30 December 2013

"God Bless Us, Everyone" - 2

The following is a repost of an entry I made four years ago at the end of 2009.  This was during my breast cancer treatments.  It's interesting to me to note the timing and similarities from then.  That year, it was Eric who was our missionary that we spoke to on Christmas Day.  This year, it was Daniel, with whom we got to Skype with all the way from Uruguay.  I learned so much from this experience that I describe below.  And, honestly, it is what has given me strength during this current cancer episode.  

When I use my trials to learn and grow, I can look back on them without a bitter taste in my mouth, but with gratitude that I was given the grace, through the atonement of our Savior, to press forward with faith.

December 31, 2009
I realized that I need to seize the moment to make my last entry for 2009. A new decade begins tomorrow that will undoubtedly bring with it its blessings and its challenges. I just wanted to leave with those that read the thoughts that have been swirling around in my head for the last week and a half.

Christmas was wonderful. Physically, it was the most challenging time of my entire life. Really. The side effects of this new drug were quite intense. They are much more severe than with the first round of chemo drugs. As for my spirit, I was happy and delighted to be surrounded by my sweet family. It was wonderful to speak to Eric, our full time missionary, on the telephone.

Starting on the Wednesday after my treatment, I had much worse nausea than I had yet experienced with chemotherapy. In addition to that, I experienced severe pain in all my bones and joints. Deep down to the bone marrow pain. This lasted for Wednesday, Thursday and Friday (Christmas Day). The pain had lessened a bit for Saturday, and I was grateful, since I had to finish up the two wedding cakes for delivery later on Saturday.

On Sunday afternoon, I began to have severe chest pains with accelerated heart rate, pounding in my chest and shortness of breath. The best way to describe what I was experiencing is like labor contractions of my heart. I was always at a constant moderate pain level (5 on the 1 to 10 scale) with surges of increasing pain, lasting different lengths of time that brought the pain level to 8 or 9. By 9 o'clock that evening, my daughter, Elizabeth insisted I call the oncologist "on call" doctor. She just suggested I take Percocet to get through the night and to see my doctor the next day. The pain kept me up in waves throughout the night. The pain was often unbearable.

I called the cancer center and was only able to leave a message with the triage nurse. Three hours later, Nurse Jan called to say "come in RIGHT NOW".

When I arrived they checked my vitals and gave me orders to take to Cary Wake Hospital for a CT Scan to check for pulmonary embolism. They gave me a preventative shot of a blood thinner and a very small dose of Morphine for the pain.

I really don't want to take the time to do a play by play of the whole ordeal, but will say that after the CT scan came back negative for a blood clot, it was necessary to have an EKG done, which for some reason, could only be done through the emergency room. Daniel had driven me to the doctor, and was my constant companion through everything. We spent about 6 hours in waiting rooms in the ER in between two EKG's and blood work before I was in an ER room. I was admitted to the hospital overnight for observation to make sure that my blood enzymes did not show any heart damage. The pains had started to subside by the evening. Catherine switched places with Daniel and spent the night with me in my room.

In the morning, I had an echo-cardiogram (ultra sound of my heart) to check further for damage. It took 5 hours to get the results. No damage. (In other words, I did NOT have a heart attack). I left the hospital around 2:00 p.m.

Waiting in the E.R.

Dr. Singh said it is likely just a very severe and unusual side effect of the Taxol. Great. But, he had to rule out the other things to be sure.

I have been very weak and nauseous this whole week. It's just the way it is. But, my spirits are good.

So, back to my thoughts....

Every year, during this season, you can take your pick of any number of incarnations of the classic Dickens tale of "A Christmas Carol". I have seen portions of several versions this year. Just this afternoon I watched one I had never seen before, a more recent musical version starring Kelsey Grammer (Frasier) as Ebeneezer Scrooge.

As an aside, for many, many years, Doug has taken amusing offense to anyone remarking in a disparaging way to anyone who lacks Christmas cheer as a "Scrooge". He says that everyone should be a Scrooge, because he was great and generous man. You see, he choses to see Mr. Ebeneezer as he became in the end, rather than who he was during most of the tale. It's been a good spirited heated topic between he and I.

Today, while watching this new version, I was struck with the message of this tale. It is simply, do not let anything get in your way of living your life and loving one another. Whether it is too much emphasis on material things, whether you are in abundance or struggling; whether it is a grudge in your heart against family or friend; whether it is unexpected adversity or illness or any of another hundred things on the list. There is nothing more important than seizing the opportunity to love and serve others, and for that matter, to love and serve yourself, if you make sure that your service to yourself improves your ability to serve others. I think of it as developing Christ-like attributes.

