I’ve never been a risk taker by nature. I’ve always preferred to play it safe (maybe to the extreme), but I do know my limitations and what my personal triggers are for debilitating fear. Even hubby can attest to that. Decades ago, hubby and I were skiing at Beaver Creek in Colorado. It was quite new at the time, so the terrain was unfamiliar to us. Much of it most of it was more challenging than I’d normally ski.
We were on the slopes early that day. Although we did stop briefly for lunch, by mid afternoon I could feel the fatigue coming on. And as all skiers (and snowboarders) know, it’s never good to ski when fatigued. That’s when stupid shit happens.
Hubby, on the other hand, is like the Energizer Bunny. He only stops skiing when the chair lifts stop running. So at 2:30, he still had another hour and a half before he’d be forced to pack it in.
We pulled out the trail map and examined it together.
“You want the fastest way down or the easiest way down?” I was surprised he had to ask. But for an instant I actually did consider both options. The fastest way down was incredibly appealing.
“I want the easiest way down.” Okay then.
He studied the map for another moment and then pointed out which trails I had to get to that would lead me to the easier stuff…and ultimately to the lure of hot-spiced wine and comfortable chairs. He pointed to a cut-off run that was important not to miss. I pulled off my sunglasses and looked at the map carefully to be sure I knew where it was. Then he folded the map back up and handed it to me. I stuffed it into my pocket.
“You think you got it okay?” he asked.
Yup, I got it. And I couldn’t wait to unbuckle my ski boots and free up my feet. We hugged it out and parted ways. Adios, Jean Claude! (For you young ‘uns, Jean Claude Killy was a French World Cup Alpine Ski Racer, and hubby had skills so far beyond my own that I got in the habit of calling him Jean Claude on the slopes).
Skiing solo now, I cruised along in fine form being careful to follow the route we’d mapped out. I got to the cut off area, clearly marked, and proceeded. Within two minutes or so, I noticed that this slope was getting steeper and substantially more challenging. Down below it was a lot more narrow. I tried to slow my rhythmic pace, not wanting to gain any more speed than I already had.
I could feel the first subtle signs of uncertainty, the feeling of being in over my head. My heart began to thump louder, my legs began to feel clumsy and weak. I decided to stop and ‘regroup’ (read: get my shit together). The one skill I’d gotten really good at was halting.
Smack dab in the middle of this unexpectedly steep run, I adjusted my sunglasses to look for a better line, thinking maybe I should just traverse more…but I don’t really like traversing …its hard to find any rhythm that way. So I looked down slope. I could see there was a left turn down there, where it would take me to the easy stuff. I’d noticed it on the map, but didn’t expect it to be more than an easy swing to the left, where the trail cut through the trees to dump me out onto an easier run…the easier way down.
Shadows were beginning to get really long, so I removed my sunglasses to really study that turn.
Damn it. It was actually a stiff 90 degree bend. The steep approach made me extremely nervous. I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box, but I am smart enough to know that if I picked up too much speed and couldn’t make that hard turn…then I’d be going right off the edge to the great beyond. Earth literally ended there. Nothing but sky beyond that edge. No tree tops, no nothing.
My heart began to race like a drunken jackrabbit. I pulled the map back out, and opened it up. What a waste of time that was. So instead I assessed the steepness of the slope that was behind me, the stuff I’d already skied. Good grief…stop being such a baby! You’ve already skied down THAT for Gods sake!
I surely had options, so I began to go through them. I pondered taking my skis off, but dismissed the idea because of the steepness of the slope. Knowing me, I’d trip over my own ski boots and fall anyhow. Then I’d for sure tumble all the way down there and right off that cliff into the vast expanse of nothingness. I decided taking my skis off wasn’t wise.
So I stood frozen, chastising myself. Just get on with it already! Do it! Go! Damn it, GO!
No no no no no! I’ll gain too much speed! What if I won’t be able to slow it down? I literally could ski RIGHT OFF THAT CLIFF! (Mind you, I had just recently watched the movie ‘On the Other Side of the Mountain’. It was very fresh in my mind. It’s the true story about Jill Kinmont, the National Women’s Slalom Champion ski racer. If you love to ski but haven’t seen this movie…don’t. JUST DON’T, okay?)
So I did what any smart woman would do. I went with Option B: I sat down.
I listened hard for sounds of any other human activity. Couldn’t hear much beyond the pounding of my own heart. I mumbled to myself, berated myself, and inhaled the mountain air deeply. Then I heard…well, nothing. Nada. Silence, except for the sound of the chilly wind whispering through the pines. Clearly, there were no skiers coming down this run. Apparently everyone but ME knew to stay off this lousy slope.
My mind wandered for a while, wondering if I’d left out any other options in my thinking. I felt a chill. I glanced at my watch. 3:45. JEEZ….I’d been sitting there for… what? Almost an hour? Daylight was running out. I could see a chairlift way off in the distance, through the tops of those pine trees. I caught glimpses of riders, though there weren’t a whole lot. And it was far enough away that I couldn’t hear their voices. So I continued to sit.
