So it’s “The Big K”….Cancers.
On the first installment, Cat’s Out of the Bag, I Have Cancer, I left you with me at St. Elizabeth’s Health Center, and I had just received my diagnosis. First I had a good cry, trying not to snot all over the very sweet and understanding nurse practitioner, who very awkwardly hugged me (the awkwardness was on my part, mind you). When I pulled myself together, she gave me some information about what some of the next steps would be.
- I would have to stop taking birth control pills. This cancer is fueled by estrogen and progesterone, so we didn’t want to give it any more extra hormones (we also talked about hormone-free birth control alternatives).
- I would need to apply for AHCCCS’s Breast and Cervical Cancer Treatment Program (BCCTP). Who knew that was a thing?
- My biopsy was positive for cancer but so far it displayed traits of a nonaggressive (slow growing) form. I would need to make an appointment with a breast surgeon to see if I was a candidate for a lumpectomy.
She gave me the contact info for someone at the Pima County Health Department who could help me apply for the BCCTP; I was to make an appointment right away. Then she made an appointment with her recommended breast surgeon for me, and told me if I didn’t have insurance by the date of the appointment, St. Elizabeth’s would cover the cost (they have funding for this).
On my way out of the office she handed me a canvas bag with giant blue letters that reads “BAG IT!”. This is essentially my cancer “handbook” — a bag containing a binder with reading material, blank treatment fill-out sheets, pages for taking notes, and a business card holder for all your doctors. Everything you take to all your appointments in one bag. It even came with a USB bracelet — FASHION.
My head was spinning. What if I didn’t qualify for this AHCCCS cancer program? It was already time to see a surgeon? This bag had a ton of shit in it. Did I need to read it all? I’m pretty sure I drank too much that night.
My partner, Jared, still had his kids in town, staying with us, though his son left the morning after I was diagnosed (his daughter stayed another week). As I said in the last article, this was an amazing, much-needed distraction. We even turned his daughter into a gold alien for a promo video for an event we were holding at Rialto theatre, the Glitter Ball. We would also be gold aliens in the promo. After the video shoot, she and Jared gallivanted around downtown Tucson like two golden goobers; like father like daughter.
During this time I met with the wonderful women at the Pima County Health Department, as instructed, and they helped me fill out all the necessary paperwork to apply for the BCCTP. It’s incredible how everything has to be “just so” in order for the paperwork to even be accepted.
The day after Jared’s daughter left, we met with the breast surgeon. I hadn’t heard back about the BCCTP so St. Elizabeth’s covered my appointment fee. It was my dad’s birthday and he came to the appointment with us as an extra set of ears (party time!). The doctor took the necessary time to explain everything to us. She was very patient, explaining how my type of cancer worked and what her plan was. She was the first doctor that told me she’d seen increasingly younger women in recent years with no family history of breast cancer. We talked about environmental exposure – not drinking tap water, eating food without hormones or toxins, commonplace things my generation grew up exposed to more than previous generations.
At this point she couldn’t say with certainty what my treatment plan would be — that would all come after a lumpectomy and also genome tests (mine and the cancer’s). She seemed hopeful and said I had “the good cancer” — the most well-known one, and the most commonly diagnosed, with a very high success rate of treatment. She also said she didn’t think I’d be a candidate for chemotherapy, but it was still too soon to know for sure.
We scheduled the lumpectomy surgery 3 weeks out. In the meantime, I needed to get another ultrasound, an MRI and a chest x-ray. She also sent me on my way with a list of lifestyle changes that I would need to make:
- Exercise. Exercise increases your recovery up to 25%. I found out having stairs at work didn’t count as regular exercise.
- Increase intake of omega-3s. I would do things like grind my own flaxmeal.
- Eat lots of dark, leafy greens. Time to plant that winter garden!
- Increase my intake of antioxidants. I should drink lots of green tea, for example.
- Take a vitamin D3 supplement daily.
Basically, I need to make my body as unfriendly to cancer as possible. These are all steps in that direction.
* * *
So…on to tackle the many more appointments that come with cancer (and this was just the beginning!) AND somehow continue with “normal life”.
The MRI came first. Everyone kept asking if I was claustrophobic and the persistence of the question made me paranoid… I don’t know, maybe I am? I found out, I’m not, luckily. For being as tall as I am (over 6ft), I’ve always liked fairly cozy spaces. You know, as long as I’m not trapped in a cave running out of oxygen, or something like that. I got to the imaging center where MRIs occur (I hadn’t heard back about the insurance yet, so once again, St. Elizabeth’s to the financial rescue). They sent me to a room and instructed me to don another of those beautiful hospital gowns.
The women running the equipment set me up with an IV (they take pictures with IV contrast dye, and without) and explained that the machine is super loud so I’ll get to wear headphones. They asked me what music would I like to hear during the test? My mind was blank. I was standing next to a huge tube into which I would be inserted, IV in hand (literally), hospital gown open to the front, tits out, trying to remember what music I like. It was like walking into a music store and forgetting everything you’ve ever heard, except more dramatic. I’m pretty sure I mumbled something about The Beach Boys.