I cannot tell you how many times, during this last week, with the severe bone and muscle aches and the intense chest pains in my heart, that I thought of our Savior and Redeemer. and knew that what I was experiencing was nothing compared to what he went through for all mankind. And, what's more, is that I see it as a gift to have been given an opportunity to think and feel more deeply upon his sacrifice as it relates specifically to me!

2009 was a fantastic year for me. There were so many great blessings offered to me and my family. We received guidance on the timing to purchase a new home, and where to buy it. I have been given the blessing of learning about how many people really care about me. It has been wonderfully overwhelming. The service that has been offered to me and my family in so many acts of service and kindness are innumerable.

So, if I can offer a bit of advice based on Doug's view of Ebeneezer Scrooge, let us try to see people not as they are now, but as they will become. Most people we encounter really are trying to become better people. Love each other a little more purer. It's kind of like the way our Heavenly Father can see our eternal potential. We'll all be better off if we can be more gentle on ourselves and each other.

So, in the words of the immortalized Tiny Tim, "God Bless Us, Everyone". For all of us deserve God's blessings in this coming year.

06 December 2013

Tasting the Bitter, to Prize the Sweet!

It has taken me longer to sit and write again.  This is more due to how difficult it is for me to actually type, as the neuropathy in my hands progresses further and more intensely after each subsequent treatment.  It is also because I find that it is necessary to record a really detailed series of events that is just so long and involved.  I had to be emotionally ready to tell the story again. :)

It's a REALLY lengthy story to tell.

Some background for understanding: 

I have no idea from day to day exactly how bad I may feel.  I generally have learned that each week is worse than the one previous, but that usually Mondays and Wednesdays weren't as terrible as all the other days of the week.  Monday was "better" because it was the day furthest away from the previous treatment.  Wednesdays were "better" because the IV pre-meds they give before my treatments to prevent allergic reactions and side effects of the chemo agents were still in my blood stream.  Thursdays are THE WORST.  I am hit heavy with everything sometime in the middle of the night, and when I wake up I feel like my body weighs 1400 pounds.  I cannot get out of bed.  I am so weak and shaky, sick to my stomach, often a bad headache and so very, very tired.

I also realize that as you may read on Facebook or here on my blog about me making wedding cakes, that it gives the impression that I am doing better than I am.  Don't be fooled.  I have an incredible support system that helps me on weeks that I am making cakes for my friends children who are getting married.  I work a little and rest A LOT.  I always ask Heavenly Father if it is prudent for me to make a cake.  I know that I might have to work through the tired or some pain and that I must ask for help and then allow people to help me. But, what was the point of all the years of developing my skills for money, and not be able to make the cakes for the people I love?  It may not be easy, but it brings me great joy.

And now for the story…yes, all this detail is relevant 

Two and a half weeks ago I was working on the wedding cake for my BFF Patti's daughter, Amy.  This was something I really wanted to do, and after my surgery in August, I was determined that nothing or no one could stop me from this blissful task.  I knew that it was possible that I would be in the thick of side effects, but when I asked, Heavenly Father told me that I could do it.  But, I'd have to ask for help; I couldn't do it alone.

I had great plans for a three cake presentation, that included one medium size wedding cake, and two smaller tiered cakes, all in a cohesive Steam Punk theme. (You'll have to look it up).   When my treatment plan was finalized, we realized it would be a "week 1" of a cycle.  Which means that I would have both chemo agents that week, and that based on the months before, I knew it would be a more difficult week due to increased side effects. Sadly, I had to tell Amy that I knew that I would not have the strength to do the three cake display, but to choose the one that was her favorite.  I also promised that since there would only be one cake, it would be my very best work.

Douglas baked almost all of the cake.  He's a very good baker, having worked with me a whole year in 2007 when he was not employed.  You will never be able to tell if he or I baked the cake.  True story.

I also had the assistance of dear Kimberly.  You'll have to go back and read from my breast cancer days why I esteem her as highly as I do.  She has offered more hours of Christlike service to me than any other person in my entire life.  She saved the business when my breast cancer diagnosis came 4 years ago. True story.  

When my cake business was at it's peak, Kim worked for me and along with some mad skills she brought with her, she learned "my ways" and I learned from her too.  We were a great team.

