Wednesday, April 20, 2016

The Cancer Journey, 4

So, having healed up from the surgery, I was given the go ahead to visit the Oncologist and the Radiologist. According to the Surgeon, I only needed the Oncologist to prescribe the hormone blocker for me. The big truth of medicine, however, is that one doctor does not speak for another doctor. Ever.

The Oncologist suggested the possibility of chemo. Nasty stuff, chemo. It poisons you, but hopefully the cancer cells, being weaker and stressed by their growth and fast division, should die from the chemo while your healthy cells will only be damaged. Damaged cells, in time, should recover.

Should.

But does every one with breast cancer need chemo?  No. If your cancer hasn't metastasized, that is, some cells have started to wander away from the mother tumor to hide in healthy tissues and grow baby tumors, then you don't need to poison the entire body to get them all out. But how can the oncologist be sure that the cancer cells have not reached that point? Yes, the margins of the tumor were clear, not ragged with areas where cells have broken away, and there were no cancer cells trapped in the lymph nodes, but still, could a few have gotten away and just not yet been washed into the lymph nodes?

And that's where the cancer story gets complicated.

Cancer starts with a mutation in a cell, generally a cell that is not completely differentiated and still dividing. These are germinal cells (the ones used in reproduction,)  renewal cells (skin,  gut, and other orifice linings), or undifferentiated cells used to repair and rebuild tissues. But most mutations will simply make a cell defective and kill it. But mutations in certain areas will unlock the genes that the cells used when it was part of the embryo. These cells grow and divide, just as they did in the early embryo, but in a mature person they form a tumor. This tumor does not have, however, the directions to tell it when to stop growing.

Even worse, the unlocking of these genes causes other genes to unlock. With each cell unlocked, the cancer cells become more and more like embryonic cells. They lose the characteristics of the cell they had been, become formless, and then do something else that embryonic cells do -- they wander to other places in the body.

In embryology, the cells move around quite a lot, but they know where they are going. They form discrete structures and mature into proper organ cells. Cancer cells, on the other hand, have Alzheimer's. Not only are they regressing into infanthood, they wander with no idea of purpose or place. Eventually they get stuck somewhere, settle down for away, and then grow and divide. And create more tumors.

Worse, the cells in a tumor do not do this all at the same time. While many cells are in Stage 1 cancer, others have changed into stage 2 or stage 3 cancer cells. So just because most of the cells are still only mildly changed, there may already be stage 4 cells wandering through my tissues.

Getting poisoned starts to sound better. What chance is there that there are advanced cells in my body?

In my case the biopsy did show that about 5% of my cells were changing faster than the rest.

So the Oncologist asked for two things before he determined that I would not need chemo. One was a catscan to check for metastasis tumors in my chest and abdomen, and the other was Oncotype(dx) testing. The Oncotype(dx) testing looks at the genes in the cancer cells and gives the tumor a score based on the number of genes that have already been unlocked in the tumor. "So," he said, "I'd like to send your tumor away for genetic testing."

I touched my wounded breast. "But it's gone."

He grinned. "I have it here."

I'm sitting in the office of a doctor who collects people's tumors! Does he have them in little display cases along the walls of his office?

So I got my catscan two days later, and it showed many interesting things, but no metastatic cancer. I do have a tortured aorta, proof that my heart has been twisted by the cruelties of fate, and my liver is overweight, but nothing to concern the oncologist. Two long weeks passed before the result of the Oncotype DX came back. My tumor had a score of 18, right on the border between slow and intermediate. With the fact that the tumor margins had been clear and the sentinal lymph nodes had been clear, we threw the dice and decided against chemotherapy.

Yay! I hope...

So, on to radiation...

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

The Cancer Journey, 3



On February 2, Groundhog's Day, and just thirteen days after receiving my diagnosis, I fasted and prayed and presented my sacrificial body to the local hospital. With a minimum of fuss, apparently having realized that I was a flight risk, I was ushered into a small room and told to change my clothes for a gown and a pair of "lovely designer socks." One size fits all, of course. The most striking feature of the socks is that they have non-slip soles, for those few times when the nurses will actually let you out of bed. They are made of soft cotton, are washable, and go home with you.

