We had a work retreat recently, and one of the activities involved writing ten characteristics of yourself on ten stickers and tacking them to the front of your shirt. Then we mingled with colleagues, discussed each other’s attributes, removed a couple of stickers with each conversation, and mingled more until we were down to one sticker.

One of my ten chosen characteristics was “survivor,” and it’s the one I left stuck to my shirt till the very end. Some colleagues knew what it meant; newer ones did not. It felt radical to call attention to it.

Technically, in medical parlance, I am a cancer survivor, meaning I had cancer, but am currently cancer-free. But I am not “cancer-cured.”

The only way I can get a “cured” designation is by undergoing regular CT-scans and blood tests with clean results for five years. Yesterday was a scan day. The scans themselves are relatively quick and easy, especially now that I have more than half a dozen under my belt. But the days leading up to scans, and the hours afterward are nail-biting. I try to be Zen. I have no control over the outcome. But still, it’s a judgment day. What has my body been up to over the past three months?

It’s a reminder that survivorship is a journey.

Calling yourself a survivor is a nice post-treatment perk if you can achieve it. But I’m tentative with the word, even as colleagues, friends and family cheer me on and remark on my recovery. I know the risks of this cancer, and though I am hugely relieved to be alive and in good health, one eye peers anxiously at what might lurk around the corner. I don’t want to jinx anything by boasting about my survivorship.

This thinking must be common, and I assume it will subside over time. Maybe, though, instead of waiting, I should decide myself to control those anxious thoughts.

As I walked past the oncology department yesterday, I recalled my mornings in the chemotherapy infusion clinic—the near constant worry about whether the treatment was working, if my blood levels were up or down, and my vulnerability to infections. The medication smell, the nausea, the insanely annoying beeping of the universally despised (and frequently malfunctioning) pump machines. Everyone in that infusion clinic right now would do anything to be in my shoes. To be called a “cancer survivor.”

I need to honor the struggle, and my accomplishment and milestone. It’s time to fully, proudly and unreservedly own the word SURVIVOR and all it stands for. I worked hard, and I freaking beat cancer, and I will keep beating it day after day, week after week, year after year.

I guess I’m going to need some more stickers.

Update: Yup, still beating cancer this morning. The latest CT-scan came back clear. “No evidence of recurrent or metastatic disease within the chest or abdomen.” Six months down.

[I Will Survive, Gloria Gaynor]


Walking on Sunshine

Those close to me know that I’m not given to excitement. Happy, yes. Content, of course. Blissful, I can do that. But today, I was smiling ear-to-ear after meeting with my oncologist.

As I mentioned in the last post, I came out of surgery with a clean pathology report. But I never really understood what that means. Isn’t that the goal of surgery, to vanquish the cancer? Well, it turns out that rarely happens, at least with pancreatic cancer. My oncologist said fewer than 10 percent of pancreatic cancer patients get this kind of news.

This could be big news for my future health. Pancreatic cancer, the beast that it is, usually comes back, and it comes back quickly and hard. It’s been my biggest fear, the worry that has kept my emotions in check, even after a successful surgery.

But the pathology report suggests my prognosis for a cancer-free future is good. My doctor was obviously happy to be able to share the news. She was actually smiling as we talked; I’ve only seen her smile one other time in the eight months we’ve known each other.

Good news begets good news. A clean pathology report means I don’t need to do any more chemo. This was not a given since they often do “clean-up” chemo after surgery. No need in my case.

I’ve been on a chemo break for seven weeks. Today’s news means I get to keep the returning color in my skin that everyone is mentioning, and the wisps of grey hair that are re-emerging on my head, and my eyebrows, and my energy and all those things that normal people get to take for granted. I don’t have to visit that dreaded infusion clinic or have my blood drawn once a week and worry about whether my red blood cell count or neutrophils are high enough.

No more chemo is a huge win.

As a newly minted “cancer survivor,” I now go into “surveillance” mode with CT scans every three months and watchful eyes on my tumor marker to make sure it doesn’t trend upward. Other than that, I may not need to visit 3701 Broadway for a long while.

Praise be.

I went to bed last night bemoaning my nagging post-surgery side effects. Today, I just don’t care. It’s sunny outside today, and it’s even sunnier inside.

[Walking on Sunshine, Katrina and the Waves]


I Don’t Have Cancer

The pathology report came back from after my surgery, and there are no signs of cancer anywhere around my digestive tract. “That’s about as good a report as you can get,” Dr. K said.

It’s taken seven months to be able to say this: I don’t have cancer.



