July 10 – Connecting With A New Oncologist, Surgery Prep

Today is Wednesday, July 10, 2013. The bug man came yesterday. I went to water aerobics this morning and got my hair cut this afternoon. I still have to stretch my pectoral muscles several times a day to loosen them up. Most of the time, it feels like there is a large multi-pronged clamp squeezing my new breast. It’s not painful, but it is distracting.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Tuesday. It was the day before my first reconstruction surgery.

The day before, on Monday, I had my appointment with the oncologist recommended by my general practitioner. Instead of the 45-50 minute drive required to get to my first oncologist, it took less than 15 minutes to get to this doctor. That was a nice change. His office was part of a fairly large cancer treatment and research center so it was big and busy. I wasn’t sure how much I liked that change but I was willing to give it a try. As my husband and I sat in the large waiting area I couldn’t help but look around at all of the people and try to figure out where they were in their battle.

After a relatively short wait we were taken back to a room where we met with the doctor’s registered nurse. She told us a little about her background including the fact that she has worked with over 2000 breast cancer patients. We liked her very matter of fact approach that was both professional and personable. I was now realizing that not all medical professionals were able to strike that balance.

The nurse seemed to be quite knowledgeable. We let her know we were there for a second opinion on my course of cancer prevention, specifically the aromatase inhibitors. Pretty much she repeated everything my first oncologist had told us. It is standard practice to give aromatase inhibitors. They prevent the production of the hormone estrogen. Hormones feed the kind of breast cancer I had. In addition to using the inhibitor to block the production of hormones, I should not take or do anything to introduce or “replace” hormones, including progesterone. I mention progesterone because a saliva test I had taken the previous fall indicated that my progesterone level was 1/10 of what it should be.

The nurse went on to explain the side effects of the inhibitor and other precautions I should take. Again this information was almost verbatim of what the first oncologist had said. There could be joint and muscle pain from the reduction in estrogen. Magnesium and vitamin E supplements would help reduce that. I should take calcium and vitamin D supplements, 1200 and 800 units per day, respectively, to support bone health. As far as diet, I should reduce my lipid intake which is primarily fats and oils. When possible, I should go organic. I should watch my meat and chicken consumption because of the hormones the animals are fed. This was an interesting conundrum because multiple doctors had encouraged me to increase my protein intake to help with healing and the reduction of blood sugar. For me that would that would mean eating more chicken and meat. Well, I guess if I wanted to both prevent cancer recurrence and promote healing and lower blood sugar, I would have to make a dietary shift. Fish and nuts, here we come.

The last thing we talked about before the nurse left and the doctor came in was the aromatase inhibitor. There were a couple of choices. The two most commonly prescribed are Arimidex and Femara. They both do the same thing which is to prevent the production of estrogen. There are studies which show that women taking Femara have a slightly lower cancer recurrence rate than those taking Arimedex, but the results of both are good. Which one I end up on will depend on which one of them I tolerate the best. I was starting to notice that the word “tolerate” was coming up more and more.

We had been pleased with the nurse. When the doctor came in, we were quickly pleased with him as well. The best way to describe the difference between this oncologist and my first one was that this doctor had a manner about him that made me feel like he was assessing me and my needs as an individual rather than as just one more breast cancer patient. It was very much like the way I felt when my plastic surgeon was drawing his incision marks on my chest before surgery. I was his current unique work of art. My body and its needs had his total focus. In order for him to be a success, I needed to be a success. In support of my feelings, the new oncologist had checked on the details of my health history as well as my current health status before he came in to meet us. What’s more, he remembered what he had read.

The oncologist’s first recommendation, in the nicest way, was to lose 10 to 15 pounds over the next 1 to 5 years. He explained that fat, especially belly fat, is where estrogen is stored. Get rid of the storage locker and you get rid of the estrogen reservoirs. Going just a bit further, he said that if there is no place to store the estrogen, it passes on out of the body leaving no food for cancer. He was the first one to explain it like that.

The next thing that he recommended that no one else had recommended was a yearly MRI starting two months after my final reconstruction surgery. I would definitely be talking to both my breast surgeon and my general practitioner about that. When we asked about precautions for our three daughters, he recommended they start mammograms at age 35. My breast surgeon had said the same.  As with my general practitioner, the oncologist wanted me to get my colonoscopy as soon as possible. He suggested that I wait until about two months after my surgery. I was planning on 6 weeks but had no problem adding 2 more to the schedule.

Last on the list of topics was the aromatase inhibitor. He was prescribing Femara. I should start taking it 1-2 weeks after my upcoming surgery and then come to see him a month after that. Before that appointment I should get a bone density scan. Since the nurse had already covered the topic of the aromatase inhibitors so well, we didn’t have any other questions for him. We were done. I definitely felt more connected with this doctor and his nurse than with my first oncologist. My husband agreed. I had a new oncologist.

