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breast cancer

Last year I ran two marathons. It was my first real attempt at to take on any kind of endurance challenge. For me marathon running is both terrifying and exhilarating. You get to the start and wonder – did I train enough? Did I do enough speed work? Run enough hills? Log enough miles? Drink enough water? I secretly love the training, the hours of running, in the heat, in the cold, with the dog. I loathe the last 2-3 weeks before race day where you cut back on mileage to prepare. I get bored, and crabby. I’m really fun to be around during that period.

Having had cancer myself, when I signed up for my first marathon, I considered doing so with an organization that raises money for fight cancer. However, though it may sound silly, I wanted to make sure that I could do it first! So this year I will be running the Marine Corps Marathon through the DetermiNation program in order to raise money for the American Cancer Society.

I am on the hook to raise $1275, which is no small chunk of change. Honestly, I would love to raise more. Please help me with this goal. I will be thanking you every mile.

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This morning I ran in the Global Race for the Cure 5K. It is the first time that I’ve done this particular race by myself. I admit to feeling an odd sense of entitlement when I am running in it. I find myself entertaining thoughts along the lines of “get out of my way with your stupid stroller,” or “why the hell did you stop dead two steps in front of me – you signed up to run and we’re a quarter of a mile in,” or “I know that you didn’t just throw an elbow right into my survivor shirt just to gain a whole step in front of me, asshole.” It feels like my race. I had breast cancer, so all of you, really you’re running for me. I own that shit. At least that’s the weird twist my brain puts on it when I’m out there. It’s always crowded. It’s always blisteringly hot, even though it starts early. Honestly, were it any other race, there’s no way I’d do it every year.

But I got up early. I ran to the metro for a warm up, rode down to Chinatown and jogged over to 7th. I had considered doing the “Parade of Pink” because they move to the front of the race line, though I think that would make me feel like I was on display in a weird way, but I got there a little too late. I did hear the official announce the Survivor of The Year, which made me wonder how the competition plays out for that annually, considering the nature of the honor. It’s funny if you think of it in the right context. Honest. So, instead I walked over towards the start line and noticed that there were signs placed where the parade of survivors would go so I meandered over and squeezed myself in before the actual parade came.

It’s so big and such and event that the time you spend waiting at the start gets tedious.You are bored. Everyone around you is bored too, and when there is any indication that you’re going to get to move, the crowd converges in on you from all sides. It’s a little frightening. So the gun went off after I listened to half of the playlist I had prepared for the race and the crush made its way across the start line. The first hard turn is not long after the start line, and the crowd is still thick. So it’s kind of annoying because I felt as if I was getting pushed more towards the sidewalk the closer I got to the turn. The crowd stayed heavy until the first mile when the heat really starts to get to everyone, and some runners succumb to improper pacing at the start. I started out fast for me, somewhere around a 9 minute mile. I felt good but knew the heat, and that thick cotton survivor shirt that I actually wore right out of the race packet like an idiot, would eventually get to me.

Mile 2 was uneventful. The sun was brutal and as I approached mile 3 I discovered the benefit to starting out in the back of the pack – I was missing the freak sightings which make this kind of thing amusing. My pace had slowed a bit, but I was still running sub-10/mile, I was getting passed, but I was also doing my own share of passing, however there were no pink flamingo hats, only one tutu, and no big teams, feather boas, anything. All I could do was repeat my “make it easy, make it light” mantra in my head, turn up the Gnarls Barkley, and wonder how much of a disaster it would be if I tried to take off my shirt for the last half mile while running instead of finishing wearing the equivalent of a  soaked cotton towel. Next year, damn the gun time – I’m running in the back of the pack, just because it’s more fun!

When the finish line became visible, I checked out my Garmin and sure enough, it looked like I was going to come in sub-30 minutes. If it happened, this would be the first time that I’ve ever done that and it was my goal for the race. Sure enough, my official time was net- 29:33. 29th/258 bc survivors, 786th woman to cross the finish and 147/856 in my division. For me this was not bad, not bad at all. Still, next year I’m going to run at the back, just to try and get the full experience.

