Thursday, January 15, 2015

So You're Going Through Chemotherapy

That's what I envision one of those cheesy brochures would say. Many years ago I was actually handed a brochure that read "So You've Got Mono" therefore I know they really exist! Here's another one, a favorite of mine from The Simpsons:
Gratuitous Simpsons Reference

Anyway, my next chemo treatment is this coming Monday. That's the bad news. The good news is that once it's over I'll be 75% done with chemo! Yay!

Many people have been asking me lately, "what's it like?" Specifically, what happens during a treatment, and what are the side effects afterwards? Here's what my experience is like:

My oncologist's practice has an entire floor of a medical office building here in Crystal Lake (so I'm not traveling far or going to a hospital). I meet with my doctor and his nurses briefly, they go through all the medications I'm taking to make sure everything is OK, I whine and bitch for a few minutes, they listen sympathetically, and then it's off to the other side of the floor where the treatment takes place.

Some of you may remember this picture from a recent Facebook post of Bryce's:

That's basically what goes on for an infusion. This side of the floor contains pods of recliners arranged around TVs, and you can sit wherever you like, with your IV hooked up to you. I do not have a port (a little device implanted under the skin that directs medicine into your bloodstream, for those of you in my age group who aren't familiar with this awesome stuff), so I have an IV directly in my arm the whole time (it doesn't hurt very much). They take a blood sample before starting the IV. This is done to check that your white blood cell count isn't dangerously low before they kick the crap out of it with the chemo.

I'm there for about four hours total, which may sound like a lot but it's actually short in comparison to chemotherapy treatments for other types of cancers. For example, my father's treatments for mouth cancer were about twice that amount of time. Close to two hours is taken up with administering pre-meds: saline for hydration, anti-nausea meds, and a steroid that prevents an allergic reaction to one of my actual chemo drugs. Then, they administer two types of chemo (I won't bore you with the unpronouncable names, but these are just two of the many chemotherapy drugs used in breast cancer treatment).

During the entire treatment, Bryce and I sit there with either the iPad or a laptop, our headphones, and we binge-watch some TV. The place has been crowded both times I've been there (cancer is popular these days, I suppose), and I am always by far the youngest person. As such, I find my fellow patients often staring at me, which is unnerving and annoying although I understand why they do it. I know they're thinking "Oh my, such a young woman! So sad!" And yeah, it is sad, but stares only remind me how bullshit unfair odd it is for me to be there. I've said it before, being pitied by the elderly is one of the cruelest aspects of this situation. So I don't talk with anyone besides the nurses, and after I get one bag of each chemo, I'm done!

So what's it like afterwards? Kinda like being sick with the flu or a viral infection. I'm foggy, to the point that I can't focus to read a magazine. I can handle the 140 characters of tweets and that's about it. Fatigue sets in immediately, but it's hard to sleep. Nausea comes within the next day but I have methods for dealing with it. Fortunately I've kept down all foods after both prior treatments, and I haven't lost weight. The day after chemo, I go back to the office for a shot that increases my white blood cells. That's all fine and good, especially since I have kids at home, but the downside is that it causes soreness and bone pain, which set in about a day after the shot.

All this crescendos until about the 72-hour mark, when it becomes the worst. The most mundane tasks—sitting up, getting a glass of water, walking to the bathroom—seem insurmountable. I pretty much don't leave the couch for four days, although I do try to stretch when possible because that helps with the bone pain. Then, by the end of the week the fog starts to lift and the other side effects (bad taste, stomach problems) recede a little, the nausea comes in waves but not as frequently or strongly, and by the end of the weekend I'm feeling sort of back to normal.

This is what I'm gearing up for next week (sounds fun don't it?!?!). We have a cadre of wonderful family members and friends who are on tap to get the kids to their activities while I'm recovering, and most importantly, after Monday I'll only have one more!!

::soothing commercial voice:: For more information about my chemo, or if you have questions, leave a comment or text me!

Garden Blogger's Bloom Day—January 2015

Ahh houseplants, a northern gardener's best friend in winter....

And this is without a doubt the best January bloom day for me yet, thanks to my Christmas cactus in full bloom... this beautiful orchid I received as a birthday gift from my friend Krysten!

I have always wanted to grow orchids but have been intimidated by their rumored fussiness. Then I hear that no, they're not actually fussy and don't need spritzing and fertilizing and all that nonsense, so I don't know what to believe.