The gown was made of paper. Stiff paper. It could have held the largest person I know, but on me it stood straight out in all directions. It was also incredibly hot. The nurse came back, took one glance at my apparently reddening face, and ran to get a cloth gown. When she brought it back and I quickly changed, I asked her about the paper gown, which was lined with extra paper. It also had holes in it, lined with a rubber seal like the opening to a vacuum cleaner bag, that did not penetrate the lining.

"It can be inflated with hot air," she explained, showing me a tube that ran from the wall. "Some people like it."

Not people whose estrogen has been suddenly stopped just a week previous, I don't think.

We went through the normal surgical preliminaries -- starting the IV, allowing in the visitors, a quick chat with the anesthesiology people. I repeated again and again my one great wish, "Please have a big bucket on the bed in the recovery room. Not a spit-up tray. I throw up after general anesthesia. I really throw up."

And everyone assured me it was okay, that the anesthesiologist has drugs for this sort of stuff. And I would repeat my request. And I would get assurances...

And then I and my surgical buddy were whisked down for some pre-surgery work. I had to have a wire installed in my breast. In order to make sure to get the tumor with a minimum of effort and damage, a radiologist used an ultrasound to guide a wire into the center of the mass. As he planned his route, he muttered, "I'm going to go right through the center of both of them."

"Both?" I was supposed to have only one tumor. I didn't like the idea of new tumors suddenly popping up. That's a bad, very bad sign.

"Lesions. The other could be a hematoma."

"According to the MRI, it's a hematoma," I said, a bit relieved. I hugged my surgery buddy tightly.

After the wire was installed, I was also injected with a radioactive tracer that would help the doctor know which lymph nodes to sample. And then a mammogram to verify that the wire was correctly placed. And the doctor proudly said, "Right though all three of them."

"Three?"

"The tumor, the 'hematoma,' and the marker clip." I could hear the quotation marks in his voice.

Along the way we discussed the identity of my surgery buddy. His technician was the only person that day to even know who he was, and even she only recognized the name, and not his immensely cute, squishable form.

And then came the surgery, which lasted under half an hour, and I came aware in the recovery room. After a few minutes polite discussion, I suddenly begged for the bucket. She gave me a spit-up tray. And then she gave me something bigger. And then again, and again, and again, and...  Finally she hung another bag of fluids so that I would at least go home well-hydrated.

Reaction 1, drugs 0.

Pathology confirmed that that the tumor was no more than one centimeter at its widest point, and that no cancer cells have been identified beyond its margins. The lymph nodes, the filters on the great sewer system of the body, had caught no cancer cells. It would appear, at this point, that it was caught early and removed cleanly. And that the other thing was indeed a hematoma. Whew!

I don't know what the future treatment will entail. I need some more doctor's visits to determine what path to take. Chemo is not likely, radiation therapy is. Also a drug to starve my body of estrogen, which will make life even more interesting than it already is. But I don't have those answers yet. I haven't reached that part of the quest. Still, the dragon is dead and all that's facing me is the long slog back from Mordor.

The reactions to my having cancer have been interesting. My friends have taken it much worse than I have. But from where I'm standing, this sucker was caught early by an annual mammogram and removed before it could start acting really cancerous. It had not yet begun wandering through my body, and there is a pretty decent chance that even if I refused all further treatment, I would never see it again. And while I have a couple of new scars, and some pain, my body is not particularly mutilated. It's like I'm looking at a crumpled fender yet knowing that I just narrowly missed a catastrophic wreck.

And its even more poignant because, if I had followed the proposed guidelines that women shouldn't bother with a mammogram every year, that every other year is good enough, I would be writing a different story. This would have been my off year, and if I had waited until next year to find this, then I would likely be looking at a full mastectomy, strong chemotherapy, and a much greater chance of recurrence.

So please, go get your annual mammogram. Tell them Cthulhu sent you.





