Monday, January 31, 2011

Pat Down - 1/28/11

I have been flying to marathons and ultramarathons since 2004 on a regular basis, but this weekend was the first time that I have ever been pulled out of the screening line for a "pat down". This is truly an unpleasant experience, and later as I thought about it, it was also unnecessary. And it's not just because I know that I'm not a terrorist. It's because I still don't know what the process accomplished. The reason I was pulled for a "pat down" is because the airport that I fly out of has started using the new x-ray machines for screening. A few weeks ago when I flew to San Antonio, TX for the Bandera 50K, both airports were still using the old metal detectors. I have never set off any alarms when I walked through those machines, but the new x-ray machine picked up shadows in my upper torso.

When I stepped out of the machine, a TSA worker asked for my cap. I took it off, gave it to her, and watched as she ran her gloved hand along the inside band of the cap. She explained that she was making sure that there was nothing hidden in the band. I usually wear a cap when I'm going and coming from a race, and in all of these years, this was the first time I was asked to remove the cap to have it inspected. After she gave me the cap back, she told me to step to the side because they would have to do a "pat down". She asked if I had anything hidden under my clothes, because the machine had detected objects on my upper body. Without going into great detail, I told her that I have a port in the right side of my chest and that I have a prosthesis on the left side of my chest. She said that they would have to check this out. What???

Two other female TSA workers joined us and grabbed my duffle bag and the bin that contained my shoes, purse, and a small plastic baggie of toiletries. They led me into a small room and closed the door. One of them explained the "pat down" process, while the other one stood off to the side as an eye witness. As I stood with my legs spread shoulder width apart and my arms out to the side, parallel to the floor, with the palms facing upward, she moved her gloved hands all over my body, from my neck down to my ankles. I beg to differ with their definition of a "pat down". It's more of a rub down.

She started by running her hands along the inside collar of my shirt and then continued down my back. She examined both arms and then moved to the lower part of my body. She lifted up my shirt and ran her hands along the inside waist band of my pants. She then continued to "pat down" my butt and the back and sides of my thighs and calves. She also examined the inside of the thighs, touching, of course, the crotch. Unintentionally, I flinched just a little. By this point, I was totally shocked at the thoroughness of the "pat down". I'm glad I wasn't concealing a deadly weapon because she would have found it.

She then moved to the front of my body. She started again at the inside collar of my shirt, and then, she finally examined the area that had set the machine off in the first place. I stubbornly did not want them to know that I was bothered by the process, but my body betrayed me. I flinched again when she touched the port and the right side of my chest and then the prosthesis on the left side of my chest. The breast and the prosthesis were individually lifted as she ran her hands across the stomach area, which caused me to flinch a third time. My shirt was again lifted up, so that she could inspect the front waist band of the pants and then she continued to "pat down" the front of my legs. The whole process probably took less than five minutes, but I was just about mentally done when she finished. I felt like I had been molested, and if I wanted to get on the airplane and go to my race, I had better be quiet and let her feel me up. The least she could have done was offer to buy me dinner before hand.

Don't get me wrong. I don't blame the TSA workers at all. They were just doing their jobs, and I'm sure they didn't enjoy this part of their job either. For the most part, they were very professional. In return, I was nice and accommodating. And I'm all for homeland security. Do whatever you have to do to keep us all safe. But there has to be a point where you question the "pat down" policy.

When she had finished, she told me that I could put my shoes on, while she went to retrieve my driver's license and boarding pass. The other TSA worker stayed with me. I told her that I fly often and asked if there was a way to get a letter of some sort from my doctor or, alternatively, from the airport saying that I had been through this process before. I don't want to be subjected to the "pat down" every time I decide to board an airplane. She stated that it was not acceptable and that people with hip and knee replacements have medical cards explaining their condition and they were still pulled from the screening line when the old machines were used. She also stated that the new machines would no longer send up an alert for those with hip and knee replacements. I wish she would have stopped talking right there, because the next statement out of her mouth was just as puzzling as her explanation of why a medical card is unacceptable. She said that when I fly next time, make sure that I don't have anything external to my body that can be detected by the machine, because even tampons and sanitary napkins have set off the new machines. That's just wrong! I plainly stated that I don't have periods any more, so that won't be a problem. I guess I need to remove my prosthesis from my bra and then surgically remove the port from my chest and place them in the bin with my other belongings, so that I won't set off the new machines? There has to be a better way! Using a medical card and/or having something on file at the airport about a person's medical situation would eliminate the necessity of the "pat down".