The surgery went well. Fairly quickly without any surprises or complications. Biggest drawback was me trying to have conversations with people in a cloud of anesthesia. Well, and I guess the giant scar down the middle of my abdomen. I am already done with pain narcotics. Seems I might actually get ice chips today. The quest for French toast continues. Need to pick up my walking game as there seems to be competition from one of the spry olds on my floor.


It’s Over

I had my last chemo treatment (for the time being) a couple of weeks ago. And let me just say, I’d be dancing on a lush green hilltop too if my feet and legs weren’t so swollen from…the chemo.

After going into it with gritted teeth and a strong determination to vanquish the bastard tumor, my chemo run ended with a whimper, with me dragging my body late to infusion appointments because I just couldn’t take the idea of needles and nausea and the horrible smell of that antibacterial swab they use on me. So happy to have that behind me for now.

The reason I am on a prolonged chemo break is because it’s time for surgery. The reason I know this is because I asked my doctors, “Isn’t it time for surgery?” And they said, “Well, look at that. It IS time for surgery.” (That’s really how it happened.)

So this coming Thursday, I will check myself into the Kaiser Oakland hospital and let them dig around my insides.

It’s a complicated six- to eight-hour surgery (you can Google “Whipple procedure”) done by a Kaiser surgeon who I knew very little about until recently. I’ve met him twice and talked two other times, and let’s just say he won’t be reading me a bedtime story as I drift off to sleep before surgery. His terse demeanor is well-known on the hospital second floor. I’m prone to light banter when nervous; he has little time for pleasantries. All of this, along with my aversion to needles and scalpels and long bouts of unconsciousness, has left me on edge (terrified?) about the procedure in recent weeks.

But it turns out, after talking to peers, that Dr. K is also known for something else: being one of the best pancreas doctors in the East Bay. It also turns out, after getting to know him a little, that he is no-nonsense and no-bullshit, but not unfriendly. Just a little bored, perhaps, by having to explain a procedure he has done dozens, if not hundreds of times. If someone is going to extract a tumor from my pancreas and re-pipe my digestive system, it may as well be him. (Dr. K trivia: His daughter was Miss America once. The Miss America.)

I’ll spend a week in the hospital in recovery (assuming no complications) sucking on ice chips and apple juice out of kid-sized boxes, and then at least three weeks at home—not at work, not biking, not kayaking, not doing anything fun.

But…but…after a month of follow-up, clean-up chemo, I will allegedly be cancer-free for the time being. Imagine that.

People keep asking me whether I’m excited by the surgery and finally getting the tumor removed. I’m trying to come around to that. But mostly I’m just looking forward to when it’s over.

[It’s Over, by ELO and featuring Jeff Lynne’s hair]


Get It Out Me

Tumor surgery on February 9th. Lots of mixed emotions, so we’ll leave it at that for now. Happy holidays, all.

[Get It Out Me, Janet Jackson]


War on War

Are we reaching an inflection point in my treatment? My body is not tolerating chemo well.

I’m not talking about the side effects, which are their own Adventureland ride.  

No, my body’s blood components are recoiling at the pounding they are taking from the chemo drugs. White and red blood cells are normal chemotherapy victims; we are, after all, killing both the bad and the good with this sledgehammer of a treatment. But some of mine are being knocked to the canvas.  

First it was neutrophils, the important white blood cells that chomp up infections like PacMan. They got so low one week—making me vulnerable to infection—that we had to skip a treatment. I was heartened this weekend to see that my neutrophils had bounced back to a low-normal level. Clap-clap!

But today at the infusion clinic, Nurse Shoshana offers a surprise: My platelets, which clot the blood and help prevent us from over-bleeding (and which are actually shaped like plates), have dived headlong off a cliff. Per The Oncologist, we reduced the potency of the drugs today to 75 percent to try to keep the platelet count from going much lower. 

All of this matters because…if I can’t safely tolerate chemo, we may need to more quickly to surgery.  

I dread the thought of surgery even though I know it’s inevitable and ultimately what will cure me. It’s a long, complicated procedure that will knock me on my back for weeks. Frankly, it scares me. If anything, I’d wanted to postpone it until after the holidays. 

But this also raises the question in my mind of how I will be able to do post-surgery chemo—a standard part of the treatment—if I can’t tolerate pre-surgery chemo. 

Again, this is not going according to plan. The chemo is waging a violent war against my good cells, all while we try to wage another war against the cancer. 

Patience is my ally. But as I move through these flaming doors, chemo may now be a new demon. 

[War onWar, Wilco]