Lincoln County News
February 12, 1998

"LifeLines" My journal about living with cancer

by Sandy Labaree

This journal submission is about how words and thoughts can touch the hearts of strangers and messages of hope support me as I look ahead to the most difficult session of my treatment.

(sections of this entry re-written to shorten for newspaper)

Jan. 22nd: Temperatures hover near zero this morning and today is blood test day. Libby has offered to drive me to Brunswick, but about 30 minutes before she is scheduled to pick me up, she calls to say her car won't start. I call Ben to make alternate arrangements, but Libby then calls back to say that the garage people have started her car and she'll be down. We drive to Brunswick with no problem and decide to go to Applebee's for a late lunch. I am still trying to add "red meat" and other iron sources to my diet to boost my hemoglobin. Libby has a hamburger and I have steak fajitas and then we both order hot fudge brownie sundaes. They looked good in the picture on the dessert menu. Two versions are offered: low fat or regular. Libby and the waitress convince me the regular ones are better. Sugar and chocolate may not boost the blood count, but are a required morale booster. Recently, an acquaintance of mine who is a radiation oncologist, observed me eating a cookie. He commented that chemo destroys certain taste buds and the last to go are the ones for sweets. Sounds like a good enough reason for me to justify dessert.

Lately, since the last chemo session, I have been plagued daily with fleeting bouts of nausea. They are not severe, but annoying, and I lose my appetite or bog down in the midst of eating. My whole digestive system seems to have taken a big hit with round two of the chemo. According to the Drs., chemo affects first and foremost the most rapidly growing cells in your body. These are the cells that line your mouth and your digestive tract and also your hair follicles (which is why people lose their hair during chemo). After my first round of chemo, the nausea was severe, but disappeared completely after 10 days. This time, the nausea was not so severe at first, but has persisted. Though this is probably a normal side effect, I plan to discuss this with Dr. Tom when I see him again. I am taking less Ativan now because it seems to be losing its effect and perhaps another drug will have to be prescribed to help my nausea and sleeping.

While I am having my blood test, Libby reads her copy of The Lincoln County News and my first LifeLines journal installment. When I come out to the waiting room, Libby is sobbing. I ask her what's wrong. She says it's my journal column. I tell her that I didn't think my writing was that bad and if so, now nobody will ever buy my "book!". Libby tearfully explains that she was so touched by my story because she knows me. Wiping away her tears, she laughs and promises she will buy lots of copies of my "book".

Jan. 23rd: Today, Sue Cereste and I meet for lunch at Canfield's in Wiscasset. Now that I am a local newspaper celebrity, I am "doing the lunch circuit". The meeting with Sue was really more for pleasure than discussion of my journal column. From the day we first met, I sensed that Sue and I could become good friends, and not just a reporter interviewing a cancer patient. I find her easy to talk to and she seems genuinely interested and personally concerned about my illness. I could easily welcome her into my circle of friends. Sue is also my "boss" and "mentor" in terms of my weekly (weakly) journal submissions to the newspaper.

I have never written anything resembling a journal, diary, or dare I use the word, "book". In my previous life, I was a marketing and advertising consultant, and prior to that, a professional fund-raiser (not political, I might add). I have written many pages of advertising copy, promotional materials, press releases and even menus! A journal or diary bears no resemblance to those "literary achievements", so I thank Sue for guiding me through the do-hickeys known as pipes and line breaks and "eof's". For the uneducated, myself included, these do-hickeys alert the typesetters at the newspaper to paragraph breaks, line breaks and end of story.

Having cancer and going through a debilitating treatment, and being housebound isn't the easiest way to make new friends and lead an active social life. Before my cancer recurrence, I was always running flat out with my marketing and advertising company, Chamber of Commerce activities, American Cancer Society business, and quite frankly, living from meeting to meeting. My social life was crammed into weekends and free minutes during the week. My life has taken a drastic turn. Though my days may be spent in treatment and recovery, visiting Drs. and getting lab tests, I have much more time for what's really important: family and friends. I hope Sue will become part of my network of friends who are helping me negotiate this difficult journey with cancer.