Just one more piece of background information: I make my own fondant.  It is delicious and is a dream to work with.  It's not my recipe, but I am grateful to the gal who shared it so that I can have it too.  Good fondant is very expensive, and when my business was in its peak, I purchased a Swiss fondant from an import company.  But, now that I only make a few cakes, mostly for friends, I just couldn't support the purchase price and shipping.  This is relevant to the story, because I realized that I would not have the strength to make the fondant for Amy's wedding cake.  So, I purchased a brand that I used in the early years, that I thought worked great until I learned about the Swiss stuff.  

Everything that I touched was an Epic Fail

Since the top three tiers of Amy's cake were actually styrofoam cake dummies, I decided that I could cover them in fondant a week ahead since there was no cake to spoil.  Good idea.  I am so efficient.  (hmm.)

On Monday, I knew I had to get as much done as possible to prepare for when Kim would come on Wednesday to level, fill and crumb coat all the kitchen cakes (200 servings).  So, I prepared all the different fillings and made the buttercream, so she could just start doing the work on Wednesday.

I, on the other hand, was not so successful.

So, I had a little energy after my treatment on Tuesday.  So, that evening, I decided to drape the fondant on the bottom 12" tier that was actual cake.  But, it was like I had never worked with fondant in my life.  I'm like "This is what I DO!  I am good at this!  Why is the fondant cracking and tearing as it hits the cake?  This isn't just, "oh Sally is a perfectionist and it is really fine".  Doug heard my cries and my whining and my crying, (yes more crying; there was A LOT of UGLY crying) and asked if there was anything he could do to help me.  I said, "come in here and be honest and tell me that I really do have to re-do this tier."  Ordinarily my champion, he is always the eye of the average person and tell me it's really not as bad as I think it is.  But when he saw the cake, he asked, "Is there a way to fill in all those cracks?"  Fail!

So, I try to carefully pull the fondant off the 12" round cake tier.  Oh, I forgot to tell you, it was Red Velvet cake.  So, that means I have to very cautiously scrape off the buttercream from the fondant so as to not leave any red specs behind, thus turning the fondant pink when re-kneading it to use again.  ARGGGGGGHHHHH!!!!!

Remember the cake dummies? By Tuesday night, that fondant just kept moving on the cake dummies.  Catherine asked me if they were supposed to look like the bark of a tree. Uh, no.  Fail!

Clearly this fondant I bought was not working.  But there was no time to order the good stuff.  So, on Tuesday evening, I was resolved that I would have to make fondant on Wednesday morning.  I got up on Wednesday morning and started preparing all the ingredients to make 3 batches (about 15 pounds) of fondant.  

The phone rang at 9:30 a.m.  It was Patti, who was calling to check in on me because I didn't respond to her text from the night before.  This is not usual for me.  But, I was in the middle of the weeping and crying and I just couldn't tell her that I was failing at making her daughter's cake.  I told her what happened.  She helped me feel better and would pray for me.  "Patti prayers" are incredibly effective.  Always.

I went into the kitchen and started making the first batch, and a very sweet feeling came over me, and then the voice of the spirit whispered into my heart and mind, "You have to taste the bitter, to prize the sweet."  And I thought, OK, I get it.  Even in the midst of this whole BITTER that I am going through with my health, I can still learn again this true principle taught by our First Parents.  This is the story of mortality.  I decided I would shed no more tears over this cake.  My focus was on the joy of making the  perfect cake for Amy and Jeff.

With the help of Evelyn Wing, all the fondant was made that morning.  Eveyln took me to my afternoon appointment.  When I returned home, I was not strong enough to do anymore work on the cake that day.  It wiped me out.  I slept the rest of the day.

On Thursday, I soaked all that other fondant off the cake dummies and proceeded to try again with my freshly made fondant.  And…..fail.  It had no elasticity.  It cracked and tore. What was wrong?  I make this all the time.  What was different? 

That night, I email Kim to see if she could help me on Friday. What I really wrote was "Help me Kim!  You're my only hope!" She had already set aside time to help me if I needed it.  

She arrived at 10 a.m. on Friday and we start trouble shooting the homemade fondant.  We tried adding more confectioners sugar.  We added more shortening and it just got worse. Together we spent about 4 hours trying different things and the fondant just got worse.  If you can, imagine an 8" styrofoam cake dummy.  I roll out the fondant like you would roll a large piece of pie dough for a crust.  I go to drape it over the dummy, and the top edges all crack immediately and like a giant hole punch the fondant on the dummy stays a circle on the top and the sides drop to the counter.  Fail.

No tears, as promised, but I am feeling seriously concerned about my skills.