The next morning I had a massage. I thought it would be good for me both mentally and physically to have an hour of relaxation facilitated by the healing touch of our massage therapist. Her fingers truly work magic. I scheduled her to come to our house two days after my surgery to do a chair massage. In the afternoon, after my massage, I went for my bone density scan. I went to the imaging center recommended by my breast surgeon. It was both pain and incident free. Yay!

By the end of the day I was about as ready as I was going to be for my fourth surgery in five months.

July 6 – Reconstruction is a Go

Today is Saturday, July 6, 2013. We spent the last 3 days in Sedona. On the 4th we drove from Sedona to Cottonwood to watch fireworks. Today we came home.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Friday. We had been home from Peru for five days.

Monday, which was the day after we got home from our adventure in Peru, I went to the chiropractor and then both my husband and I had massages. It was a relaxing afternoon. We figured it would be a good way to shake off our traveling dust and be ready for more doctor appointments and a fourth surgery.

About halfway through our time in Peru, after visiting Saqsaywaman, I figured out what I wanted to do with the flat half of my chest. The decision on whether to reconstruct or not had been on my mind every day the first week we were gone. I needed to decide one way or the other before we left Peru because if I wasn’t going to go through with the scheduled surgery I would need to call the plastic surgeon and cancel the first morning after we got home.

Our Peru trip had been sponsored by a psychic medium, and as a result attracted a number of like-minded, or should I say, like-talented, individuals. As such there was pretty much always someone who was willing to give insights or provide spiritual guidance. One of these people was a woman who also happened to be a talented photographer. She had taken several pictures of my husband and me up on Machu Picchu the morning of the solstice. One of them captured a green orb across our chests, right where the heart chakra, which is represented as being green, resides. That picture was a favorite on the Facebook page created for sharing Peru trip photos.

A few days later we were talking with the photographer and thanking her once again for the unique pictures. After a little bit of chit chat she offered that she had some spiritual insight for me if I’d like to hear it. In my book, it doesn’t hurt to listen. Like a panner for gold, I feel like I’m pretty good at sifting through the sand and picking out the nuggets. Her insight was that I needed to bring “the feminine” into my life by giving myself gifts that made me feel beautiful. She suggested things like flowers or frilly undergarments. It crossed my mind that she might be suggesting I needed to add makeup to my daily routine. However since she didn’t wear much, if any, makeup herself, I dismissed the notion of face-paint as sand. I thanked her for her suggestion and told her I would definitely think about what I might do in that area.

It turns out that her suggestion resonated with me. I didn’t like the specific gift suggestions she gave, but every time I replayed her statement of bringing in or enhancing the feminine, a little tingle ran up my spine. Try as I might, though, I couldn’t come up with even one gift that was both feminine and something I would want. Then, while we were hiking down the cobblestone road in Cusco, and I was shivering with cold, it came to me. The most feminine gift I could give to myself would be a new breast to replace the one I was missing. As soon as I had the thought I knew it was right. My decision was made. I shared it with my husband and got his whole-hearted support. So, the one thing I did not need to do on Monday after we got home was call and cancel the surgery.

On Tuesday, the day after our massages, I saw the Voo Doo doctor, my naturopathic chiropractor. After giving a brief recap of the highlights of our trip to Peru and confirming that I was pretty sure I hadn’t picked up any new parasites, I told her about my reconstruction decision. Like my husband, she was very supportive. She gave me a new batch of probiotics to help counteract the negative effects of the antibiotics along with some supplements that would help support my body in its recovery from surgery.

That afternoon we drove up to Sedona for a two night stay over the 4th of July. A few of our children came up as well. We hiked and barbecued and relaxed. I did my best to put the impending surgery out of my mind. Even though it would be relatively easy compared to the lumpectomy/double reduction and the mastectomy, it was still another hit to my still recovering body.

On Friday I saw my general practitioner. I had made the appointment before we went to Peru so that she could give me clearance for surgery if I was having it. Well, I was having it and, as with the others I had told, she was pleased that I had made that decision. Of course I would have been fine without reconstruction, but she had found that her patients that did do reconstruction seemed to be healthier emotionally a year or two after the mastectomy.

She questioned me about my colonoscopy plans and my oncological plans. I had decided to put the colonoscopy off until at least a month after the reconstruction surgery now that I was definitely doing it. She was OK with my plan but made it clear she did not want me to put it off any longer than that. I was already 6 years overdue. As far as the oncologist, I told her I wasn’t sure what I was going to do. The doctor I had met with in in June was a nice guy, but I just didn’t connect with him, or he with me, for that matter. I had filled a prescription he gave me but I wasn’t sure I was going to take it. She was insistent that I needed to be working with an oncologist. She had one she recommended that was less than 10 miles from our house. I took his information and said I would check him out that afternoon. She wished me the best of luck on my surgery and we were done.