Sunday, May 2nd was my first marathon. All week the weather was predicted to be pretty nasty – rain and thunderstorms all morning. I hate running in the rain, plus the added possibility of a dealing with lightening made for a doubly stressful week leading up to the race. However Saturday was beautiful, if hot and the severity of Sunday’s predicted weather diminished as the day went on. By Sunday morning, the reports said that the thunderstorm would probably occur later in the day, if at all, and the morning would just have scattered showers.
My cousin’s husband, L. and I decided to run this marathon during a family Christmas Eve party. They live in WV so we met up in Pittsburgh for the weekend. The morning of the race, after scarfing a bagel and peanut butter, some gatorade, and a mini snickers bar, we met up at 6:30 and made our way down to the starting line. His wife and son along with Joanna  accompanied us despite the early hour.
Start
L. is a faster runner than I, so we waited together, heard the gun go off and made our way toward the start line. After crossing the time-chip line, we separated. I tried to avoid starting off too fast and getting caught up in all the excitement at the start line. I checked my pace, and reigned myself in a bit.
Hour 1, Miles 1-5
Typically in any run, I hate the first two miles. Even in a short run, I hate the first two miles, and this experience was no different. During a race my nerves get the best of me and I have to pee in the first 30 minutes. Apparently I’m not the only one because I had my longest port-a-potty wait around mile 2, at 2.5 minutes. I met my cousin, her son, and Joanna around mile three as we looped back near the start line before crossing our first bridge. It had just started to rain in earnest, so they were all under umbrellas. I stole a quick smooch and headed off. The rain really picked up then, and it kind of stung when it smacked you in the face as it dripped from the bridge arches . I started to get worried about the slickness of the metal bridge joints, so I tried to be mindful of them.
Hour 2, Miles 5-10
These miles were uneventful. I was surprised to find myself on the 7th Street bridge near the Warhol museum. I didn’t really take a good look at the marathon map pre-race. I enjoyed the slight incline as we approached the West End Bridge and passed my second runner freak (which I love) – a guy dressed up in a Steelers jersey, complete with football. I checked his bib, and he was in it for the full. I told him that his outfit was awesome, wondered when he was going to ditch that football, and kept going. Around mile 10 I started checking out bibs. There were a lot of half-marathoners and relay runners. I began to wonder what the course would be like once the halfers branched off of the course. By this time it was steadily raining. I was really glad I bought a good lightweight hat. Typically I hate running with anything on my head, but I was so soaked that rain was dripping off the bill of my cap. With all that rain on my face, I would have been beyond miserable.
Hour 3, Miles 10 – 15
Somewhere after mile 12 started the hilly portion of the run. I knew it was coming. I was still maintaining a decent pace, was drinking a lot and walking through the water stops. As a result I had to stop at the port-a-potties pretty frequently, maybe once an hour. Fortunately there was never a line, but it was still annoying as this doesn’t usually happen for me on my long runs. It’s possible that I wouldn’t have needed to stop so much but I kept thinking about avoiding any kind of unfortunate accident near the end of the race so I just stopped when inclined.
At mile 11 the half marathoners broke off from the full marathon course. All of a sudden the course really cleared out and you could see who was in it for the long haul. There were some ROTC kids hanging out in the rain waiting for the marathoners to go by who offered a lot of support which was nice. Mile 12 had the Nike DJ who, at the time was playing MC Hammer which was fun and energizing. Going up the hill around mile 13 on Forbes Ave., I realized I was half way, that so far, it had been pretty easy, despite the rain and told myself that I could just keep going exactly the way I had been, and then I’d be done. Just past the aid station I watched a not-so-lucky marathoner toss her cookies all over the street, stumble over to the sidewalk and do it again. I tried to wave to the paramedics down the hill but they must of thought that I was gesturing to someone else, so I ran down the hill a bit to tell them about the situation. The woman might have been fine, but if I hadn’t said anything, I would have worried about it for the rest of the race.
Hour 4, Miles 15 – 20
These miles were a bit of a blur. I was just plugging away. I was feeling a little tired but was seriously suprised around mile 18 that I felt pretty solid. I was a little bored, which never happens on a long run, sick of all of my music, but still going strong. I started to wonder when I was just going to feel exhausted but quickly put the thought out of my head. If I’m not mistaken, somewhere around mile 17 we ran past a church where there were kids banging on some marching band type instruments, and just down the hill was a band called “Fire and Sex”. There was pretty much no point where you could just hear one group or the other. It must have been driving the band nuts, but the kids looked oblivious and seemed to be having a good time. There were a lot of kids on this part of the route, many lined up for high fives, which was amusing. Around mile 19 was Steel City Greyhouds, a greyhound rescue group. There were lots of dogs. I thought it would be bad form to run over and pet one, but I really wanted to.