My next point of contention is that if the machine revealed shadows in the upper torso, why in the world do they have to touch my inner thighs or any other areas that do not set off the machine? Am I being unreasonable? To me, although mentally uncomfortable, they should have checked the upper torso only. Heck, you can see the protrusion from my chest where the port is. You don't even have to touch it to know it's there. And if it's a weapon of some sort, I would have to cut myself open to use it. Furthermore, even if I can't feel it, why does the gloved hand of a stranger have to touch my prosthesis while it's on my body? I have no qualms about removing the prosthesis from my bra in a private room for them to examine.

And this brings me to my last point of contention with the "pat down" policy. If the port and prosthesis were the problems, why didn't they at least examine the prosthesis? How did they know that something wasn't embedded in the material by just touching it? So, why was I given a "pat down"? Touching only proved that there was a small device in the right side of my chest and a bigger device on the left side. The x-ray machine had already given them that information. Touching other parts of the body that did not send up an alarm proved that their x-ray machine was right again. So, why even waste time checking areas that don't show up on the x-ray machine? Do they not trust the x-ray machine?

I need to research the "pat down" policy. I admit I haven't read all of it. I made my flight into Phoenix, AZ for the Desert Classic Marathon. That airport is still using the old metal detectors, so I didn't have a "pat down" before boarding the airplane to return home on Saturday night. At some point in time, all of the airports will be using the new x-ray machines. Will I have to subject myself to the "pat down" every time I decide to board an airplane? That's crazy!

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Bald . . . Again - 1/18/11

I am completely bald again. I really don't mind. Hair is over-rated for me. For over a year, I have sported a short Afro because I was so tired of fooling with my shoulder length hair. It had to be permed every 6-8 weeks, trimmed, and styled. If I wanted curls, I had to roll it every night, and then fuss with it the next morning. Most of the time, I combed it back and pulled it into a ball at the nape of my neck or left it dangling down in a pig tail. Even permed, my hair was never totally straight. After a run, it would almost revert back to it's natural state, lol. It takes up too much time to keep it up, and if I pay a beautician to do my hair for me, it's expensive. So in October of 2009, my sister cut it off for me. No more perms to deal with. Going natural is the way to go. A male friend trimmed my Afro close to my head about once a month to keep it neat. I loved getting up in the mornings, adding a moisturizer, brushing it, and just going.

I had only two chemotherapy treatments in December, but my hair started to shed. With the next two weeks off from chemotherapy, I thought that I would keep my hair this time. During that time, my mouth sores healed, my taste buds were awake again, my nails have not darkened any more, and the tingling sensations and slight pain at the tips of my fingers have ceased. Unfortunately, I'm probably going to lose the big toe nail on my right foot. The nail has turned brown and has started separating from the toe bed. That's okay, too. I've lost toe nails from running, so it's no big deal. The nose bleeds have finally stopped. I'm still pretty anemic (tired, breathing problems, and cold, unless I'm having a hot flash). There is never any relief from the hot flashes - every hour, all day, and every day. The hot flashes are a side effect of every treatment protocol that I've been on over the past three years. They are inconvenient, but they are just a part of my life.

The hair shedding was so gradual at first that it was hardly noticeable, but then it started collecting on my clothes. The bath tub was full of little hairs, as were the bathroom floor and sink, and clean up became a real chore. My scarf that I wrap around my head during the night would also collect hairs by the next morning. But my Afro was so short and thick, that in the mornings, I simply combed out the dead hairs and kept going. There were no visible bald spots. It was coming out pretty evenly. My scalp was a little tender, which is a clear sign that the hair was separating from the follicles, but I still didn't think I would lose much hair. I'm losing hair on other body parts as well: leg hair, nose hair, and pubic hair. My underarm hair has not grown back since I last shaved. I know, TMI! My thick eyebrows and eyelashes are fully intact so far, however. Hair loss during chemotherapy is a very strange (and random) process.

On Saturday, after washing my hair, I noticed that the bath tub had more hair than as of late. When I towel dried my hair, a large patch of hair was missing on the right side of my head, from my temple to about the middle of my head. It was completely smooth. The funny thing is that this was also the first bald spot that I had when I had chemotherapy in 2003. On Monday, I was able to just run my hand across my head and come away with a hand full of hair. It was time to ask my male friend to shave my head. As he cut away the hair, he also noticed several smaller bald spots at the top of my head. The remaining hairs clearly had to go. As the scalp was tender from the hair falling out, he carefully razored off the last of the remaining hair. Good riddance! I no longer have to worry about cleaning up all of the loose hairs all over my town house.