The long sunlit shadows quickly disappeared completely giving way to the approach of winters early twilight. I looked at the sky. Clouds were bunching up, and I wondered about the moon. Soon it would be dark. Seriously dark. And I actually thought to myself this bizarre notion: Well, I guess they’ll dig me out at spring thaw.
I glanced again at that chair lift. No more riders. The chairs weren’t even moving now. I wondered if hubby would be the one to alert ski patrol, and how long it would take him to realize I’d never made it off the mountain. Would they send up snow cats with huge headlights to find me before I froze to death?
It’s an extremely thin line between insanely idiotic and absolute stupidity. On that particular day, insanely idiotic clearly got the best of me, but absolute stupidity got some pretty good shots in as well. I knew time was running out. And I began having conversations with myself. Just suck it up and DO IT! DO IT! STAND UP AND JUST DO IT!
I was so startled by a whoosh above me, that I twisted around in a panic to see what or who it was. OMG! It’s Jean Claude!
He came to an impressively abrupt halt, just inches above my head, spraying snow all over me. He’d been clearly startled to see me sitting there. With a very red face he yelled “What the HELL are you doing here?!” I made note that he was not concerned for my safety…no ‘Oh Honey!!! Are you okay?’ I guess he knew my look for debilitating fear better than I’d realized.
So I replied (not so nicely): “What the hell do you THINK I am doing?!” And I pointed angrily towards the steep stretch below where that cliff was waiting to hurl me over the edge. For clarity, I yelled the obvious; “THAT CANNOT POSSIBLY BE THE EASIEST WAY DOWN!”
He was a bit slow on the uptake that day, but the tears slipping down my frozen cheeks must have clued him in. His voice was a tad kinder when he asked if I’d been sitting in the middle of the slope the entire time. DUH. I had no words…only the emotion of someone balanced precariously between the insanely idiotic and the real desperation of absurd stupidity. To his credit, he said nothing further, but suddenly skied around me and stopped about 10 feet below. At first I thought he was ditching his lunatic wife. But, nope. He turned his skis horizontally and turned his upper body towards me, then extended his ski pole like a fencing sword.
“Grab on,” he said calmly.
“Just do it!’ he said in a voice that sounded somewhat miffed, but probably wasn’t really meant that way…maybe it was meant to be more like; oh for crying out loud!
So I grabbed on, and he skied (are you ready for this?) HE SKIED BACKWARDS down this shitty steep slope while towing me…a petrified little baby. I knew then that I was safe. Jean Claude had come to my rescue.
As he towed me closer to where I could clearly see the hard turn we’d have to make, I released his pole and whizzed right on past him. “Thank you!” I yelled out, my voice still choked in emotion. I careened around that ominous turn to the catwalk trail and took only a brief glance at the cliff I might have gone over. It wasn’t quite the drop off I’d envisioned…but it wasn’t a slope I’d have had the nerve to try except in my dreams.
We skied the narrow trail through the trees for a short distance and suddenly it opened up to a wide expanse of much kinder terrain. I literally FLEW from there, all the way down to the bottom, barely beating Jean Claude to the finish (he’d slowed it down to keep track of Miss Paranoid).
Later, when I asked Jean Claude how he’d ended up on that very same run himself, he told me he’d simply wanted to see what those slopes were really like that he’d mapped out for me.
…So, I told you about that day because it illustrates what was probably my finest example of debilitating fear. Debilitating fear is exhausting, like running on a hamster wheel. The more you run, the more worked up you get. And it’s irrational. You can’t get off the wheel until you stop running. Which brings me to this…sometimes in life, there simply are no easy ways to jump off the hamster wheel. Our choices will always have consequences, but until we actually act upon our decisions, we can’t know with any real certainty what the result will yield.
When it comes to my health, living with an aggressive form of metastatic cancer, there’s no standard of care, not really…because the science of cancer is different in each one of us, given our own unique DNA and cellular structure. Drugs that work for some don’t work for others, even with the exact same pathology results. Cancer continues to be truly the ‘Emperor of All Maladies’ (boy, how fine a title was that for the book that details the history of cancer?)
These past almost 12 months, I’ve not been writing much. I’ve thought about it…wondering how to express what’s really going on in my heart and in my head. But it’s been rather a rough time emotionally, with the unexpected twists in life, which included the unexpected death of a longtime friend close to my heart, as well as the passing of our beloved dog, Charlie.
Distracted by a sadness that I cannot adequately articulate, I simply walked away from the writing for a while. But people have been asking. How am I doing? Are my treatments finally over? I’m looking well, so it makes sense that they’d assume the worst is behind me. I wish it were true. But that’s just not the case with metastatic breast cancer. It’s never going to be behind me, until all treatments stop working and I transition to whatever is in front of me, in the great beyond.