When I got home, as promised, I researched the new oncologist on the internet. He came highly recommended and many patients had written glowing remarks about him and the group he worked with. I called to make an appointment. They were able to get me in the next week, just two days before my surgery. Suddenly I truly appreciated what a wonderful break Peru had been from doctors and surgeries. I was ready to go on another break even though I had only been home 5 days and half of them had been spent on a break in the red rocks of Sedona. I think someone had gotten a bit spoiled in Peru.

June 30 – Saying “Uncle” at Lake Titicaca

Today is Sunday, June 30, 2013. Last Thursday afternoon my husband and I left on a road trip to Denver to visit my cousin and my stepbrother. I took an extra pillow for propping my arm and shoulder during the drive. Late this afternoon we left Denver. We will be home tomorrow.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Saturday. It was our last day in Peru.

Almost a week earlier, on Monday morning, we boarded the busses and headed for Puno, a small town at the edge of Lake Titicaca. The lake is on the border of Peru and Bolivia. By volume of water, it is the largest lake in South America. At its deepest, it is almost 1000 feet deep. The surface of the lake is at an elevation of 12,500 ft. Because boats over 250 feet in length travel in its waters, the lake is advertised as the highest commercially navigable lake in the world.

We stopped at the Temple of Wiraqocha on our way to Puno and arrived at our higher and colder destination by midafternoon. Our hotel was very nice. It sat right on the edge of the lake just a few miles outside of the town. There were many large windows in the lobby and the dining room that looked out onto the lake. My husband and I had a balcony in our room that wrapped around the corner of the building giving us an even larger view of the lake and the surrounding countryside. Part of our view included an unfinished concrete staircase. Apparently, in order to avoid taxes imposed when completing a building, often structures are left with some part incomplete. We don’t know if this is true or not, but we did notice many newer incomplete structures open for business.

I am pretty sure I never got warm in Puno. I am also pretty sure I experienced the skipping heart sensation created by PVCs on a regular basis even though I was taking my full dose of atenolol. The cardiologist had said I could increase my dosage up to double if needed. However, I was doing so well before we left on our trip that I didn’t think to pack that much “emergency” medication. As the time would approach for my next dose and my heart was busy jumping rope, I would remind myself that the doctor had said “No one dies from PVCs alone.”

On Tuesday we visited Ajayu Marka, a legendary doorway carved into a slab of stone in a small ridge of mountains in a field in southern Peru. The natural rock face measures seven meters (~21 feet) in height by seven meters in width. There is a smaller alcove in the center at the base which is just less than 6 feet in height. Although the doorway is quite old, it was brought to the attention of the archeological community fairly recently, in 1996, by a guide for mountaineering tourists that just happened to stumble across it. Several names are associated with the doorway. Some of them are: Sun Gate, Amaru Muro (Guardian of the Sun Disk), Willka Uta (Sun Gate), Ajayu Marca (Inter Dimensional Doorway), or Puerta de Hayu Marca” (Gate of the Gods/Gpirits). Just a few months before leaving for Peru we had seen a documentary on the Doorway on the PBS channel. It took us several weeks before we put two and two together and realized that that Doorway was on our itinerary.

The Doorway has become a popular tourist stop. Apparently most of the groups that come to the area have at least one shaman with them, as we did, that performs a sacred ritual/blessing (or two) and leads a meditation. Each member of the group is allowed time to place themselves in the doorway to experience its energy. As a result, there can be a bit of wait while another group is finishing their sacred experience. This was the case for us. We sat on the stone outcroppings across from the Doorway as our shaman/guide talked with us. Clouds and an accompanying chilly breeze had moved in making the non-melting blocks of ice we were sitting on seem even colder. I am afraid I did not hear much of what was said. However, the view from our waiting spot was worthy of several pictures.

As the group ahead of us finished up and we began walking over to the Doorway, it began to snow. It was a granular snow, kind of like a gentle dry sleet. Being from the desert of Arizona, this was a bonus treat that provided a short-lived burst of warmth through my body. I had once again gotten pretty cold. The sun was facing away from the Doorway so that the few rays of light that did make their way through the clouds did not land on the stone of interest. I was pretty sure it would be even colder than the rocks we had been sitting on while waiting. As such, I was not looking forward to pressing my body against the giant slab no matter how energizing it was supposed to be. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the stone of the Doorway was relatively warm. Neither my husband nor I could figure out why the rock of the Doorway wasn’t cold, but we did figure out why the people ahead of us were reluctant to give up their spot.

Wednesday morning we were up with our bags packed and checked out of our room at 6 am. We were taking a boat out to Amantani, also known as The Love Island, to spend the night in the homes of the locals. On Thursday morning we would get up while it was still dark and hike up another 1000 feet to the temples of Pachatata and Pachamama to witness the sunrise and present our offering to Pachamama and to life. We had been told that many of the accommodations had no electricity and that it would be even colder out on the island than it was on the mainland.

