Citizen of the Month

the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Tag: breast cancer

One Month of Waiting

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During the last month, I haven’t been very good at commenting on blogs, answering emails, or returning calls.  After I wrote a post about accompanying Sophia to her mammogram, nothing was found on the mammogram or the ultra-sound.  We were ecstatic.  However, she also had an MRI done.  Sophia’s surgeon called with some bad news: they saw “something” in her right breast on the MRI.   This was especially scary because a year and a half ago, the same doctor removed a cancer tumor from her left breast.   This could signify something more serious.   Sophia and I both freaked out.

The surgeon, a well-known doctor at Cedars-Sinai, said that because this “something” could only be seen on the MRI, a regular biopsy could not be performed, and that the only way to go was to do a full invasive surgical biopsy, general anaesthesia and all.

Now, this doctor already knew that Sophia wasn’t just going to follow orders.  If there ever existed an organization called Proactive Patients of America, Sophia would be the poster child.   A year and a half ago, Sophia convinced her doctor to do a new radiation procedure, Mammosite, an intense twice-daily five day therapy available for those with early-stage breast cancer.  The treatment is used instead of the typical seven weeks of whole breast external beam radiation therapy   This required Sophia to have an additional small surgery, and to walk around with a “balloon” inserted in her breast for ten days.  The procedure works by delivering radiation from inside the breast directly to the tissue where cancer is most likely to recur.  It was painful and uncomfortable, but it seemed to have worked, and this technique is supposed to be much more concentrated than regular radiation, and therefore protect the heart and lungs from extensive radiation damage.

Sophia bravely made it through the treatment.

This time, after this latest discovery, Sophia went back into action, doing her own research.  She was wary of getting invasive surgery on her other breast.  Her healing after the original surgery has been difficult.  She went home and Googled every cancer site in the world.  She learned about another relatively new treatment,  a non-invasive biopsy called the MRI-Guided Vacuum Assisted Breast Biopsy that could be used in certain circumstances.  Rather than surgery, the patient is put into a MRI machine, and then, with an assistance of a new apparatus, a special needle is used which “vacuums” the samples out.

Sophia asked her surgeon about the procedure.  He said it was a theoretical possibility, but there was one big problem.  Cedars-Sinai did not have the equipment. 

Here is where most of us would give up.  I told Sophia to forget it.  Did she listen to me?  Of course not.  She went ahead and convinced the hospital to RENT the equipment for her.   This way they could learn the new technique better and eventually buy the system for the hospital to use.

While this was a giant step forward, there was still a lot of fear in the air:

1)  Sophia was giving herself up as a guinea pig.
2)  What happens if they do find cancer?

For two weeks, we waited for the big day.   Tensions grew between us.   It was hard to concentrate on anything other than the wait.   At night, rather than talk about any issues, we spent our time watching TV shows about Texas Hold-em. 

A few days before the hospital appointment, Sophia got a small cut on her finger and it got infected.  It seemed like a big nothing, but when the doctor heard about it, he said they must postpone the appointment because the procedure could cause a severe infection.  We wouldn’t be able to do the biopsy for another ten days.  Sophia was put on two super-strong antibiotics they give people with a most serious Staph infection.

Ten more days!!  Let’s just say that during those ten days, Sophia and I became professional Texas Hold-em players by watching TV every night.  We would talk about players like Daniel Negreanu and Doyle Brunson over dinner, like they were family.

Eventually, the day came.  I was not in the hospital room during the procedure.  I was in the waiting room leafing through a Golf Magazine.  Why does the hospital put these magazines out?  Are they for the patients or the doctors?  

As I sat there, Sophia was slipped in and out of the MRI machine at least 10 times, while they were mapping, positioning, re-positioning, checking, putting the needle in, etc. .  I’ve never been in an MRI machine, but I hear it is pretty unpleasant; you wear earplugs because it’s as loud as sitting in the engine of a fighter jet, your hands are tied, you have to keep perfectly still, and you feel like you’re trapped inside a barrel.

Despite it all, it was still better than invasive surgery.  The procedure took about an hour and a half, plus time in recovery.  We went home and waited again, this time for the results.

More watching poker shows for a few days.

Today, there was good news:  it was benign.   No cancer.

Sophia and I can stop watching poker and go back to fighting with each other again.  Back to normal.

I know a lot of you go on those Revlon breast cancer walks or contribute to the cause.  Thank you.

Throughout this whole ordeal, I’ve been amazed at how Sophia has handled it all — from the way she took medical matters into her own hands, to her willingness to be a guinea pig, to the way she kept her sense of humor.  

Of course, things aren’t really “over” yet.  That is one terrible thing about cancer.  You can never fully say it is over.  There is a five year “period” where you have to keep a watchful eye for any recurrance. 

