Zoe's Story: Going the Distance (Week 10)
As I am nearing the 2-week post-surgery mark I am pleased to report I am starting to feel stronger every day. Being self-sufficient, extremely independent, and a type-A personality has made post-surgery recovery particularly difficult. My daily routine has been cleaning drain lines, changing wound site dressings and hour-upon-hour of brain numbing daytime television.
I have had the enviable task of selecting between button down nighties or night shirts and traded the Louboutin’s for fluffy slippers! Shuffling between the sofa and bed has been the highlight of my day and even the most basic of daily tasks, like washing my hair, are a luxury. If I could drink, I fear I would be in a permanent state of intoxication. I spent my entire day yesterday binge watching the Hallmark Channel (who knew there were so many Christmas movies in November?). I even found myself planning the decorating of my home for Christmas and Hanukkah the first week of November! The return to routine and some level of normalcy cannot come soon enough.
The week was a boring blur of nothingness, so the prospect of travelling to Miami on Thursday to meet with my cancer and reconstructive surgeons was an exciting one. Sonja at 25 has never EVER driven me, due to my inability to cease backseat driving. Much to her disgust, she was the designated driver for the day. We left Boca Raton on a beautifully sunny morning to head to Miami for what I hoped would be some good news. We had literally just merged onto the treacherous I-95, when we were immediately hit by the outer bands of Hurricane Eta. The entire journey allowed for no more than 5-10 Ft of visibility and our top speed was a mere 40 miles per hour. Punctuality has always been extremely important to me, which is why we left well over two hours in advance for a 50-minute journey. Even with this extra window of time, I arrived late.
Dr. Avisar was ready and waiting with my final pathology report in hand. When multiple surgeons work on a patient, the surgeon who performs his tasks last assumes ownership of the patient and wounds. This meant that Dr. Avisar could not clear me medically to return to work, nor would he be removing drains for that matter. This visit was for the sole purpose of discussing my final pathology results.
I know every single person out there has the same feelings about 2020. Even our current President has had the full 2020 experience, contracting COVID-19, losing his job, and will soon be evicted from his home. 2020 has in fact robbed us all in every aspect of our lives. Not only on a financial level, but emotionally too. We have lost time with our loved ones and missed out on the experiences that make life fulfilling. Our annual vacations to the far away corners of the world have been cancelled, and celebrations with our family and friends have ceased. We live in solitary confinement and have become cautious around people. It is profoundly saddening how we have all been impacted by 2020. My final pathology results followed much the same path as the rest of 2020 has and delivered yet another disappointing blow!
The staging of cancer is done using a T, N, M system. T (Tumor Size), N (Lymph Nodes) and M (Metastases). Stage 3 breast cancer is then broken down into substages a and b, depending on how many lymph nodes are affected. Dr. Avisar removed 24 lymph nodes during my surgery, and 22 were infected with cancer. There were multiple tumors; all disease was concentrated to my right side, but it was progressed. My final staging is labeled as pT2 (primary tumor) N3a (nodes) M (metastases) pT2 N3a M and is an overall stage 3B.
There was far more disease than initially anticipated, which means I cannot avoid chemo and radiation. Additionally, I will receive the maximum amount possible to try to eliminate any rogue cancer cells left in my body. He also explained that I may never be cancer-free. Cancer-free is exactly that; you are free of cancer. Remission allows for the possibility that some microscopic undetectable cancer will remain in the body. I need to consider myself someone that will live with a chronic illness, in much the same way as someone does with chronic heart disease or a transplant patient, receiving lifelong treatment. I will require lifelong treatment to suppress the cancer. Following chemo and radiation, I will take a cocktail of drugs. One of these drugs is known to be a game-changer in progressed cancer patients like myself. The drug is called CDK 4/6 Inhibitors. I am hoping my insurance company approves this drug for me, but my doctors are starting the process early, so I do not have any breaks in my treatment, just in case the treatment is denied. I guess all-along I had planned to hear the words "you are cancer-free" but this meeting was like a dagger to the heart. Knowing that I may never hear those words was profoundly hard to hear.
I clambered into Sonja’s Jeep, so she could take me to Dr. Oeltjen "the owner of my incisions," as Dr. Avisar stated. Once we arrived, I left Sonja with my pathology report so she could better understand what we were dealing with. I marched off for my second appointment of the day. Dr. Oeltjen’s assistant prepared a table of surgical items, which I assumed would be to remove these drains and make even a bathroom break an impossible task. He is such a wonderful doctor and he joked that Dr. Avisar swoops in like Edward Scissorhands, cutting and slashing away copious amounts of diseased flesh before he steps in to clean up the mess. I have to say, his reconstructive skills are outstanding and it is wonderful that he is using his talents to rebuild woman who have been dealt the unwanted hand of a mastectomy. He was optimistic that I will be sufficiently recovered to be able to start my chemotherapy within four weeks. He did remove two of the drains, which certainly gave some relief. Until next Thursday I will have to manage with the remaining drains, and more concerningly, endure another trip to Miami.