After breakfast I started thinking that going on this adventure might not be a wise choice for me. My first surgery for reconstruction was in exactly two weeks. I should be resting and building up my resources not depleting them with sleeping in the cold, hiking in the dark, and climbing to even higher altitudes. I felt tears burning in the corner of my eyes as I told my husband I didn’t think I should go to Amantani. In my mind I was giving up. I didn’t want him to think I was a coward or a wimp. He surprised me with a smile of relief. He had also been thinking that we shouldn’t go. It was just too much for both of us. My husband went to check us back into our room and I went to notify the tour guide that we wouldn’t be going on the boat.

As I looked for the tour guide, I ran into several of our new friends. Some of them had made the same decision we had. A few of them had been fighting colds for the last several days. Others were just looking forward to having a rest. The last person I ran into was James van Praagh, the psychic medium that had sponsored the trip. As tears started welling up once again, I apologetically told him we weren’t going to Amantani. I felt like such a failure. He gave me a hug as he told me he wasn’t going either. I was surprised and relieved at the same time. He reminded me that it is our responsibility to love ourselves enough to always do what is best for both our soul and our body.

What came next made my whole day. I was smiling from the inside out. James invited my husband and me to participate in a meditation and a crystal ceremony later that morning out on the small wood dock. There would only be a handful or two of people in the group. He had also chartered a boat out to the floating islands of Uros for later in the day. For just $30 each we could join in that as well. I never dreamed that “saying uncle” could have such an instantaneous positive consequence. My husband was equally happy with our new itinerary.

Friday we returned to Lima via Cusco. On the way to Cusco we stopped at one last sacred site, Sillustani, for a closing ceremony and final meditation. Sillustani is a pre-Incan burial ground on the shores of Lake Umayo. The tombs there are built above ground in tower-like structures called chullpas. The view of the glass-like waters of the lake from the top of the mountain was inspiring. Having a final meditation there was a beautiful way to end our visit.

Our flight back to the states wasn’t until the evening on Saturday. We spent the day revisiting some of our favorite spots in Lima as well as seeing a few new ones. It appeared I would be surviving the trip to Peru.

June 24 – Machu Picchu, Healing Waters, and Sacred Sites

Today is Monday, June 24, 2013. Bible School finished last Friday. Saturday night we went on a Super Moon hike in the desert with our favorite ranger and about two hundred other desert night hikers. No flashlights were needed. Today I hiked to the Wind Cave.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Sunday. It was our tenth day in Peru and our last day in Cusco.

By this time pretty much everyone on the trip knew everyone else. Small groups had formed and seating on the two busses was pretty consistent. Nearly everyone we talked to had an interesting life story to tell. Their backgrounds varied greatly. Our youngest participant was 7. She was there with her father and grandmother. They were from Hawaii. The oldest participant was in her 70’s. She came from California with her son. With his help, she was able to do every hike. She was an inspiration. Rarely an hour went by that we didn’t learn something new, either from our tour guides, the tour participants, or the locals. It was like being in our own little Peruvian schoolhouse on wheels.

The day after our climb to the Sun Temple at Ollantaytambo we took the train to Aguas Caliente at the foot of Machu Picchu. We hiked up to the terraces above the lost city that afternoon for a spectacular view and a meditation.

The next day, Thursday, June 21, 2012, was the last winter solstice of the Mayan calendar. For the Incans, the solstice is the first day of the New Year as well as the holiest day of the year. It is believed that the arrival of the solstice, this year in particular, creates a “cosmic wave and light influence into our planet” providing us with the opportunity to “transform our own path”. We were going to be in Machu Picchu for the solstice sunrise. Personally, I feel like each day the sun comes up is an opportunity to transform my path, but I was pretty excited that we were going to be on the top of a mountain in an ancient holy city as the sun came up on a day that was so important to so many.

Long before the sky started getting light that morning we were riding the busses up the single lane dirt road with hairpin turns that snaked up the side of the mountain to the entrance of Machu Picchu. We hiked in mild darkness to the center of the ancient city. From there we watched the sun’s rays come up over the mountains. Our shaman performed a local ritual and gave us all blessings as the sun officially declared the beginning of the new year. It was an emotional experience. Every direction we looked there were people who had come to watch the sun make its appearance and share in the celebration. I was not the only one that had a glisten in the corners of my eyes. We were told there were over 2000 visitors that morning.

On the afternoon of the solstice we took the train back to Cusco where our plane had dropped us off three days earlier. We spent the next three nights there. During the days, we visited Tipon which is an ancient terraced agricultural site, Q’enqo the sacred place of the Puma consisting of stone caves and carvings, the Incan town of Pisaq which is surrounded by thousands of mountainside burial plots, and Saqsaywaman which holds the Great House of the Sun and consists of huge expertly carved stone walls. We spent all day Sunday in and around Cusco watching the festivities associated with Inti Raymi, the Festival of the Sun.