Next, I was lying face down on a “table” that has the chest area cut out, so your boobs are pretty much just hanging down (not a great look). Through the huge headphones, one of the technicians told me that we were starting, and the table began to slide into the tube. The machine started making loud clunking noises and, vaguely, I thought I heard music come over the headphones? I was trying to focus on figuring out what this song was (it was hard to hear over the machine). The technician chimed in, saying that they were going to start administering the contrast dye (through the IV). A sensation of warmth commenced in my IV’d arm and spread throughout my body; I suddenly felt like I had to pee, or maybe I just did? Apparently this is a side effect of the dye.
As sure as Kilimanjaro rises like Olympus above the Serengeti…
Suddenly I realized what music is playing through the headphones — it was Africa by Toto.
…I seek to cure what’s deep inside, frightened of this thing that I’ve become.
* * *
Back to normal life — it was time for The Glitter Ball, a party where my partner and I dress up as gold aliens for a giant rock-&-roll dance party and baptize willing participants with glitter! Yeah, I know. Some normal. In some ways this was the last thing that I wanted to do. But we had set the date months before, and the show must go on. Honestly, I could’ve sat this one out, but what is more distracting than being a gold alien from Uranus? And or course I needed distraction. Plus, it was a great time! Though, I don’t think I’ll get that bit of lung back that I hacked up from aspirating all that gold makeup…totally worth it.
Then the much anticipated response came back about my BCCTP application: I was approved!
Dear Katherine Gierlach, We APPROVED your Medical Assistance application for the AHCCCS Breast & Cervical Cancer Treatment Program.
It was even backdated to the beginning of August! Everything was comin’ up Katy!
I held the letter in my hand, feeling a little bit lighter. At least I didn’t have to worry about how we would pay for any of this. But when I turned the letter over I saw this:
MEDICAL ASSISTANCE DENIED: We DENIED your Medical Assistance Application for Katherine Gierlach in the Adult category beginning 08/01/2017 ongoing.
WHAT. THE. FUCK.
After a panicked and probably overly dramatic phone call to the provided number at AHCCCS, I discovered that my cancer is fully covered but I’m not. Classic.
Well, now I could still breathe a little easier. Anything that needed to happen, medically speaking, to get this shit out of me would be paid for; and just in time too, with the upcoming lumpectomy. The backdate of the insurance plan also meant that St. Elizabeth would get reimbursed for the appointments they paid for. That means more money for them to give to another person in need.
And if you will allow a slight digression, I want to express how grateful I am to St. Elizabeth’s Health Center for their help and I encourage donations to them. You can specify how your money is used, like paying for appointments of the uninsured. They are in serious need of donations since Susan G. Komen pulled their money out of Arizona this summer (which is another article/discussion entirely).
The chest x-ray and ultrasound were uneventful and easily checked off the list of to-dos before surgery. Then came the big day. The lumpectomy. I was nervous — but not about the surgery. This is old hat to me. I’ve seen that operating table a few times in my day. But, here’s where I get vain…about my boobs. I love my boobs. I waited a long time to get them, and when I finally did….they were great. The ARE great. Fantastic even! I grew ‘em myself and they’re everything I always hoped they would be. But now what? The doctor was going to cut a chunk out of one, my already slightly smaller one too?
It feels so ridiculous to worry about such things when you have something potentially life-threatening growing in your body, but I’m only human. I want to be a strong, proud person who thinks “breasts do not make the woman”, push against the expectations of our culture, and walk proudly with my newly shaped body. But again, I am human. These will be things I will confront when I wake up from surgery. And this nightmare.
At the Northwest Tucson Surgery Center, I was set up in a bed where I was made aware of all that would happen to me, especially by the anesthesiologist. Participants in the surgery made note of my allergy to penicillin and demerol, prepared the recipe for my temporary oblivion, and hooked me up to IVs and electrodes that will communicate my state of being, at least biologically speaking.
They allowed Jared, my mom, and my sister to see me just before the shindig began. This part is actually not that dramatic for me. As I said, I’ve had some experience with surgery, and if anything, this part is always obnoxiously boring and tedious. The anesthesiologist tried to make some small talk with us. My loved ones were all cramped at the foot of my bed, trying to stay out of the way of everyone getting me prepared for what was next. I see their nervous smiles as we all make jokes to pass the time. Really, I just wanna get this thing done with.
Finally someone says that it’s time. I watch my people wave as they roll me away from the pre-op area, into the operating room. Several people are busy around me, plugging me into monitors, preparing for surgery, and putting me under. I always try to stay alert as long as I can during anesthesia…I sorta like the feeling (I wonder if this is a trait of someone who likes drugs). A face appeared above, eyes searching for my state of being, and said, “We’re getting you ready for surgery right now. You doing O.K.?” I am pretty sure I told her yes, but if I’m being honest, I can’t remember my reply.
To Be Continued…