Friday, February 5, 2016

The Cancer Journey, 2






Am I the only person tempted to say "Beetlejuice" three times?

With a diagnosis of cancer comes a lot of reading material. A lot. I have a pamphlet for every little procedure and possible pathway on this journey. Most will need to go on a shelf and wait for another day, and hopefully will be of no more use to me than as resource for future writing, but if I need them, I have them. And I can pretty well answer the question of "Where does the American Cancer Society spend all that money it doesn't spend on research?"

It's spent on education, on these pamphlets, on classes, and on resources for the Newly Diagnosed.

My next step was to get an MRI which would tell the doctor if there were any other developing trouble spots. In an MRI, for the person who has never been through this, you are put into a tube and subjected to loud banging noises. To protect your ears -- unless you are the unfortunate child who is getting an MRI of her head -- the technicians give you headphones to cover your ears and pipe in music that will not be heard over the banging. And then, to examine just the afflicted part, it is elevated away from the rest of the body. But when the afflicted part is something soft and squishy that is not easily elevated, then gravity is used. I had to lay down on a special frame and pretend I was Superman. The worst part of the whole thing, easily, is that the technicians failed to start the IV (for contrast) on one side, and so had to stick the other side as well.

The next day I went to see the plastic surgeon. He was a very affable man. He told me all about the various kinds of implants I could receive if I had a mastectomy. One can get saline implants, silicone implants, or even a new solid natural shape silicone implant. And then he said the words that pretty much sealed up my opinion of getting reconstruction: "The second surgery will be outpatient and will take place a few weeks or months after the first."

No.

It seems that after the mastectomy, which removes all the tissue above the muscle wall, the plastic surgeon comes in and places a spacer under the pectoral muscle. (So you're sore both above and below that muscle.) Then, over the course of several weeks, the spacer is inflated with saline. When it's big enough, the spacer is removed under general anesthesia and the implant put into its place. "It's outpatient surgery."

No! (Have I told anyone how surgery phobic I am?)

And then, because implants wear out over time, and I'm such a young woman, I could expect to have the implants replaced every ten years or so.

NO!

Of course, the other option is flap reconstruction, where muscle and fat is taken from the belly or buttocks, and a new breast is molded from it. Advantage -- it never needs replacement and never feels hard, and can be done completely at the time of the mastectomy. Disadvantage -- you end up with two big surgical sites instead of just one, and if the tissue is taken from your belly, you end up with a weaker abdominal wall than before.

Dear God, no, just get me out of here!

And then the plastic surgeon pulled up the radiologist's report from the MRI from the night before -- thanks to open access of records he could see what had been posted in my chart -- and gave me the news that the MRI had confirmed a singular lesion of not particularly large size. I was likely go for the lumpectomy.

Thank God. Finally, a bit of luck my way.

On Friday I went back to the Breast Surgeon and got the results of the cell tests. Estrogen positive, Progesterone positive, and HRER negative. What this means is that the cancer cells are fed by hormones, so I will need to take a hormone blocker for years to prevent recurrence, but I do not have certain genes that predispose me to developing cancer. So my prognosis for survival is pretty good -- barring a zombie apocalypse, an ecological collapse, or a wayward asteroid.

The Cancer Jouney, 1




Yep, that's what they call it these days. The Cancer Journey. Personally, I'd prefer an Alaskan Cruise, or even a Mediterranean Cruise, but I guess we take what we can get.

I'm sure that there are many, many, many blogs out there about The Cancer Journey. Some even have science in them. This one is my story, and while it may not be significantly different from all the other journeys out there, it will answer all the questions of my friends and family. And who knows, maybe I'll pick up some more friends along the way.

The story started in the last week of December, when I went in for my annual mammogram. Now, like many women in this world, I have no particular fondness for that exam, but I go anyway because I'm not going to tell all the people I know who have had breast cancer or other issues that I just can't be bothered. So I went. I even went a bit early because I had plans to see the new Star Wars Movie, and the technician took me in early and quickly did the scan.