Cusco is at about 11,000 feet. Machu Picchu is at 8000. The places we visited while staying in Cusco varied from as low as 9700 feet to as high as 12,200 feet. For the most part I did very well. I was able to do all of the hikes and even had a little energy to spare. However, as the week progressed, the temperature fell and I found myself cold quite a bit of the time even though I wore several layers under my coat. It was an unavoidable reminder that it was the middle of winter in Peru. Unfortunately, when I coupled being cold and tired with being in the high elevation, the PVCs would kick in and my heart would start skipping. I found myself taking the full dose of atenolol more and more often. In retrospect, I probably should have been taking naps more often and possibly doing a few less hikes. At the time though, I just didn’t want to miss out on anything.

For our visit to Tipon we were supposed to be bussed to the top of the mountain where there were facilities and a large parking lot. From there we would take the relatively short walk down to the agricultural terraces and the Temple of Water. Unfortunately, the road up the mountain was unexpectedly closed for the day. After nearly 20 minutes of animated discussions between the bus driver, our tour guide, and the government worker blocking the road, it was decided that the busses could proceed down the road a ways to get closer to the bottom of the mountain and park there. Those of us that wanted to could hike up through the trees to the terraces. As luck would have it, a portion of the Inca Trail was near where the buses let us off. We were able to follow it up the side of the mountain to our destination. It only took us about 45 minutes to get there. Hiking the Inca Trail was a bonus opportunity in my book.

By the time we reached the terraces, the trees had disappeared and the sky was big and blue above us reaching from horizon to horizon. The temperature was probably in the low 70’s, just cool enough to need a jacket if you sat still too long or a breeze kicked up. Once we all made it to the terraces, we sat in a large circle on the grass in the Temple of Water to hear the history and meaning of the site and then do a meditation. Afterwards we had free time to explore.

The terraces, which cover 500 acres, are crisscrossed by a multitude of stone waterways that had provided water to the crops of long ago. Only a few of the waterways were still operating. Cold sparkling clear water ran through them. As might be expected, the water there was touted to have healing powers. Not wanting to miss an opportunity for healing, I asked permission to put some of the magical water on my scars. Permission was granted and I found a secluded spot to lift my shirt and cami for a splash or two on the remains of both sides of my half flat chest. It was refreshing.

Saturday afternoon we visited Saqsaywaman on the big hill behind Cusco. The stones making up the walls there are often more than 10 feet high and yet still fit one to the next perfectly with no cracks or mortar. We were truly impressed once again. It was a cold day that got colder and cloudier as the sun approached the western horizon. In spite of the cold, a dozen or so of us decided to walk down the steep cobblestone road back to the city rather than ride the bus. This way we were able to experience a bit more of the local culture as well as get a little more exercise, not that we needed it.

Even though the steepness of the walk down required a bit of effort, I just couldn’t get warm. For the first time since Ollantaytambo, I started to have a real concern about my health. I was scheduled for my fourth surgery in just 2½ weeks. I needed to be strong and healthy for that. Perhaps I should have been on the bus resting rather than taking on another adventure. Several others in our group were pretty cold as well. The plan was to stop for hot tea and cocoa as soon as we got far enough into the city to find a restaurant. Luck was not on our side. When we got to town we discovered that the electricity was out and hot drinks were hard to come by. There was no specific cause for the outage. It’s just something that happens in Peruvian cities.

Most of our group decided to wait the power outage out in local establishments that had backup generators for lights. The rest of us made our way the last mile back to the hotel on our own. I was so cold. I climbed into bed and snuggled in the heavy blankets for over an hour before finding the energy to get up and go get some dinner with my husband.

The next day, Sunday, we took it easy. We did not go to the festival, but instead watched from the front of our hotel as the parade and festivities passed by. After the road cleared, we did a little window shopping and then rested the remainder of the afternoon. I felt like I needed to recharge. The next morning we were leaving for a three night stay in Puno on the shore of Lake Titikaka. The altitude there is 12,500 feet. I was entertaining fears that continuing on to even higher altitudes with even lower temperatures might do me in. All of my doctors had said I would make it to Peru and they had been right. However, what I had failed to notice until now was that none of them had assured me that I would be making it back home from Peru.

June 19 – Chinchero, Sacred Valley, Ollantaytambo

Today is Wednesday, June 19, 2013. It is my third day of working at Bible School. So far I’m keeping up with the energy demand of a hundred 3-7 year olds.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Tuesday. It was our fifth day in Peru.

Monday morning we took the bus to the airport for our flight to Cusco. The flight through the snow-capped mountains was spectacular. We’re pretty sure the automatic pilot was not in use as the plane tilted and turned to weave its way through the peaks of the Andes. We flew just as a bird might, climbing only as high as needed to get up and around the next mountain. In one hour we went from the big Lima airport at sea level to the much smaller airport of Cusco at an elevation of 10,800 ft. We could feel the lack of oxygen as soon as we got off the plane. I was starting to worry about whether I was healthy enough to be on this magical trip.

The locals were very glad to see us. They had all kinds of things to sell us and wanted to take our pictures. We bought the coca candy we had been told about to help with altitude sickness. As soon as we were on the buses headed for Chinchero we opened up our candy and started sucking on it. I think we were hoping it would convert to oxygen in our mouth and we could just breathe it in.