However I no longer care, and I want to try my hand at these lovely indoor flowers. The instructions say to place this one in "bright, indirect sunlight" and I think the front window fits that description. Those same instructions say to avoid drafts, which, unfortunately, seep in both from the (cold) window and (warm) air vent just below the windowsill. Maybe they'll balance out? Time will tell!

To see what else is blooming around the world, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Plant This: Bee Balm

Native bee balm (Mondarda fistulosa) is like the all-American success story in my garden. I planted them about five years ago, and they languished without flowers, showing off nothing but powdery mildew. In a post years ago I threatened them with removal if they didn't shape up their act. And what did they do? Explode! They have beautiful light purple blooms in the classic monarda crown shape.

Bumblebees adore them. They are swarmed with fuzzy bees at all times; coming home to see their lavender flowers literally buzzing with life is one of the little daily joys I get from gardening. They are certainly a pollinator favorite out of my entire garden.

The mildew still sets in by late summer, even though I've gotten better about controlling it throughout the growing season. It's impossible to stop it altogether; there's just too much mildew latent in the soil here, and monardas as a genus are too damn susceptible. But it's OK; usually I cut back their whitetened stems and foliage because it's worst by the time the flowers are spent. Besides, I'm not getting rid of the peonies or lilacs that are comparably mildew-y by late summer.

This year, with all the craziness going on, I deadheaded very little in the garden. And what serendipity, because bee balm have that most elusive, wonderful quality...winter interest! They look like cake pops or a pom-pom hat, with a fresh layer of snow perched atop their perfectly round seed heads!

The seeds are long gone, having been feasted upon by goldfinches and who knows what other birds. I, however, have learned a valuable lesson: don't cut back monardas in the winter even when they have mildew problems! If you have dry clay in part sun, I recommend you try these tall, unique natives. I'm hoping the addition of wild petunias (Ruellia humilis) last spring will act as "socks-and-shoes" plants to hide their leggy stems, and then they will honestly look wonderful all four seasons of the year.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

It's a Christmas (Cactus) Miracle!

I was all excited to write about the snow today and show pretty snow pictures, but then something amazing happened!

So I finally remembered that I have houseplants, and that those plants haven't been watered in about two weeks. That's fine—in fact at this time of year it's better to let houseplants dry out than it is to water too much; under-watering jives with the natural dormancy Mother Nature is imposing with the shortest daylight hours of the year. However, I noticed some were on the verge of death, and with the Christmas decorations and tree gone, it was time for some attention.

And upon watering I found this!

My Christmas cactus, at least I think it's a Christmas cactus and not a Thanksgiving cactus, is blooming for the first time ever!

This was one of my first post-college houseplants...I've had it for at least 10 years (in fact I can't remember exactly when I got it from my mom, it's been that long). Every year I've thought about covering it to provide it with just the right balance of light and dark, every year I see other people's Christmas cacti blooming and I'm envious, every year I think "well, this guy just isn't getting the right conditions, oh well." Not this year!

The best part is the copious pink buds adorning the pendulous stems; if all goes well this should be blooming for a week or two!

This gorgeous tropical flower is enough to brighten up what's turning into a very snowy and soon-to-be bitterly cold week. A plant full of flowers at this time of year is a dream come true!

I suppose that my benign neglect may have helped, since this plant was subject to natural changes in sunlight and temperatures. Being smashed up against our front window left it exposed to cooler night temps, while the mess of spider plants around it obscured it from view and protected it earlier in the fall from my overwatering tendencies. So 2015 is already proving one of the great truths of gardening: unexpected successes happen every year!

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Chemo—50% Done!

Yesterday I had my second chemo infusion, so I am officially halfway done with this phase of treatment! Yay!

The side effects so far haven't been as bad as last time, although I'm kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop. The 72-hour point seems to be the nadir, so I'm hoping it's not too rough in a couple days.

However, we have amazing family and friends who are taking the kids to do wonderful activities all week long, and I'm thrilled they're getting to spend so much time with their cousins from all across the country. Also, Bryce is home with me all week so I'm well cared for!

There's 5 nights of Umphrey's webcasts starting tonight, and lots of football and hockey on tv, so we're looking forward to hunkering down and getting through the week as well as possible. I hope you all have a very safe and happy New Year!

Monday, December 15, 2014

Spring is Coming

It's not even Christmas, there's no snow on the ground, but I know spring will be here because I've already received my first 2015 seed catalog! And what a beauty it is...Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. This year's is just as lovely as every year.