Thankfully, today my blood counts were just high enough to restart my chemotherapy treatments. The platelets are not clotting, and the lab could not run the kidney and liver tests that they needed, but we still proceeded. I've never had blood pressure problems, but the numbers were out the wazoo when they checked. We may have to deal with that at some point in the future. Most importantly, my oncologist decided that I should remain in the clinical trial. Apparently, my bald head has taken command of the situation, lol. We are back on track.

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Happy New Year - 1/4/11

"Your blood counts are too low for treatment today."

I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. The nurse proceeded to point out numbers highlighted on her papers. None of the numbers meant a thing to me, and I think I must have zoned out while she went through what my numbers should be and what they actually were. She left the treatment room to check with my oncologist and the research nurse to make sure that it was okay for me to leave for today. I was left totally stunned. Even on my worst days of chemotherapy in 2003, I never missed a treatment. My blood counts then were so low that I had to get shots of Aranesp to help my body produce red blood cells. This chemotherapy was considerably easier on me, and yet, it had already started causing problems that I had no control over.

For a brief minute, I went into panic mode. I've only had two chemotherapy treatments. Today would have been my third and then next week is a rest week with no treatment except for the oral chemotherapy pill (Everolimus or a placebo) that I take every day while I'm in the clinical trial. I'm convinced that I'm taking the placebo and not the real thing because I have not had the infamous rash on my face that everyone seems to get while taking Everolimus. However, I'm okay with that. Being a part of the clinical trial still opens up treatment options for me if something doesn't work down the road.

While I waited, I watched as two nurses tended to a patient who was receiving supplemental oxygen. She was so small and fragile. I wondered if she was strong enough to have her treatment today. Here I was looking as strong as an ox, and I wouldn't get my treatment today. I felt like the last kid standing on the playground who didn't get chosen for a team to play kickball with the other kids. I felt like a failure. I felt like I had done something wrong to bring the blood counts down.

The research nurse finally came into the treatment room and sat beside me. The white blood cell counts were her biggest concern. She gave me a prescription for a 7-day antibiotic. She asked how I was feeling. To be honest, I wasn't 100%, but I didn't feel bad enough that I shouldn't have treatment. I told her that I had what I thought was a cold last week, and by Friday, I had lost my voice. Five days later and I still was barely able to make a sound. I had a cough that produced a lot of phlegm. She was really interested in the color of the phlegm and was not happy that it was green/yellow, as that indicated an infection. She asked if there was blood in the phlegm. There wasn't, but blood comes from my nose daily. She asked if I had a fever last week. I'm sure I did when the cold first started, but it had been before I lost my voice that I'd had a fever. My temperature was normal when it was checked this morning. The mouth sores have started, and already, I was unable to taste my food. The mouth sores burned, especially when I ate and drank. But I wasn't nauseous, so I considered myself lucky. I've continued to eat, but unfortunately, my stomach feels full all of the time, so I've been eating smaller meals. The tips of my fingers have started to bother me, too, especially if I accidentally hit them against anything with even slight pressure. The nails are a light purple. Another treatment would more than likely make them a little darker. My hair was shedding, but it was not coming out in clumps. Again, another treatment would probably produce some hair loss. Having chronic anemia for three years now, I was always tired, but I was not at the point of being fatigued from the chemotherapy. There's a big difference. Clearly, the Taxol and Avastin were doing their jobs. I didn't want to interrupt them.

The research nurse said that I should also discontinue the oral chemotherapy pill. When I return in two weeks to see my oncologist, I had to bring in the unused pills. If it was determined that I could continue with the clinical trial, I would be given a new set of pills. I thought that missing this week's treatment was just a break in the action to allow the blood counts to come back up and that, in two weeks, I would be back in the treatment room getting the Taxol and Avastin. It finally hit me that my current treatment protocol was under consideration for termination after only two weeks. I wanted to protest that I felt fine, that I had all of next week to get my blood counts back up, and that, given the chance, I could do this. But the decision to send me away was non-negotiable. It was obvious that my oncologist and the research nurse were not going to let me deteriorate to the point where they couldn't bring me back, even if I was willing and able. They would nip things in the bud as they happened. They were that good. I, on the other hand, was so unhappy. I never wanted my treatment as bad as I wanted it this morning. I needed to stay in the clinical trial as long as I could. I knew they understood that, but I wanted to remind them. I wanted to plead my case. Instead, I promised to call them if my temperature reached 100.5, promised to wash my hands often, and promised to stay away from children and anyone that even looked like they had a cold. I sadly gathered my purse, coat, and new book and magazine that I was looking forward to reading during what would have been my three hour chemotherapy session. The good thing was that I would get to my office earlier today. The bad thing was that all I could think about was that we had just given the cancer cells two free weeks to wreak havoc on my body.