(following entry not submitted)

Jan. 26th and 27th: Thank God for the electronic age. Even though I am housebound, I was able to connect with humanity in two conference calls. Both were American Cancer Society business. One involved a group of about ten of us on Monday and lasted 1 1/2 hours. The second call, Tuesday, lasted about 3 hours and tied me into an important Board of Directors meeting of about 35 people.

Phone calls can be very tiring even if you don't have cancer, but it allowed me to be "in Boston" without having to drive down. Driving anywhere now is out of the question because of drugs that I am taking, and my frequent lack of energy and concentration.

Speaking of the wonders of electronics, on Sunday, I lost my e mail when my husband, Ben, attempted to "clean out" some unnecessary items from the computer. This resulted in deleting all my "in" and "out" e mails and somehow merged my e mail box with his. Ben interrupted my viewing of the Super Bowl to sheepishly announce this breaking news. A year ago, I would have shrugged this off because at that time, I had absolutely no interest in e mails and was perfectly happy living with "snail mail", phone and faxes. Now, I am an e mail junkie and this was a true disaster! I was furious and distraught that all my hundreds of e mails had gone to the big garbage dump in the sky. Except for printed e mails I had saved, all my precious correspondence was lost. I broke down in tears. Ben was smart enough to hide in my office with the door shut and continue his fruitless search for the lost e mail. Eventually, he was able to restore my mailbox, but nothing else.

The e mail nightmare struck again on Tues. I was unable to connect with my Internet Service for several hours. Fortunately, this time it was a temporary glitch in their system and not the fault of my computer. It is both wonderful and ridiculous how we allow electronic gadgets to rule our lives.

Jan. 28th: Sue calls me today and suggests a spur of the moment lunch at Canfield's. I welcome these breaks to get out of the house. Sue brings me my first piece of fan mail. It is from a lovely 82 year old lady who lost a son to cancer. "Ruth" says I am an inspiration and a help to people by the way I am living my life and sharing my story. I am on the verge of tears as I finish this touching note from a total stranger. I will call or write this dear woman for sharing her thoughts and prayers. God is truly looking out for me by sending these wonderful messengers of hope and love.

After lunch, Sue and I make plans for a future dinner get-together involving our spouses and Finnan Haddie. I will be the Finnan Haddie "observer" for now, since I have to acquire a taste for it. So far it smells and looks O.K. and one small taste is fine. I will work on this since Ben, Sue, and her husband, Paul, are all Finnan Haddie afFISHionados, so to speak.

Jan. 29: My second journal submission is now out and I am receiving cards and notes from many friends and former business associates offering rides, errands, or whatever I may need. I am so happy and relieved. I have many friends, but nearly all of them work full-time. Driving me to Brunswick for chemo treatments can take at least six hours and blood tests about 1 1/2 hours. I have scrambled to get rides and drivers coordinated and in winter, weather compounds the problem. Ben has had to take off from work on many occasions. I also need to have someone stay with me after my chemo treatments until Ben arrives home. Living 30 minutes away from the hospital, I am afraid to be alone immediately following treatment.

The thoughtfulness of friends and the kindness of strangers have touched me deeply this week. Today, I received a phone call from "Dot" in Wiscasset. I do not know Dot, but she was so touched by my journal that she called to offer her help. She also complimented me on my writing. (Hmm, like Libby, she may be another possible purchaser of my future "book"). Dot and I had a long pleasant phone conversation and I look forward to meeting her soon. My belief in the goodness of humanity has been reaffirmed when total strangers reach out to those in need. Though not as powerful as the caustic chemo, these small acts of kindness are helping me to heal, and the effects will remain with me always.

Early this evening, my sister, Peg, called to check up on me. She usually calls once or twice a week and I miss her terribly. When I visited her in New Jersey over Christmas, she said she would come up to take care of me during my last chemo round, which is scheduled for next week. Peg's son, Kevan, is having a medical problem, Bill is working on a movie in New York and Peg has some urgent appointments next week. It is impossible for her to leave now. I am very depressed about this because I was looking forward to having her here during what will be the most difficult session of my chemo. The effects of chemotherapy are cumulative and having gone through it before in 1994-95, I remember how my last sessions wiped me out physically and emotionally. I was so weak and tired and ready to give up.

