Wellness Wednesday: How I Became Newly Grateful for Being Healthy

It’s been quite the two years. In 2019, I survived a ruptured aneurysm. As I completed my recovery in early 2020, the world went into pandemic lockdown, and both my husband and I — both high risk — have lived apart from much of the world for nearly a year.

But February delivered three pieces of good news that will carry us forward into whatever 2021 has in store.

  1. My doctor pronounced me in excellent shape.
  2. My husband and I are fully vaccinated.
  3. I don’t have breast cancer.

Let me say a few words about that final item, and the doctors that carried me there.

The Gynecologist

Like most of us, I delayed many medical appointments last year. When I did get in to see my gynecologist in early January, she identified a small mass in one of my breasts. I have “dense breasts,” which is to say that it’s never easy to figure out which lump is normal and which might mean trouble According to the CDC, about half of all women age 40 and above are in this category. Dr. K gave me orders for a mammogram and an ultrasound, and an appointment with a “breast doctor” to review the radiology report. I realized this meant a breast cancer doctor.

I wasn’t that worried, but I was pissed off. Adding yet another medical situation to these challenging two years was too much. I didn’t want another doctor in my e-Rolodex, thank you very much. Unfair. Boo-hoo. Etcetera.

I allowed myself to pout for a couple of days, listened to wise people who reminded me that life doesn’t work that way, and made my appointments.

The Radiologist

The imaging center radiologist looked at the images as the technician put me through my paces. She was reassuring: the tissue looked no different from other fatty breast tissue. Several days later, I received the written report. In black and white, it said “Not cancer.” Good news. If I hadn’t already scheduled an appointment with the breast surgeon, that would have been that.

However, as I discovered during my long hospital stay in Amsterdam, I am a super-compliant patient, and so I gathered my records and prepared for a brief conversation with the next doctor along the lines of “Sorry to waste your time, never mind.”

The Breast Surgeon

But that’s not the conversation we had.

About 16 percent of breast cancers do not show up on a mammogram or ultrasound. If you were sure the lump wasn’t new, we’d let this go for six months. But, you are not sure, and I don’t want to be wrong. A biopsy will tell me for sure what we’re dealing with. It’s your choice.

Dr. M

I realized that I hadn’t survived, recovered, and thrived in these past two years just to hope for the best. I scheduled the surgery.

The Primary Care Doctor

It’s called a lumpectomy when the tumor is cancer, but an excisional breast biopsy when the substance removed is unknown. Either way, it’s surgery, and I had to be deemed healthy enough to withstand the process.

The hours that I spent getting evaluated — in-person instead of on the telephone for the first time since March — were the most lively, interactive, and positive of the past year. Every interaction affirmed my progress in recovery. Big item in the silver lining category.

The Breast Surgeon

At 7:45 AM the Monday following Valentine’s Day, Dr. M. marked up my breast. “Nice timing for Valentine’s Day,” I said. “Yeah, just felt you up,” she quipped back. I laughed as I was wheeled into the operating room in the outpatient facility, and then it was over. Dr. M called my husband to say that it looked like plain old fatty tissue. We were home by 10.

I spent that day and the next icing, resting, and binging on Netflix. I had no pain, no swelling, because the cut was tiny and I’d also followed the guidelines to get a super-supportive sports bra. The Syrokan runs a little small but lives up to the hype. When I showed my husband the incision, I realized we were commemorating Mardi Gras with the New Orleans tradition of “flashing,” sans beads. Eventually, I turned off Netflix and got back to walking: a mile, two, four.

One week later, Dr. M showed me the pathology report: Benign, it said. Benign fibrofatty mammary parenchyma, a lipoma, a benign fat tumor. Same material as the rest of the breast, just encased in material that makes it feel more dense, like chicken fat in a baggie. In six months, I’ll do another mammogram for a new baseline. That’s it.

Tears came to my eyes. They still do as I realize, once again, how grateful I am to be well, once again.