During this time, the rain had let up and I was just wet, and tired of being wet. It was still so humid that even the barely-there quick-dri fabric of my singlet was soaked and just didn’t dry at all.
Hour 5, Miles 20-25
By this time I was starting to get tired and hungry. Not  in a I-can’t-take-another-step kind of way, but more like it’s Sunday, and I’d like brunch and a nap. At mile 20, I felt good. I was running a little more slowly, but not by much and despite the tired and hungry stuff, I was still feeling surprisingly good. At that point it was the furthest that I had ever run, and I knew it and was trying not to psych myself out about it. Everyone that I had spoken with who’d run a marathon acknowledged that the last 6 miles were all mental, so I was trying not to screw it up.
Considering that everyone knows that we were entering the worst part, there were lots of great aid station action and fun mile sponsors through this area. Around mile 20 there was a church group passing out water. Near the water table there was a man with a sign that said “Need Prayer?” and an arrow to a few people. I’m not religious in anyway but at that point a little extra help didn’t sound like a bad idea. I giggled as I ran past. Later another church group was passing out orange slices, which will no doubt be the best tasting fruit that I will ever eat. Further ahead another church group was out there with their own cups and water. I was becoming a little overwhelmed by the kindness and graciousness of the volunteers, standing for hours in the rain just to help me get through this run. It makes it hard to believe that, at our very core, humans aren’t hardwired to do good.
Around mile 22 I started to feel it. I was tired. I had taken 3 Gu gels already and could feel my stomach getting a bit weird, and debated opening up the last one I had brought but decided to hold off. At the water station the guy who handed me a glass of water looked into my eyes and said, “You’ve got this – don’t think about it.” For the next mile I tried to heed his advice. Okay, let’s not think about it. Um… so, what do I think about, then? At that point I realized that I pretty much hadn’t been thinking about anything really during the whole race. I had just kind of zoned out and focused on what was in front of me. When it didn’t seem to work, I ran through some topics in my head and felt myself slow down. I stretched my arms, switched songs on the ipod, and just tried to get in a good headspace.
Then I hit Bloomfield and it was just in time. It was like a block party. Thre were multiple bands, a lovely old lady on a PA system welcoming the runners and encouraging us to keep going. The buzz was palpable and I was distracted by everything that was going on. It was perfect. My feet felt lighter, and as I approached the water station, Shakira was playing. At this point I lost it and turned into the freaky runner. I skipped and danced my way through the water stop, while double fisting water and gatorade. After dumping the cups I switched my ipod back on and the Beastie Boy’s “Fight for your Right” came on. I was in. I began running a 10 minute mile at mile 23. I played air drums and pumped my fist in the air to the beat and passed a bunch of walkers who must have thought I was nuts. At one point I saw a woman in a bus shelter give me a weird amused look, I caught her eye and looked a bit sheepish, she smiled and I kept running. It was downhill and beautiful and I was on a roll. I went on like this until mile 25, where I got tired again, but not nearly as tired as I had been at mile 22.
The Last 1.2 Miles
There were lots of cruel turns in the last 1.2 miles. I kept looking for the finish line but really, maybe it was best that I couldn’t see it. Finally at the last turn, there it was. I felt awesome and tried to decide if I should mug for the camera as I crossed the finish line. I rolled into the finish running a good pace and I didn’t feel like I was going to die. I heard my partner yell my name and caught a glimpse of my family as I approached the line.
Celebration
It didn’t take long for the stiffness to settle into my muscles. Despite the fact that the rain had ended, I was still soaked, and now cold. I never thought that those foil wraps would do any good, but they were welcome insulation from the little bit of wind. My cousin’s husband had already finished so my parnter passed me a larabar and I leaned on my Dad as we walked back to the hotel for showers. After we headed to Primanti Brothers near the airport so Joanna could have her first coleslaw and french fry laden sandwich. I was starving, and stiff but ultimately, felt pretty amazing.
Afterword
I’m not crazy about my finish time of 5:13:50. My goal was to come in sub-5:00 but I’ve decided to be satisfied with this time for my first marathon. I didn’t hit the wall, I finished strong, and I only walked through the water stops. I got emotional around the start and again at mile 20. After bagging my first half-marathon training with the breast cancer bull shit, I know even when my run sucks, it’s better than not being able to do it. Hitting mile 20 and knowing just how far I had come was an amazing moment. Now,  if I can just figure out how not to stop at the port-a-potties, I can easily shave a whole lot of minutes from my time…
Two days later I am still sore, my body feels oddly swollen, the tops of my feet hurt and my toes are the same shade of pink as a raw, skinless chicken cutlet. I’m waiting for some toe nails to darken, but am hoping they won’t as my feet are already a hot mess. I’m trying not to run until next Monday, but oddly I’m already thinking about it despite the fact that it takes a few minutes to get up the stairs. I’m checking out the race calendar, looking for the next one, trying to figure out how best to improve my time.