At the end of it, she said, "I'm rushing these over. You'll understand why." And of course I understood why. It was the holiday season, she had told me about her children, so she obviously had things that needed to be done which were a lot more interesting than running tests. Going early was a favor to everyone, right? So, even before my appointment time I headed to the movie, which turned out to be a bust -- all the showings were sold out. So I made plans to see it another day and came home to the message that "further evaluation was needed. We'd like to schedule an ultrasound."

I had flunked my mammogram.

December had been an incredibly stressful month for reasons above and beyond the season, and I didn't feel like causing undue alarm in anyone over something that probably nothing -- so I made the appointment and kept it to myself. Though I did have to tell my one daughter because the ultrasound appointment would affect when I could pick her up from work. And the technician kept assuring me that the spot that had been seen was likely a cyst, these are usually benign, etc.

I flunked the ultrasound.

The images were sent directly to the radiologist, over the internet, and now I needed a biopsy. And that was scheduled for the next week, at seven in the morning. So now I _had_ to admit to the rest of my family what was going on. But no worries, the biopsy usually shows that these cysts are benign.

I flunked the biopsy.

Three weeks, exactly, after the mammogram, I was sitting in the Breast Surgeon's office as he outlined my possible options: lumpectomy with radiation or mastectomy, with or without reconstruction. He asked me to see a Plastic Surgeon to learn about my reconstruction options, to get an MRI, and to come back in a week when he would also have the results of some tests on the tissue samples. And then we would make decisions, once he could tell me what decisions I could make.

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Pantsing vs. Plotting



“Are you a Plotter or a Pantzer?”

The most political yet honest answer I have to that question is, “I have learned the value of Plotting.” It is indeed the most efficient way to write a story, and it gives the story its best chance of being written – for even if you are sick to death of the thing, you can still doggedly follow a written plot to the end. And it will be complete. If you are Pantsing, on the other hand, you must engaged and enthusiastic about the story, and if it takes a wrong turn or bogs down, it is so much easier to drop the book into a nearby drawer and take up officially with the next one – which, to tell the truth, you have been cheating on the first book with. Plotting is essential if you want to write professionally, for time wasted is money lost and plotting keeps you from wasting time with dead ends, plot collapses, and dull days when writing is hard. 

But Pantsing is fun. 

Pantsing is putting your characters into an interesting situation and asking, “What if?” And as you write that, you think another “What if?” and “What next?” In this way you keep the main characters moving from situation to situation, from complication to complication, until finally you allow them to reach the resolution. As you write you draw on your character’s personalities, experiences, and situation to create complications. You send them off to new places that you heard about yesterday, and you have no idea where they will end up tomorrow. In Pantsing, a great amount of time is spent mulling over the story and character to figure out where it will go next.

Pantsing is also a very social way to write. Most Pantsers like to talk about their books as media fans talk about an ongoing series, using their friends both as soundboards and as inspiration. Plotters, I’ve found, don’t have as much time for that idle chit-chat. They already know where the book is going and what will happen, and they don’t need to bounce their ideas off of each other. Instead, they will talk about all the other interesting things in their lives – for one advantage of Plotting is that it is much easier to put down the book at the end of a writing session and think about other things.

The result from Plotters and Pantsers is often different. Plotted books move smoothly from start to finish, with all the parts working together from the start and few digressions. I can often see how a book will end when it is Plotted, just from the general shape of the plot, the emphasis that the author gives each character, and the progression of the events. I still read such books for the drama and action, but the plot is like a road that goes to its destination. Pantsed novels, on the other hand, have unforseen twists and turns, non-obvious connections, and endings that are not neat but not unsatisfactory.  They are more akin to a trek through the backroads – and for the adventurous, a lot more fun. 

As you may have guessed, I am basically a Panster. My current WIP, Maroon Sunia, Barbarian Princess of the North, is being written Pantsed. I took my hardworking tavern girl, gave her some magic armor, and set her on an Adventure with only the vaguest idea of what she would achieve and what she would find along the way. I throw adventures at her and her companions, I lean on tropes and turn them on their heads. At this point, halfway through, I know the final scene and the major points I will reach on the way there. Every week there are new adventures to write about, new ideas, and questions to answer. Writing is slow – about a chapter a week, but it has been steady.