Chinchero, also known as the Earth Altar, is at 12,000 feet. It is a geo-magnetic energy site: good for the spirit, but doesn’t claim to do anything for oxygen deprivation. Mallku, our shaman guide, met us at the buses. He was obviously in excellent physical health. I don’t think I was the only one wondering if I was going to be able to keep up with him over the next 11 days.

After introductions and a welcome, he told us about the sacred site we would be walking to. He cautioned us about altitude sickness. We were to take our time. If we felt light headed, nauseous, or overly out of breath, we were to stop and take a break. If needed, we could just wait on the trail for the group to return or slowly start heading back to the buses. One of his assistants would stay at the back of the line to provide assistance. My husband and I did take a few small rests along the trail. Mostly I was winded and slightly light-headed. My husband also experienced a bit of a headache. Even though the walk was less than a mile, several people turned around before reaching our destination.

Those of us that made it to the gathering spot were treated to a ceremony in which we asked permission to enter the Sacred Valley. They incensed each of us by using a large feather to fan the smoke around us. My husband thought he heard them say it was the feather of a condor. After being incensed, scented oil was put on the palms of our hands to cleanse our spirit. It really smelled good. The walk back to the buses was a bit easier.

Before going to Sacred Valley where we would be staying for the next the next two nights, we stopped for a Peruvian buffet they had set up for us. It was in a beautiful garden in Yacua at the foot of the mountains. There was live music that included wood flutes of varying sizes. The food was delicious. Precautions had been taken in preparing it so that we didn’t need to worry about getting unfamiliar parasites. I was especially glad to hear that news. We stayed there roaming the gardens and listening to the music waft through the air until the sun went behind the mountain.

Our stay in Sacred Valley far exceeded any expectations we might have had. As the name implies, we had mountains rising up on all sides of us. The elevation was 8900 feet, quite a bit lower than Chinchero. The buses struggled a bit getting up the narrow dirt road that wound up through the foothills to La Hacienda Valle Sagrado. There were over 30 cabin-like buildings on flower-lined terraces with water running alongside the walkways. Each building had two rooms in it. Our room was quite big with vaulted ceilings, large windows that looked out over the valley, and a big modern bathroom decorated with hand-painted tiles. We were very happy with these accommodations.

The next day, Tuesday, we had a buffet breakfast at 8. My husband and I made sure to have a cup of coca tea. We were back on the buses at 9 heading for the ancient Inca city of Ollantaytambo. It is only a few hundred feet higher than Sacred Valley. Ollantaytambo was impressive and a bit intimidating. Like Machu Picchu and most of the other ancient cities we visited, it is made of huge stones that are carved and stacked to create terraces and building walls that go all the way up the side of the mountain.

At first we toured the grounds at the lower level. That was just fine with me. They showed us solstice carvings that cast a shadow perfectly aligned with carved niches below them on the solstice. There was also a profile of a face carved up on the side of a nearby mountain that cast a solstice shadow in the valley below. After about 45 minutes of walking, listening, and looking Mallku said we would be heading up the right side of the complex to get to the Sun Temple at the top. About half of the group opted to remain at the lower level where there were many tourist shops and small restaurants.

We decided to see if we could make it to the Temple. Our new friends, the sisters from Ireland, decided to go with us. We all seemed to be doing OK with the altitude. For us, this was just a bit higher than being up on the Rim in Arizona. The stone walkways, walls, and doorways were truly fascinating. We still marvel at how accurately each stone was carved to fit perfectly with the stones around it. There was no mortar used anywhere. Most of the stones were about 2 feet in height, but many were over 5 feet tall. How did they do that?

After about 45 minutes, we made it to the top and then walked another 5 -10 minutes across the top of the complex to the Sun Temple. There we learned more about the significance of different stones and the shadows they cast. There was a large dark stone in the temple that was over 5 feet tall. It was supposed to have a special energy to it. Each time I leaned against it, I actually did feel a buzzing kind of vibration in my hands. Maybe it was my imagination, but I checked several other rocks and none of them had the same feeling.

We started getting hot up there in the sun. There wasn’t any shade to take refuge in. That is probably one of the reasons why it is called the Sun Temple. Anyway, we decided to head back down. It only took about 20 minutes to get to the bottom. When I got there my emotions overcame me and tears started rolling down my cheeks. I truly couldn’t believe I had done it. I was able to do what almost half of the tour group couldn’t. If I could do this, I could do Machu Picchu which was just a bit lower in altitude. I was so grateful to be healthy enough to be here doing this

June 17 – Lima and Bone Art

Today is Monday, June 17, 2013. On occasion I still get discouraged about the number of things I can’t do. To help put things in perspective, I decided to take inventory of the things I can now do with my right arm that I couldn’t do 2 months ago. I can: lift my arm straight up over my head while standing or laying on back with only the slightest of pinching in my shoulder, mix cookie dough without causing muscle fatigue, open jars, use the hole punch and stapler, hike with my hiking sticks, clean the cat boxes, do cat and cow poses in yoga, cross my arm over in front of me to pull my shirt off over my head, close the lift gate on my car, and carry medium weight medium size boxes short distances. Progress!