We can't move forward on any of the other design elements until we have a fondant "canvas" to work on.  Last resort.  Nasty Wilton Fondant.  The worst tasting fondant, EVER!  I send Kim, my son Benjamin and Catherine to Michael's Craft store with 50% off coupons to purchase what is truly my last hope.

It's 2:30 p.m. and Kim has to leave to pick up her girls deliver a wedding cake she has made.  We can't believe that the wedding is the next evening and we don't even have the fondant on the cake.  Kindly, she tells me she will come back and we will work all night if we have to until the cake is done and done well.

While Kim is gone.  I start using the Wilton fondant to cover the cake dummies first.  It went on splendidly.  Each tier in turn.  Then I covered the "real" cake.  Very good.  Not perfect, but still quite acceptable.  I could hide the little blemishes with the decorative items that go on the cake.  I started with the other design elements.  And everything went on easily, and I feel more confidence.

And there it was.  It turned out just like the design was supposed to.  And it was really good work.  And I dare say, I felt a sweeter sweet and joy than if everything had gone like I expected it to.  I really had to work for this one.  And, I was able to feel incredible joy even after so much bitter.  True story.

The next week (a shorter story)

I have one of those double oven gas ranges.  Small top oven, larger bottom oven.  Only 2 1/2 years old.  The top oven stopped igniting on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  The bottom oven stopped igniting the morning before Thanksgiving.  SERIOUSLY?!

Do I need to go any further?

Oh, I'll tell you that Doug found a repairman to come out, who was so busy that day that he got here around 7:30 p.m.  Basically, I wore out the ignitors.  I use my oven 3-4 times the average user.  That means the ignitors were essentially 8-10 years old. $516 later, my ovens work.  Much gratitude for my friend and neighbor, Shalyse, who let me bake my pies in her oven on Wednesday afternoon.

Thursday was Thanksgiving.  It was "in-law" year, so my married kids went to their in-laws for dinner.  But, Michael's wife's family didn't have anywhere to go, so the came with her mom, sister, and grandmother.  I had assigned all the side dishes out, so that I wouldn't have anything but the turkey to deal with.  It ended up being a TERRIBLE side effect day for me. It was a very hard day for me physically. But, in my head, I was happy.

OK, Sally, what's the point?

I spent a lot of time praying during these last weeks while I was vexed by my trials.  I RE-HEALLY wanted to know what the purpose of all this bitterness was.  I've spent hours in meditation trying to understand. Well...

It wasn't about fondant.
It wasn't about my loss of skills.
It wasn't about bad timing of ovens breaking.

The Lord taught me that sometimes no matter how hard you try at something, it doesn't always work.  I'm pretty used to be being successful at the things I try when I work really hard.  I needed to be humbled.  He basically told me, "You think this was YOU all these years.  You think that it was all your hard work and intellect, when I was there all along, right beside you.  You wouldn't have been successful if I hadn't walked beside you all the way!"

The Lord taught me that I am NOT in control.  He is.   And regarding this diagnosis and prognosis - as much as I have said and written the words "It's all in the Lord's hands".  I was still holding on as if somehow I had still a little bit of power in all this.

What I am saying is that I have been trying to control my ability to persevere through this more aggressive treatment plan.  I have been minimizing the severity of the neuropathy in my hands and feet, because I have been afraid that they will stop this course of treatment. (This is a reason they would stop it.)  I have convinced myself that if I don't finish this series that I will have lost my best chance at fighting this disease and it's history of recurrence.  But, I don't really know that at all.

If I don't speak up, some or all of this nerve damage to my hands and feet could be permanent.  

My hands.  

My hands that have spent since childhood playing the piano in service to the Lord and teaching hundreds of children and for the shear enjoyment of the music for me.  

My hands that seem to make people really happy when they eat the cake that I bake.

My hands that hold my grandchildren.

My hands that hold the hand of the love of my life.

Letting go

Each week is more difficult than the one before, in terms of the intensity of the side effects.  Every week my white counts are just barely on the borderline to go ahead and receive treatment.  And boy do I feel the "low-ness"!  The fatigue from being anemic is overwhelming.  My hands are now almost completely numb.

Next week I start Cycle 5 - Week 1.  That means that I am 2/3rds through with this particular treatment protocol.  It also means that I meet with Dr. Lee on Tuesday.  I understand that I have to admit that it is time to have a serious talk about whether we continue with the aggressive weekly treatment plan, or finish up the course with the traditional protocol.  Or, something else entirely.

If you will, I ask for prayers on behalf of Dr. Lee and Douglas and myself to make the best decision about my care.

Wedding Cake Photos
courtesy of Emanuelle Photography - Mani Reay Maxwell