I guess (along with most people) I am guilty of thinking something like this is never going to happen to me, and then it does. If it does, would you be ready? I was most certainly NOT. I know I have encouraged you all to do your annual tests, prioritize your health, spend time with your loved ones, and do all the things on your bucket list. There are a myriad of other things you also have to do. Some are tiresome tasks and others are more frivolous, but I encourage you to do them all. Don’t decline Aflac benefits, life insurance and pension provisions. Trust me; when you are faced with what could be an insurmountable pile of medical bills, and the possibility of a shortened life, you will be so glad you stayed on the benefits call with the Aflac representative and took out that life insurance policy.
A couple of things I added to my to do list were more frivolous, but I did them all the same. Lauren and Mario Munoz (Munoz Photography) have been extended family to me for years. When I was commuting between the UK and USA month-after-month, year-after-year, juggling my career and being a single parent, Lauren and Mario filled my lonely evenings with much needed laughter and love. Most evenings I had a healthy home-cooked meal with them, and they became my extended family. Ironically, Mario has never once photographed me. At brunch, just before my surgery, he asked when we were getting together to document my journey with some overdue photos. Being the private person I am, I laughed-off his suggestion as complete insanity. As the surgery crept closer, I decided I should do it. I put Lauren in charge of styling and emphasized the importance of protecting my prudishness! I cannot speak for all woman, but I can certainly speak for myself when I say that I have most certainly spent most of my life not entirely happy with the way I look. I have my fair share of insecurities and most certainly look at long leggy blondes with lashings of envy. Elisa from Bombshell Makeovers sent a team of hair and makeup superstars to transform me. I see them transforming our brides every weekend, in an effortless flurry of brushes and flat irons, and within a short 90-minutes, I was ready for my shoot. Mario is incredible at what he does, but it is his personality that makes him extraordinary. In true Mario spirit, he arrived in the studio like a world class Chippendale, topless and ready to document phase one of my transformation. It is always hard to see ourselves through the eyes of others; our insecurities often stop us from doing things we should throw ourselves into, but seeing myself through Mario’s lens gave me so much encouragement. He actually gifted me back some self esteem, which I know I needed right about now.
The other thing I did was create a legacy video. This industry is filled with talent and love in abundance. I say this every day; to be in hospitality, you must be someone that has an overwhelming desire to give. Taking care of and giving to others must be a life force that runs in the veins of the team of hospitality professionals that I now call my family. Chad and Sarri from Timeline Video Productions not only got engaged at the Addison, they also honored the Addison family by allowing us to host their special day. Their talent to produce magical mini movies that document brides and grooms’ special moments never ceases to impress me. The darker side to celebrating life’s special moments is the loss of a loved one. Sadly, loss comes to every household at some time; we just do not know when that moment will come knocking. How special would it be if you left behind a legacy video that shared your darkest secrets and allowed you to read a bedtime story to the unborn grandchild you never got to meet. Even if I am still around 30 years from now, I still may not meet my great grandchildren. Thinking about this logically and removing emotion from the scenario, I decided to take advantage of Chad and Sarri’s offer of producing my legacy video. Nicole Greenhouse my friend and the owner operator of BrideZena arrived on her birthday to help me get ready. She is a talented makeup artist and her brand BrideZena promotes a healthy holistic approach to life and health. As we snacked on dehydrated pineapple and discussed the importance of meditation and lymphatic drainage, she readied me for the video. Chad arrived at my home and we simply chatted for over an hour about my birth, childhood, first kiss, what motivates me, my quirky personality traits, my deepest darkest secrets, and fears. One section was entirely dedicated to my cancer diagnosis, which I have shared on my blog so that my friends and family near and far can connect with me and my diagnosis in a way that I hope will bring some clarity and comfort. The video will be held for many years to come, and one day many years from now I hope my family will gather around with popcorn in a room filled with love and watch my messages of love and encouragement. I think you should all take the time to do this.
I have for 49 years lived never having taken medication. I rarely even take Tylenol; I have no prior medical conditions. My blood work is always good and yet here I am with stage three cancer. It is a given I will beat this, and whilst it might not be a knockout win, I will go the distance I need for the ultimate win.