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2014 in Review: Courage

(My friend K gifted me with this mug before my lumpectomy.)

"Courage" is a term that gets bandied about a lot in connection with cancer, so here's my take on it. I keep a handwritten journal in addition to blogging. The journal contains what I call my "raw data" -- myriad snippets ranging from dreams to To Do lists to rants. What follows are excerpts from last year on and around the topic.

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Every day has been (and will continue to be) "Christmas" for me. Instead of the child who runs in pajamas to look beneath the tree for presents, I get out of bed (slowly, still a bit cautious about vertigo), head to the bathroom to meet immediate needs, and then rush the two feet or so to the mirror over the sink to see if more hair follicles have awakened and yawned upward from my scalp. Each new growth is a little gift with my name on it, left quietly while I slept for me to discover in the morning.

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In short, I am amazed.

My breast still looks burned, especially where I got my boost radiation, but it looks worse than it feels. Five days after my last treatment, the blistered skin on my areola fell off to reveal brand new, unburnt skin underneath. Before and after pictures here.

My other blistered site (on the underside of my breast) had been my main source of pain, which I ranked a level 3 out of 10 at most. Usually it got no higher than a 2. By December 10 that pain had disappeared.

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Body and Mind

In 1995 I did the first Boston-New York AIDS Ride, bicycling from my adopted city to my birth city in three days with thousands of other people. I had trained for that ride for about nine months, almost exactly the same length of time I was in active treatment for cancer.

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Rite of Passage

On Friday, nine months and one day after I received my diagnosis, I completed "active treatment" (defined as surgery/chemo/radiation) for breast cancer.

(To read the slips of paper in the RBOI Support Kit, click here.)

On Tuesday (before radiation treatment #30 out of 33) I had photographed the plastic cast tailored to my body shape. This cast had held me in the same position through all 33 treatments:

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Home Stretch

I've been thankful to have a four-day break between the end of my first phase of radiation and the start of my second phase, "boost" radiation. The boost phase guards against cancer recurring at the tumor site. According to Breastcancer.org, "Most people get their boost dose with a special form of external radiation called electrons. This form is used because the dose can be targeted specifically to a small area near the skin surface, sparing the tissue underneath."

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Five Weeks Down/Eight Treatments to Go!

Smooth sailing (relatively speaking) under radiation continues. I move to an earlier time slot next week and have already adjusted my alarm. The treatment facility closes on Thursday and Friday for Thanksgiving. That leaves the first week in December for the last of my treatments, which will occur in a different radiation vault.

My final week of radiation involves the "boost," in which a slightly higher dose is delivered to the tumor bed. Breastcancer.org explains the process here.

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Four Weeks Down

Time seems to speed up under radiation, and suddenly I am almost two-thirds of the way through treatment. Chemo had lasted for more than five months, compared to the expected six weeks plus a bit for this phase. In addition, I am in and out of the treatment center in about a half hour (changing into and out of my robe, getting aligned, and the radiation itself), compared with my three- to four-hour chemo sessions (blood work plus consult plus infusion).

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Three Weeks Down

I am almost halfway through radiation. I noticed some minor skin changes after I got home today (I'm a bit more pink), but nothing bothers me. So far, so good.

The radiation center was decked out in a Hawaiian Luau theme for Halloween. I said I wasn't exactly on theme, but I could be Captain Spaulding (from the movie Animal Crackers) returned from the tropics.

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One hardly thinks of a dental cleaning as a milestone, but that's how I viewed mine. During chemo I had to be very careful to avoid anything that might make my gums bleed. Not only was my immunity down, but mouth bacteria are powerful critters. Any bleeding would create breeding ground for infection.

On Monday, 11 days after my last chemo and with my oncologist's blessing, I returned to my dentist's office. Normally I would be due for a set of X-Rays, but those will have to wait. My sixth radiation treatment had occurred that morning and a body can take only so much frying.


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