Lessons Learned

Be better about documenting what’s going on in my body. Don’t put off medical appointments — my husband and I will be back in doctors’ offices in mid-March. Do what they tell you to do. And keep going, every day, with something that will make you stronger: walk, do yoga, do the polka, lift weights. It really doesn’t matter what, just keep moving. It helps if it’s kinda fun.

And this from USA Today’s Adrianna Rodriguez: Doctors recommend patients schedule their mammogram before receiving a COVID-19 vaccine, or space out the two appointments, after some women have been mistaking swollen lymph nodes, a side effect of the COVID-19 vaccine, for breast lumps.

Here’s to our health, dear readers! Enjoy the sights and sounds of early morning in our backyard.

Signs of Recovery

May 29 was my scheduled six-month CT scan at the University of Florida’s Shands Hospital, under whose care I have been since flying home from Amsterdam last year. The five-hour drive seemed less daunting as my strength and confidence returned, and the appointment appeared poised to be the maiden voyage for the new car we bought at noon on Friday, March 13.

Friday the 13th. While we were at the Earl Stewart car dealership, the public schools closed. By the end of the weekend, Florida and the rest of the United States were in the Coronavirus pandemic lockdown. Suddenly, getting in a car to go anywhere — much less five hours away — was fraught with danger. We waited at home for things to get better.

Things are not better. Five months later, America’s shameful government leadership has failed to stop the Coronavirus. The number of cases in Florida alone is far greater than other countries’. We still are home most of the time, but, when we do go out, we wear masks, wash our hands, and keep our distance from people.

Recovery is a long, slow, and uncertain process in the best of times. A wise doctor in Amsterdam counseled me to keep my expectations low, treasure the small accomplishments, and stay in it for the long game. It did take me a full year to feel like myself again.

Those who survive COVID have it much, much worse, as the medical community is discovering in the survivors they’ve described as the long-haulers. But one thing that I have in common with these brave souls is hair-loss. Alyssa Milano’s recent Tweet documenting her own hair loss went viral.

In her recent article in USA Today, reporter Adrianna Rodriguez has written about hair loss as another consequence of the coronavirus. The Harvard Medical School says that “telogen effluvium,” the medical term for this condition, can be triggered by major physical trauma, a shock to the system.

There’s a growing phase, a resting phase and a shedding phase. When you see a lot of shedding, that’s when people perceive hair loss.

Jennifer Ashton, MD

Cleveland Clinic’s Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal says that hair loss comes after the illness.

This is why we’re seeing these patients now, several weeks after COVID-19 symptoms resolve. Telogen effluvium isn’t a symptom of COVID-19 as much as it is a consequence of the infection.”

Dr. Shilpi Khetarpal, Cleveland Clinic.

So, losing my hair was part of getting better. It became very thin about three months after my illness. Though it sure didn’t feel like a positive thing at the time, it was the beginning of recovery. Although it’s not very stylish (stay-at-home-mullett!) and gray/brown/blond (stay-at-home-color!), it feels thicker and curlier than it was before. Silver lining category.

The long game seems endless, and then you put a pan away without thinking and realize you’re getting better.

This morning, I took another step in the right direction by finally getting my six-month (now an eight-month) CT scan. My diagnosis in Amsterdam was Segmental Arterial Mediolysis, a disease in which the walls of the abdominal arteries are weak. It’s a relatively rare diagnosis about which not enough is known, including whether it can resolve itself. In addition to keeping blood pressure in control, you want to keep an eye out for aneurysms. Now that I am able to move as I want, it was time to be sure my body and my head are in synch.

With a nod to the pandemic, Shands sent the order down to an imaging facility a mile from my house. I suited up — mask, gloves — and followed the distancing protocol to guard staff and patients alike. I was in and out quickly. Fingers crossed.

Meantime, I’m taking Kumba’s lead and not worrying about what I can’t control. Wishing you and yours continued health and courage!