by the magnitude of these medical errors. The NYT’s coverage culminated today in the news that the FDA is finally going to “take steps to more stringently regulate three of the most potent forms of medical radiation, including increasingly popular CT scans.” I’m not a big fan of the FDA. I think the agency is spread too thin and given too little resources to get the job done. But, at the very least, maybe, someone is finally paying attention.

One Year and Counting

Well, the one-year anniversary of my breast cancer diagnosis came and went last week with little hullaballoo. Part of me was braced for an emotional tidal wave that never manifested. As it turned out, January 29th, 2010, was just another day. And, more than anything, I felt/feel lucky. Lucky that I’m on the other side of cancer (knock wood). Lucky that mine was the type that could be sliced out—I have a good friend with lymph cancer who will never have the luxury of another cancer-free day. Lucky that I’m back to worrying about the little stuff, like freelance work. Lucky that I get to move on with my life. Speaking of moving on, friends sometimes ask me what nuts-and-bolts lifestyle changes I made in the past 12 months, so I thought I’d make a little list. Of course, this is not meant to be health advice, I’m just offering a little window into what I did after my cancer diagnosis (aside from freak the hell out). So, here it goes:

  • Stopped drinking Diet Coke
  • Started drinking green tea
  • Started juicing in the mornings
  • Stopped eating sugar, wheat, soy and dairy
  • Went vegan at home
  • Traded anti-perspirant for natural deodorant (yeah, it sucks)
  • Got serious about buying only paraben-free soaps and shampoos
  • Bought chemical-free laundry detergent and dryer sheets
  • Traded soy milk for rice milk (I’ve eased up on the soy)
  • Reduced my use of canned beans
  • Replaced most of the tupperware in my kitchen with glass containers
  • Cut back on wine
  • Yoga, yoga and more yoga

None of these rules are written in stone. In fact, they fluctuate depending on the day. But, more days than not, I follow them, and my plan is to keep it up for a long, long time. I’m not naive. It would be silly to think any one of the actions above might ward off cancer. But it would be equally foolish to stick my head in the sand. I figure that the least I can do is to cut back on the number of cancer-causing, hormone-disrupting substances I invite into my home and body. After that it’s anyone’s game. This time around, maybe I’ll get lucky.