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Sunday. It was our third day in Lima, Peru.

Our flight to Lima on Friday had been uneventful. I was glad because I had been just a bit concerned as to how my body would do on the day long flight. I had been cautioned that I might experience swelling in my right arm because of the lymph nodes that had been removed during my first surgery. Wearing a compression sleeve would help prevent that. However, my arm wasn’t my worry. I was more concerned about my feet and ankles swelling. They had been doing that for years now. When they swelled, they caused my blood pressure to go up. Higher blood pressure would put stress on my body which would then aggravate my skipping heart (PVCs). I didn’t want to open that door.

I now had three pairs of compression socks. I had gotten a pair at each of my surgeries. They were on our To Bring List. One pair was smaller than the other two. I figured I could use the larger socks on my legs as they were intended, but I could fold one sock from the smaller pair in half and use it on my right arm if needed. So, when I got dressed the morning we left, I put one pair of socks on under my regular socks and put the smaller pair in my carry-on back pack. The third pair was in the rolling duffle that was my suitcase.

As I had hoped and predicted, my right arm did just fine. There was no swelling or aching. When we got to our hotel in Lima Friday night and I took off my compression socks, my ankles were normal and I could see the veins in the top of my feet. I was very pleased and decided then and there that I would be wearing compression socks on every flight over three hours from now on. And, I have.

Our trip to Peru was a tour called “Andean Master Path – June Solstice in the Andes”. There were just over 40 of us including the tour guide/organizer, the well-known medium James van Praagh, and the Andean shaman Mallku and his assistants. The primary purpose of the tour was to experience the sun rise on the morning of the winter solstice 2012 while standing amongst the remains of Machu Picchu. Mallku and his assistants would perform a sacred ritual and give us blessings as we watched the first rays of the sun come up over the mountain. The secondary purpose of the trip was to visit many of the sacred sites in central and southern Peru. We were excited to be spending time with these spiritually minded people.

The tour did not officially start until Sunday night so we had two days on our own to explore Lima. Several other people from the tour came in on our flight and were staying at our hotel, so we made new acquaintances right away, exchanging names and room numbers. With the exception of one or two Nervous Nellies, everyone was friendly and easy going. Two of the women we met were sisters from Ireland. Two other women were from the Phoenix area. We stayed close with these four the entire trip. There was a sense of happy anticipation amongst us all. I was already so glad that we got to go to Peru.

On Saturday, a group of us went walking in the Miraflores district of Lima. Lima is at about the same altitude as Phoenix, so thin air was not a problem. We visited old city buildings in Parque Kennedy, toured the ruins of Huaca Pucllana a pyramid-shaped adobe ceremonial center built in 500 a.d., and walked along the high cliffs of Parque del Amor which overlook the ocean. For dinner we found a little restaurant that served middle-eastern food. The food was so good that my husband and I ate there again when we returned to Lima at the end of the tour. By the time we got back to our hotel, we were exhausted.

On Sunday we went with a larger group to Plaza de Armas in the historic center of Lima. It was far enough away that we took a taxi. We got there in the midst of a celebration that included a parade, music, and colorful costumes. There were lots of people, lots of things to see, and many places to eat.

After we finished our visit to the plaza, we walked a few blocks to the Monastery of San Francisco which was built in the late 1600’s. We were mostly interested in seeing the catacombs below the church. Before starting our underground tour, we visited the libraries of the monastery above. Some of the books were hundreds of years old. It was amazing to us that the books were just out in the open and not protected in air conditioned rooms or cabinets.

The catacombs were the first official cemetery of Lima. There are at least 25,000 sets of bones in the catacombs. Some estimates say there are over 70,000. What caught me off guard was that the bones from each body weren’t kept together. Rather, skulls and femurs and other bones were each collected together in bins or small dirt rooms.

In certain areas of the catacombs, the bones are arranged to form patterns. Sometimes they are stacked several feet high with the ends of leg and arm bones facing out and rows of skulls inserted every foot or so. Other places the bones are placed in concentric circular patterns. Most of the skulls are faced upwards with their empty eye sockets searching the dirt ceiling or looking through the observer. They are placed one next to the other forming circular lines sometimes several rows deep. The leg and arm bones are aligned side by side pointing away from the center of the design like curving picket fences. It was easier than I would have expected to get caught up in the designs and forget that I was looking at the remains of people. It was Bone Art!

That night we bought bread, cheese, cookies and bottled water from a small grocery store. We ate in our room and relaxed in our Jacuzzi. The next morning we would need to be packed, eat breakfast, and seated on the bus to the airport by 7 am.

I still couldn’t believe I was in Peru. Other than the fact that I got tired a bit more easily than I’d like, I was doing just fine. This was so exciting!