The good news is: last scans in February showed that my cancer hasn’t spread beyond where it already dwells. I continue to get chemo every three weeks, and I get scans as well as an echo-cardiogram every three months. I get blood draws one hour prior to my chemo infusions checking to be sure my counts are not dangerously low (or high), and they also monitor my liver enzymes closely to be sure my liver function isn’t suffering. (Godzilla can cause liver failure and it’s cardio-toxic as well). Because of yet another oral chemo I’ve been on for these past two years, my bone density has been compromised. So now my bones are at high risk for fracture.
My oncologist has ordered bone-strengthening injections that I’d get just twice a year. Potential and most worrisome side effect of these injections is something known as jawbone necrosis (yup, it’s as bad as it sounds). However, my insurance denied approval for the injections. My oncologist has appealed their decision to deny this drug, and is insistent she will in fact get their approval. So presumably I’ll be getting this injection at some time in the not too distant future, unless Obamacare refuses to accept the treatment advice from my oncologist, one of the leading research oncologists in the country at one of the top ten cancer research centers in the nation.
In the meantime, I was advised to get any pending dental work done before they start with the injections. Because, well…we sure don’t want my jawbone to die off before I do.
Side affects from Godzilla have slowly been building in their intensity over recent months, and have begun to take a toll on my quality of life. I discussed this with my oncologist. We spoke about the options to alleviate some of these side effects, the worst of which is peripheral neuropathy in my feet and hands. I can’t walk the distance of a nine hole round of golf, I can’t grip the club head with much strength, and my tingling achy fingers tend to stiffen up so much, I can’t unbend them without using my other hand to do so. These symptoms distract me now at work as well.
She suggested a prescription drug called Gabapentin, known to be very helpful for neuropathy, but it’s one of those that I’ve seen advertised on TV with a litany of potential side effect warnings that include “THOUGHTS OF SUICIDE OR EVEN DEATH”.
Ummm, NO thank you. Why would I take a drug to alleviate side effects that would simply add more side effects of its own? We also discussed skipping one round of chemo (my idea). I figured six weeks between infusions instead of three weeks would be like a gift to myself. I could enjoy some relief and maybe one or two rounds of golf, or just a good long walk. Then I’d return to the party.
My oncologist looked at me as if assessing whether or not I was insanely idiotic or just incredibly stupid. “These drugs are keeping you alive! So why wouldn’t you take the Gabapentin to manage side effects? If that doesn’t work, we just stop and look for another alternative.”
The idea of one more drug in my body is so unappealing to me. And she must have noticed my hesitation to respond. So she then suggested a reduced dosage of Godzilla, but just for two or three rounds, to see if there was any difference in my side effects. “BUT”, she declared, “We don’t know what the efficacy will be. Right?” (As in: comprende?)
So. Efficacy. That’s a word I don’t hear real often.
“Let’s reduce the dosage 20% and see how that works”, she continued. “Then, after just two rounds you let me know if you get any relief, and if not we’ll crank it back up to full dosage.”
I negotiated for only a 10% reduction, but she didn’t think that would be enough for any favorable relief. So forty minutes later, Portia got plugged in and Godzilla got hooked up…at 80% of my usual dosage. But still the nurse took full precautions. She broke out her long protective coat, face mask, and gloves before handling the bag of liquid drugs; no one wants Godzilla exposure. Seeing the nurse in this attire is a constant reminder that in order for me to live in the here and now, it comes at a price… not just to me, but to my caregivers as well. These people are truly angels on this earth.
The very next morning after my infusion, I woke up quite surprised that the neuropathy in my hands was noticeably improved. None of my fingers felt stiff. Same in my feet…the feeling of swelling, burning sensation and tingling had definitely improved.
So, now I can actually walk greater distances with less pain, and I can actually knit without my finger joints stiffening up to the point where I have to use my other hand to unbend the fingers into neutral position once again. (It’s quite bizarre, really). I no longer get distracted at work with my feet or my hands. But it has come with a price.
After two weeks of enjoying this newfound relief, I emailed my oncologist because I’ve literally been losing sleep over this efficacy thing. “Good news!” I wrote. “Noticeable improvement! But I’ve been thinking about what you said about not knowing the efficacy of this reduced dosage. So I would like to crank it back up to full dosage next week and just try the Gabapentin instead.”
Within minutes, she replied. “Very glad to hear about the improvement in your neuropathy. I would recommend that we stay at this dose for the next two or three cycles. Then we can go back up and see if the neuropathy comes back. Sound reasonable?”
Life is just so unpredictable.
My next round of tests and scans is in six days. I’m trying not to think about it, because the efficacy of this reduced dosage will be revealed within the results of these tests. But I am proud to say I am certainly not frozen in fear, because knowledge is POWER. And there is no finer truth than the knowledge that life is just incredibly unpredictable. Anything can happen. To anyone. At anytime.
I have Jean Claude by my side. The road ahead may be limited in its distance to my final destination, but the timeline I’m on is my own. I’m not interested in the fastest way forward, or even the easiest way forward. I’m just navigating the slopes as best I can. And if I have to take a breather to regroup, without apology I will sit right down until I know for certain that I can navigate that next turn on my own terms.