Yes, Sophia and I are still separated and all that.  Nothing has changed.  But during the past month, I certainly was reminded about why I married Sophia in the first place — her beauty, brains, and grit.

If you haven’t heard my song to Sophia yet — which I put out there on the eve of her procedure — you can find it here.   Feel free to send her a message — or write a better song!

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Waiting for the Mammogram

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This afternoon, I  accompanied Sophia  to Cedars Sinai for her mammogram.   There were six other women of varying ages in the waiting room.  As I played "Virtual Darts" on my cellphone, Sophia talked with the other women. 

One woman complained about how long it took for her to get an appointment.  Another woman said she’d been waiting for two hours in the waiting room.  Another joked that they make you wait for two hours in one waiting room, then they bring you inside to another waiting area, where you’re tricked into waiting another hour! —  the same gimmick they use at Disneyland to make you feel like you’re moving in line at Space Mountain.  

"And at least at Space Mountain, you don’t have to wear a smock that barely covers you," said the woman.

I probably shouldn’t have gotten involved in the conversation, but blogging has made me an ultra-curious person.  I now talk to everyone, hoping to get a blog post out of it.  I politely asked about the mammogram procedure — and everyone took turns telling me how painful it could be. 

"They squeeze your breasts like they’re in a vise.  Ouch, ouch!" said a third woman.

"I’m sure of one thing, said Sophia,  "If there was such a thing as a penile-gram, and men had to have their penis squished flat every year, I’m sure medical science would have come up with a better machine ten years ago."

All the women nodded in agreement — and looked at me as if I were the enemy.

Citizen of the Month Wants a Cure

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Sophia:  "Neilochka, you certainly love writing about my breasts on your blog, don’t you?"

Neil:  "Of course.  They’re the most exciting things I’ve had to play with since my Etch-A-Sketch."

Note to God:  Are you crazy?  Why did you create the most beautiful things in the world, a brilliant piece of female anatomy that comes in so many tasty shapes and sizes — and then come up with this breast cancer shit?

Sophia:  "You know, it’s National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Why don’t you say something about breast cancer?"

Neil:  "Like what?"

Sophia:  "You can talk about me." 

Neil:  "I can?" 

Sophia:  "It’s been a year."

It’s been a year.

It’s been a year since they found cancer in Sophia’s left breast.

Last year was pretty shitty.  This is why I was so glad that the Jewish New Year finally came a couple of weeks ago.  Maybe this year will be better.  The year had ended with my father passing away.  It began with Sophia learning she had breast cancer.

There was no history of cancer in Sophia’s family, so it came as a total shock.  It was a time of stress, fear and uncertainty.  National Breast Cancer Awareness Month is a great idea —  except when your life was just turned upside down and you suddenly became a "patient" dealing with breast cancer.  Everywhere you go, you are reminded of the disease.  At the supermarket, there are banners hanging.  You try to escape to the mall, and everyone is selling pink bunnies, slippers, bracelets.  Neither of us knew much about cancer, but we sat down for a quick education.  We read every medical site and every book possible.  We got the best doctors at Cedars-Sinai.  Sophia had a lumpectomy and through her own research, found out about a radical experimental radiation treatment.

Sophia was so brave throughout.

It was a new experience for me, as well.  I was supposed to be the caregiver, the "rock,"  but I was probably more of a "big stone."  Although I was always at Sophia’s side, I had this slight little problem of always being more nervous than Sophia herself.  I wish I could have been more like Sophia was when my father was in the hospital.  She can be a "rock."  I never had the strength to demand the best of everyone in the hospital, the way Sophia did for my father.

In fact, I found the experience so stressful, that two days before Sophia was to have her surgery, I got so tense that I ended up at Cedars-Sinai’s Emergency Room myself!  I don’t think the ER nurses ever really understood why my wife was calling me on the phone cursing at me for being in the hospital.

Many of you have emailed me through the last couple of months, asking why Sophia and I are separated.  The most common comment is "You write about her with so much love and admiration." 

There’s no one I love or admire more than Sophia.  Today, despite everything she went through, she is more beautiful than ever.  But, she is still on medication and dealing with continuous treatment and the side effects.  Sometimes, she gets down on herself or fears for her future health.  But she’s a brave and strong woman.  And boy, is she funny too.  I think a good sense of humor is really important in keeping yourself healthy.  On Saturday night, we actually worked together on that recent post on my blog — the one about the flowers and the "sticker."  When we finished it, we must have laughed for a half hour. There’s nothing more exciting to me than seeing Sophia laugh and smile.

Sophia’s sense of humor helped her maintain a great relationship with her doctors.  She was especially friendly with her great surgeon, Scott Karlan and his caring staff.  After her surgery, Sophia thanked him by ordering him a marzipan cake shaped as two huge breasts, with one a little bit lopsided, like hers was after the surgery.