Flowers made of colorful seeds on a background of grains that look so tactile I just want to run my hands through them and feel each grain fall around my fingers. I'm also happy they've moved to an 8-1/2" x 11" catalog size in the last couple years. Previously they used something closer to 11" x 14" and it was kind of unwieldy.

I've been a Baker Creek customer for a few years now, and my favorite offering of theirs is lettuce. Lettuce is one of my most-loved crops to grow and consume, and their selection covers every type: romaine, leaf, butterhead, oak leaf, you name it. Every year I grow about five varieties, and I make a point to try a couple new types each year while keeping a few stalwarts in the line-up.

Tom Thumb, sort of washed post-harvest
Rouge D'Hiver has been my go-to romaine, and Tom Thumb, a butterhead type, is possibly my all-time favorite. Outredgeous was a new addition this year and looks set to repeat its role in my garden this spring. I'm already eying Pablo and Tennis Ball as potential candidates this year. I will change my mind at least 400 times before actually placing my order later this winter.

Baker Creek offers a lot more than lettuce, however; most of their vegetable, herb, and flower offerings are quite comprehensive. I encourage you to check out their website and even request a catalog if you like paging through beautiful plant pictures like I do.

I have to say, however, I'm not as adamant about GMO-free foods as these folks. I understand where they're coming from, but I'm not about to tell a Bangladeshi farmer that it's too bad if her kids go blind because rice modified with vitamin A is bad. It's not bad, and keeping a scientific advance such as this from developing countries is Western hubris. Modifying seeds for yield, disease and pest resistance, drought resistance, and the like is going to keep a planet of 7 billion fed, like it or not. Not to mention, humans have been genetically modifying plants since the invention of agriculture. Our ancestors selected the cereal plants that had the largest grains and the particular individuals that held onto those grains (aka, seeds) longer instead of dispersing them quickly from the seed head. Just because we're doing it on a much more technologically advanced scale doesn't automatically make it bad.

That being said, Roundup Ready corn is terrible. Any genetic modifications that allow people to dump ever more chemicals on our food supply and land and in our water is both dangerous and wrong. Also, biodiversity is extremely important. We don't know what plant traits we'll need in a changing climate; therefore we need to keep as many genes in the mix as possible. Pests and diseases can and will evolve to feed on crops that have been bred for resistance—it's unavoidable, and it's just another reason why we need variety in the gene pool of our plant life. Biodiversity is definitely under threat every day, so people like the Gettles, who own Baker Creek, are doing a valuable service to society by keeping rare and different plants alive and well for us to grow.

As usual, I don't see this issue in black and white. Organic practices, such as integrated pest management, the use of compost, etc., are vital to preserve any amount of healthy land that can grow food. I myself use strictly organic practices in my own gardens, both the vegetable and ornamental parts. An article in the October 2014 issue of National Geographic stated it well: "It's not choosing one type of knowledge—low-tech versus high-tech, organic versus GM—once and for all. There's more than one way to stop a whitefly" (Folger 54). (The author is referring to a virus-carrying pest that is destroying cassava crops in East Africa.)

There's a vast gray area that partisans on both sides forget or ignore, and it's important that we have mature conversations about it. On a lighter note, if you're interested in trying different sorts of vegetables, herbs, and flowers, Baker Creek is a source I can solidly recommend. Germination rates are good and I've never been disappointed in the plants (only the weather, conditions, and neglect that are not attributable to the seeds). And reading this catalog reminds me seed-starting season—and the outdoor gardening season—are really just a few months away.

Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day—December 2014

Since it's the middle of December, there is, unsurprisingly, nothing blooming in my Chicago-area zone 5 garden. However, indoors I have this lovely flower arrangement sent by a family friend:

It's full of pink lilies, white roses, what I think are some dianthus-type flowers, and plenty of greenery.

I also received a plant basket from family wishing me well during treatment, and it's a Christmas classic:

Bright red poinsettias, variegated ivy, and a Christmas cactus that was blooming...something I've never managed with my own houseplant! (Of course the bloom was spent before today, but I swear it was bright pink!)

The ivy and Christmas cactus will join my collection of houseplants after the poinsettia is done for. Thank you everyone for these lovely plant gifts!

To see what's blooming around the world, visit Carol at May Dreams Gardens, our host of Garden Bloggers' Bloom Day.

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