On the other hand, I have also written Plotted novels. There is no way to write a first draft in thirty days unless I have a plot to draw on, to tell me each day what I will do and where I will go with the story. Furhter, Plotting is a good way to rescue a story that started off Pantsed, stalled out, and now sits in the dust with its wheels spinning. So, I have learned the value of Plotting.

Plotting is for productivity and Pantzing is for fun. My best work, however, comes from a combination of the two approaches. If I minimally plot out a story by deciding what the ending and the major plot points will be, and I write toward those points, I can Pants the stuff in between and not get lost. I can both have fun and be productive. That’s what works best for me.


Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Marcon Con Report -- Saturday Only





We drove through pouring rain to reach Marcon, but the worst was the fog. Halfway between the cities was a thick fog bank. On one side of it, I saw a car that had apparently slid into the retaining wall on the side, hard enough to severely damage the car but not hard enough to damage the driver. On the other side of the fog a saw a car turned sideways, and another in the field below.


Once we arrived in Columbus, we found the garage to be full. I drove around a bit, and finally found my way to the Chestnut Street garage. We hiked to the convention center through the walkways, a fair distance but out of the rain. At the con we found that registration we found the room right before everyone else.
Thus we were only mildly late to our first event, a fan-based Dr. Who panel. Both panelists and audience members contributed with their favorite memories of the show.



Our next event was watching the The Confused Greenies perform a new, unrehearsed, mostly improve play: Dottore Who and the Convenient Plot Device. Dottore Who lands on a planet where everyone lives his life as a streetplay, and everyone’s life ends happily due to the Convenient Plot Device. But horrors! The device has been stolen! By who? Why? And what part with Skarino the Dalek play?

My Little Demon


After that we ate lunch, palled around, and visited the art show and the Dealer’s room. The art show was only half full, and while the dealer's room was full, I think that there were fewer dealers and more display space per dealer. Further, the con did not restrict entrance into the dealer's room to attendees only, so that they could get business from the attendees of other events.



Next we went to the Plot Doctor’s panel. Eric Flint was on the panel, as well as Charles Gannon, Emilie Bush, and G. Wedlund.  We were asked what plot problems we had for them to fix, and no one volunteered one. So the panelists were left to talk about plotting, and various tools that they used to help them plot. Excell, Note cards, and Dragon Speech recognition were all discussed, including the trick of using a voice recorder on a Smartphone and Dragon to turn the comments into written notes. All attempts to derail the panel were rebuffed...




After that we got dinner, and found far more friends to talk to in the food court than we had in the con suite. And then we went home.



Thoughts on the con: It was very quiet for a con, especially a Marcon. A lot of my con friends were not there, and the energy was way, way down. There were a lot of people in the building, but most were attending other events: a volleyball tournament and a dance competition. It got a bit hard to tell the cosplayers from the dance competition girls, but the dance girls came in multiples and had sexier outfits. Other people have reported having a good time, however. I think much more was going on in the gaming rooms and at night. But I missed the science track programming, and I would have like to see more programming on popular TV shows and movies. Especially with the success of the Marvel movies, a few panels on comic book topics would have been very welcome.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Elizabeth's Graduation

Last Sunday Elizabeth graduated from the University of Dayton. There was no commencement speakers, no valedictorian speeches, no grandstanding. But plenty of students, who were all called up name by name and honored before the crowd. And it was quite a crowd.


In fact , we spent most of the time trying to figure out if we could see her. I realized too late that I should have brought my binoculars. However, when she received her diploma holder and had her hand shook in congratulations by the Provost, her image was splayed across the large screens in the corner.

The poor thing was a bit nervous when we left, so I grabbed a plush creature for her to hug. It turned out to be a fortuitous grab -- in the mass of people trying to leave the stadium afterwards, but not trying so hard as to not stop in large clusters and have long conversations, it was east to lose each other. But the tallest member of our party was the only person carrying a long, green, plush tentacle...


Afterwards there was dinner and cake: