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Getting So Much Better All the Time

CancerTravelTrips and VacationsDiseases and IllnessesHealthBreast CancerMeg Ryan

Mary Susan Herczog chronicled her battle with breast cancer in The Times from December 1997 to August 1998. Today, she updates us.

*

After going down the "how's this and how's that?" checklist and getting variations on "just fine, thanks" in response, my oncologist, Dr. Waisman, peered at me.

"Are you sure you had cancer?" he asked.

"So you tell me," I said.

Yep, here I am, eight months after the conclusion of treatment, and the commencement of Tamoxifen, and everything health-wise is divinely dull. After my personal melodrama sputtered to an undramatic conclusion, the follow-up has continued to similarly lack headline quality, thank goodness and mercy and light. Concerned onlookers ask, in worried tones, "How are you?" and I shrug. Fine. That's really all there is to say. Tests, mammograms, physical exams--all clean. General health--pretty much like it should be.

And so with those petty issues out of the way, this frees me to focus on the really important matters, like my continuing self-satisfaction with my new hair, and how my post- chemo pounds have left my butt lumpy. Shallow? You bet. But trust me, it's better this way. That heavy stuff is too wearying.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not so frivolous that I don't continue, daily, to be grateful that the profound good luck that colored my treatment, and the results of same, has continued. Not that there weren't small things to bounce back from. But overall, life pretty much picked up where I left it off, two autumns ago. Dr. Waisman (who followed my surgical oncologist, Dr. Silverstein, from the Van Nuys Breast Center over to the USC/Norris cancer center) just shakes his head and calls me a poster girl for chemotherapy. It's an odd honor.

Indeed, everything was so good so quickly that when a work opportunity presented itself that meant a month in Bali for me and my husband, Steve, we jumped on it. It was significant that I could handle such a trip--it is far, and it was work, mostly, really--without any thought along the lines of, "Gee, I just recovered from a potentially life-threatening disease. Maybe I'm not up for something this big." Of course, it also meant using up in one fell swoop all the goodwill and sympathy I had amassed during the previous 11 months.

"Yeah, cry me a river, Bali Girl," I could imagine my friends thinking.

*

So preoccupying was this trip that the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis in November passed with no ceremony and barely any acknowledgment.

"Wasn't it a year ago today?" said Steve or I to the other, who muttered, "Oh, yeah," and got back to work. Today is too hectic to be much concerned with yesterday.

Still, there are some minor things lingering, reminders that pop up just about each time I've sort of managed to forget. My scars are fading, if not entirely faded (and I show them to everybody whether they want to see them or not). Chemo has left me for the moment with dry skin, not unwelcome after a lifetime of the opposite, though I'm completely inexperienced with moisturizers. My post-surgery arm still catches now and again, making some yoga moves tricky. Getting back into shape hasn't been fun, but surely no worse than if I'd spent nine months just lying on the couch, sucking down bonbons, which would have been much nicer than chemo.

Energy was an initial hurdle following radiation. Even as a dedicated nap-taker, I seemed to lose more steam than ever each afternoon. Thankfully, my concerns about this being a problem for the Bali trip--it really was for work, honest--were unnecessary. I flagged not at all during the trip and have had only the odd down day since I've returned.

So far, Tamoxifen (given to lessen the chances of a recurrence) hasn't affected me adversely. It has made my periods a bit more erratic, but at least I haven't suffered the weight gain--knock a whole forest of wood--that is the biggest complaint by women taking the drug. However, it does seem to have altered my metabolism, and so the few pounds I put on thanks to chemo refuse to budge. You wouldn't know it looking at me, but I know the truth. My pants just don't fit.

I complained to Dr. Waisman, but my hopes for some special instant weight-loss pill (don't you just know it exists?) were dashed when he shrugged and gave his best and only advice.

"Exercise like crazy and watch what you eat."

Dang.

So I'm trying to load up on fish and veggies, and I'm working out--gym, yoga, jumping rope; it's all very boring. Worse, it doesn't seem to be doing a darned thing. Normally, I don't believe in this sort of thing, but lately I've been engaging in wistful fantasies about the liposuction elves just taking care of matters one night while I sleep. I'll be sure to let you know if that happens.

*

My hair started to grow back shortly after the end of chemo, and as soon as I noticed it was coming in darker than what I've hitherto fancied was my natural color, I realized this would not do and dashed to my amused hair guy, Craig, to correct this quarter-inch-long error of nature. The result made me confident enough to shuck those tiresome hats about a month sooner than perhaps others would have, since I was then sporting a crew cut that would have looked extreme on a Marine.

But the hair grew, as hair does, and I've marked the stages with celebrity comparisons. First, there was the Steve-McQueen-in-"The Great Escape" look, and then a dead ringer for Mia Farrow in "Rosemary's Baby." I've moved through present-day Sharon Stone and Anne Heche and am currently hovering around Jenna Elfman and Meg Ryan. The result is, I spend far too much time lingering at the mirror admiring my kicky new look and thinking, "This was a hell of a way for me to find out Craig was right all these years he's wanted to cut off my hair."

Still, though, my self-absorbed vanity notwithstanding, I also feel wistful. If I stick with this hair, or a variation, and it seems I might, forever now there will be a dividing line between the pre-cancer and the post-cancer me. Leaving my hair short seems like a permanent badge, to go with the one on my chest, of a time I would prefer not to commemorate. Growing my hair out might be the final way to reclaim me.

But then I get shallow again and think about how I'm so enjoying trying all these new hair-care products.

And how are you?

*

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CancerTravelTrips and VacationsDiseases and IllnessesHealthBreast CancerMeg Ryan
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