day 5

Originally uploaded by l@in.

Recovery has been both better and worse than I anticipated. I think I already mentioned that the implant was removed (and reinserted!), which resulted in the increased level of pain that I’m experiencing. And again, the drain didn’t help (although, I know not having it could have been disastrous.) However, I am feeling better quickly. My range of motion is pretty good and while I’m not trying to lift anything of any significance, I can pick up a glass or a plate in my left hand and carry it a short distance without an issue, which is nice. I’ve even been able to knit small projects! I listened to my Dr.’s exercise mantra, “you can walk”, and did 30 minutes on the treadmill today at a really slow pace. It’s better than nothing, and I’m so happy we were able to get that before the surgery.

I’ve done this enough that I feel like I kind of have a system. I try to do whatever I feel compelled to. If I feel like laying down, I do. If I feel like I need more pain meds I take them (and if what I feel I need seems unreasonable, I know there’s a problem). If I think I can tackle some house work I try and if it doesn’t hurt, I do it, and if it does – forget it. It really helps that I’ve been able to work from home this week, and can hang out with the laptop in bed if I need to.

And if I’m hungry, I eat. This is probably the most complicated thing for me because I do love to eat. I’m also trying to be healthy for many reasons, one of which is because I’m, of course, concerned about the cancer returning. So I try to eat healthy, exercise, and do all the things you’re supposed to do to stay in optimum health. Did I mention I love to eat? And I love sweets? I know when I’m exercising a lot, I feel like I can cut myself some slack, but now that I’m struggling with a 28 minute mile (ugh! it hurts just to type), I don’t really have that luxury. So I stocked the freezer with pasta sauce, chili, and soup, and Joanna has been great about getting me out of the house to find yummy healthy things with the occasional flake (like a delicious chocolate cake from whole foods). I am looking forward to being able to handle the damn blender again – I miss my green smoothies!

So, I had another surgery today. My left implant seems to be encapsulating slightly. It’s certainly not terrible, but the changes have been noticeable over the past few months, prompting me to see my plastic surgeon. When I saw her she agreed that it looked as if there was some encapsulating going on and told me to wait , and come back in a few weeks to see if things seemed to progress, and they did.

So today I had a revision done to my reconstruction on the left side. Dr. Otero took out the implant, removed some skin, made a revision to the dent (seriously a dent developed around my armpit), and then popped the implant back in. I don’t think I realized that the implant would be taken in and out so I’m feeling a bit more rough than I expected to. And I have a drain, which I was hoping not to have but Dr. Otero said there was a lot of fluid in there, so better safe than sorry. Certainly better than an emergency drain insertion as I’ve had before and it can come out first thing Monday, which is great. Essentially one of my fake boobs needed a lift. WTF?

I didn’t have to spend the night, so I’m home. Joanna is on a prescription run. I feel pretty rough and am in more pain than I expected, but I’m hoping the recovery will be speedy and the pain will dissipate quickly.

Tonight I’m going to watch Wife Swap, eat matzo, drink diet ginger ale, and pill pop. I’m hoping for a weekend of movies and bad tv on cable. Pedestrian as it is, I am okay with that.

In December I blogged about my less-than perfect experience at Washington Hospital Center, during my stay after breast reconstruction surgery. Since then I’ve received 2 letters of apology, including one from the pharmacy that took a bloody decade to dispense my drugs (why the drugs have to be dispensed by the pharmacy and aren’t more readily available to the nursing staff to be administered quickly to patients in the hospital is completely beyond me, especially when the drugs have been prescribed by your doctor.) Some responses sounded more sincere than others, but overall I’m pleased at the response and genuinely hope that improvements are made so that someone else doesn’t have the same lousy experience I was treated to.

That said, the nicest response came from the head nurse of the ward that I was in. Not long after my surgery, I received a call from her. She apologized, talked to me about my experience, and said that she was looking into the matter in the attempt to make sure that it didn’t happen again. It was a nice thing to do and she sounded genuinely concerned.

Ultimately, I’m glad I sent the letter. I would encourage anyone else in a similar position do the same. It doesn’t hurt to send praise to an institution where you’ve received exceptional care either. Up until the point that I was admitted to my hospital room, my experience in recovery at WHC was so good, I was already composing the letter in my head, between injections of pain killer and nausea medication.

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