This time, I am more worried about my veins giving out. I have three days of IV's ahead of me and I can only hope and pray that Cindy will find three good veins. Even my weekly blood tests are hurting more as my veins have become more sensitive. At my blood test today, I asked the lab technician to use a "butterfly". This is a tiny little needle attached to a little winged plastic tubing, and it makes the blood draw far more comfortable.

My Mom also called tonight to see how I was feeling. She is in no condition to come up to Maine to care for me, and she is doing all she can to help me long distance. She is still recovering from her autoimmune disease. I look forward to her weekly phone calls which are like a special long-distance family therapy. Everyday, I have a short episode of tears. It usually lasts only a minute or two and it happens first thing in the morning, or in the shower or in bed at night, when I am thinking about Peg, my parents or my daughter, Christy, and how much I miss and need them in my life.

Jan. 30th: Tonight was Finnan Haddie night. Sue, her husband, Paul, and Ben and I went to Canfield's for our personal Finnan Haddie Fest. I "observed" and sniffed, and it looked good, but I had the shrimp and haddock combo instead. I have been enjoying eating this past week because I know what is coming next week: chemo and nausea. Just this past week, my fleeting bouts of nausea (left over from the last round of chemo) have finally subsided and now I must prepare for the next round. Ben keeps reminding me that this is the last round of chemo, so I must focus on the positive. I will be curious to see if my blood count is acceptable for treatment on Mon. I have been very tired which usually is a clue that it's still low.

Jan. 31st: Ben and I spend several hours shopping today. It's a strange feeling to get out of the house, travel and see so many people after being housebound. I can easily relate to how elderly people who are ill or can't drive must feel being confined to their home. It is a liberating feeling to step out of the house and drive anywhere. I arrive home happy, but absolutely exhausted. While Ben fixes dinner, Lurk and I rest and read in bed. Lurk always knows when I'm not feeling well. He curls up beside me and gives me little cat foot massages.

Christy called earlier today to see how I was feeling. Good news! She will come help me next weekend, if I have chemo this coming week. She also reported tremendous bird and squirrel activity at the feeders I had set up for her two weeks ago. She is using her bird field guide and binoculars and is learning to recognize her various bird visitors. I also encouraged Peg to set up bird feeders this year and learn more about the birds. When I was visiting her over Christmas, she was really excited about recognizing each type of bird that came to her new feeders.

I love watching the birds that come to my yard and even more so now that I am housebound. I am only an "amateur" watcher, though I know far more about birds than my daughter or sister. In time, they will be just as knowledgeable. Setting up bird feeders at Peg's and Christy's may seem trivial, but it has been a mission of sorts for me. In some ways, it is a legacy. Should my departure from this earth be premature, I want to share and leave behind some things that brought me great enjoyment and pleasure, such as watching and feeding my birds.

On a less serious note, Christy is fighting the Battle of the Squirrels. She purchased some inexpensive squirrel baffles which were useless. I told her to put squirrel feed and peanuts on the ground and ignore the squirrels as long as they are not damaging the feeders or scaring away the birds.

The bird feeders were also intended to be a source of "daytime entertainment" for Christy's two indoor kittens, the Orange Menace, Oops and Spot. The real reason though was to amuse and divert the cats from their regular routine of daily destruction while Christy and her husband, Nils, are at work. Unfortunately, the bird and squirrel activity has only appealed to Oops. He will sit for hours on a padded milk crate set up by the patio door for his viewing pleasure. "Spot" prefers to continue to pillage the house while Oops bird-watches.

Christy decided to get two kittens so "they would amuse each other". This is the same flawed theory that "two are no more work or trouble than one". My daughter, the 27 year old career-oriented professional who is totally convinced that she never wants children, admitted to me today that these cats are just like kids. Our phone conversation this morning was interrupted with frequent interjections of, "Get off of there!" or "What are you getting into now?!" and "Excuse me, they are fighting at their food dish and I better go separate them". Attention parents: Does this sound vaguely familiar?

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