I hope Sophia knows how much she means to me — whatever she is right now — my wife, my separated wife, my friend, my blog editor-in-chief, my dance partner, or the straight man in most of my blog posts.

I think I learned to be a better "rock" during times of hardship, even if I didn’t always say the right thing.  I still try to "fix things" when I should just listen.  Once a week Sophia goes to a group at the Wellness Community, a great place, where people with cancer, their friends and loved ones can talk about different issues.  One of the biggest complaints heard very often is that people just don’t know how to talk to someone with cancer, either out of insecurity, fear or stupidity.

In honor of National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Sophia’s group did something special for "Citizen of the Month" :they made a list of stupid things people have said to them.  Let’s hope that reading some of these will help us avoid making the same mistakes.

15 things you should never say to someone with breast cancer:

But you’re so young!

How long do you have?

And you have such beautiful breasts!

Oh no, what are your kids going to do?

You shouldn’t be depressed because if you get down, you’ll waste what little time you have left.

God only gives you what you can handle. 

But you look so good!

Two people just died in our office from cancer — these things always come in threes.

Oh, no.  That’s so weird.  I just saw Melissa Etheridge in concert last week.

I’m wracking my brain.  What could have you done to cause it?

Do you use paper or plastic? — because I read plastic can cause it.

At least with a double mastectomy, you’ll be even.

Don’t say the word.  Just say "C."

Now you’ll see if he really loves you for you.

I know how you feel.

Here’s something you can say:

Sophia, you’re amazing.  Congratulations on being a one-year breast cancer survivor — and getting healthier every day!

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Revlon Run/Walk LA

The Los Angeles Revlon Run/Walk was great.  There were 50,000 participants, all there to raise money and awareness of breast and ovarian cancers.

I walked with S and the Wellness Community of the South Bay.

Thanks, Mom, for reminding me to bring sunscreen.  Happy Mother’s Day.

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Wear Awareness Bracelet, Meet Women

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Recently, I’ve noticed that unattached women — strangers — have been friendly to me, even initiating conversations. These strange occurrences have taken place in a Starbucks, a supermarket, and even a crowded Century City elevator.  What I couldn’t figure out was — why was I suddenly so much more attractive to women?    I haven’t done much of interest lately to make my personality ooze with confidence.    I’ve been driving the same Honda Civic for several years now, and no one has pimped my ride.  I didn’t have an Extreme Makeover either.  I asked my friend, Martha.   She said the reason was obvious.  I had started to wear a pink breast cancer awareness bracelet on my wrist. When women see it, they know I’m a sensitive guy who cares about women’s issues, and they feel safe with me.  Duh…

Wow, I thought.   I really do care about finding a cure for breast cancer.   But if it can also help me meet some hot babes, what’s wrong with that?

I told this to my friend Rob.  He works at Jet Propulsion Lab in Pasadena.  He was not impressed.  As a scientist, he found this system for meeting women to be too random.  Men do not just want to talk to any woman in the elevator.   Men want to meet their “matching personality type,” he said, using the terminology of the eHarmony site he’s been throwing his money away on.

Luckily for Rob, and all other men out there, I discovered that there are literally a hundred different color awareness bracelets for sale, each representing a different illness, political affiliation, or public opinion — from liver disease to pro-choice.  This greatly expands the possibility of finding the right woman using this “awareness bracelet color technique.”

For instance, maybe you have the hots for that cute librarian who has a picture on her desk of her six cats, three dogs, and five rabbits.  She’s never noticed you at all.  No problem!  Next time you’re at the library, why not return your books while wearing a purple bracelet (purple symbolizing anti-animal abuse).  You don’t like it when little animals get hurt, do you?  I bet you’ll catch her eye this time!

How about that brainy law student from Brooklyn who sneezes every time you bring up your love of camping in Yosemite?  Bingo!  Win her heart with a gray bracelet  (gray: help allergy sufferers!)

Some other women you might want to woo:

The feisty independent filmmaker, hates Bush and big American corporations  (brown bracelet for anti-tobacco).

The moody singer-songwriter who writes sad songs about her childhood (green for childhood depression).

The exotic fashion model who’s part Cherokee, part African-American, part Jewish, and part Turkish.  (orange for cultural diversity).

The talented, but oh-so-thin actress who only picks at her salad.   (light blue for eating disorder).

Your nephew’s second grade teacher who looks like Catherine Zeta-Jones.  (blue for education).

That funny Latina comedienne from the gym, whose younger brother is in prison.  (black for gang prevention).

The Honda Hybrid salesgirl from the apartment next door who you hear having sex all the time and who once scolded you about not recycling. (green for environmental).

Who said that promoting a good cause can’t bring its own rewards?!

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