June 15 – Prosthesis for Peru

Today is Saturday, June 15, 2013. My new crown was put in place Thursday. This is my third one in just over a year. Sometimes I wonder how much the five surgeries have affected the health of my teeth. Well at least I’m not being fitted for dentures yet.

A YEAR AGO TODAY was a Friday. We left for the airport to fly to Peru early in the morning.

No matter how hard my husband and I try to be packed and in bed before midnight the night before a trip, we just can’t do it. Our list of things to do continues to expand to fill every minute until about an hour before we need to leave giving us just enough time to shower and get dressed before loading up the car. I guess we are fortunate that we are so similar in this aspect or it could be a source of great stress for one of us.

The last few days had been full to the brim with final preparations. We had both a To Do List and a To Bring List that we had started over a month earlier.  On Monday both lists were pretty close to a page long with only a small percentage of entries marked as completed. By Wednesday, though, many items had been crossed off the lists. Our shopping had been completed and the majority of the things we were bringing with us to Peru were stacked in piles in the living room and bedroom. We had identified which of our children would be feeding the animals, cleaning the cat boxes, bringing in the mail, watering the plants, and handling irrigation. We had met with them and gone over what they were to do and when and given them our itinerary with contact phone numbers. The bills were paid, newspaper was stopped, neighbors were notified, daily home care chore table complete, travel binder complete, and our travel documents were organized in an easily accessible folder. It really looked we were going to make it to Peru.

There was one thing that had been nagging at me for a few weeks. What was I going to do about the flat half of my chest? A few weeks earlier I had graduated from wearing the camisoles that had no inner lining to support the breasts to ones that did. They call the lining a “shelf bra”. The bottom portion of my smiley face scar on the left and my anchor scar on the right were finally healed enough that having the elastic on them was no longer uncomfortable. I didn’t need the shelf to support my new perky Baby B left breast. What I needed it for was to hold my Kleenex covered wad of polyester fiberfill in place. That is what I had ended up using to give a little shape to my right side.

Having gone from two full D cups before my surgeries to a one small B after them, my shirts were all pretty baggy in front. I wore button down shirts almost exclusively because it was hard to get knit shirts on and off over my head. The skin was very tight on my right side making it difficult and uncomfortable to lift my arm very high. Also, the chest muscle that had been significantly disturbed during the mastectomy complained regularly about having to do anything. In addition to being easy to get on and off, the button shirts had the advantage that they didn’t cling. They just hung down without defining what was going on with my chest. The fiberfill mound worked fine to push the right side of my shirts out giving my front a more balanced look.

However, one didn’t have to look too hard to see that my lightweight prosthesis was far from looking or behaving like the real thing. With my right chest being flat and just a bit indented and the fiberfill weighing virtually nothing, the shelf bra was continually riding up and making me cock-eyed. If I perspired at all, the Kleenex started falling apart and had to be replaced. I really didn’t want to be walking around Peru constantly adjusting my breast area and having bits of Kleenex floating up out of my cami.

Just three days before we left I dedicated two hours to addressing and solving the problem. I had a prosthesis they had given me at Tina’s Treasures but it was heavy and hot and too big. I’m sure I could have gotten used to it, but for several reasons I was being obstinate about even considering it. I didn’t like the bra it fit in. The bra was too big for my remaining Baby B. I only had one bra. The bras were expensive. You get the idea. I just didn’t want to go there.

I decided to take charge of the situation. I was going to make my own prosthesis. I found one of my old nylon cup bras that were molded and had no seems on the cups. I cut out the left cup and kept trimming the edges until it fit properly over my Baby B. I then used that cup as a pattern to cut out the right cup of the old bra. I cut it just a bit bigger to allow for sewing a seam. Next I got out some high quality flannel that I had left over from doing castor oil packs several years before. The flannel was thick and soft and had some weight to it. Using the edges of the bra cup as a guide, I cut out a flat backing for my creation. I sewed the bra cup to the flannel leaving an opening for turning and filling.

Once the two pieces were sewed together, turned, and filled fairly tightly with polyester fiberfill, I sewed the opening shut. Voila! It was lightweight yet heavier than my previous homemade prosthesis. It was breathable, held its shape, and didn’t fall apart. It was perfect. I used a small safety pin to pin it to the elastic at the bottom of the shelf bra of my cami to hold it in place.

I was so happy to have a solution for my problem. Why hadn’t I done this a few weeks earlier? Well, it didn’t matter, it was done now. I did a mini fashion show for myself. Everything looked good. The shape of my new prosthesis matched the remaining breast quite well. It also seemed that the flannel backing discouraged my new fake boob from riding up as quickly. I got bold and tried on a few of my looser fitting knit shirts. Even they looked pretty doggone good. My only concern was that I didn’t have time to make a second work of art as a backup. I’d just have to keep my fingers crossed and a close tab on where I left my new breast when I wasn’t wearing it.

I went to the kitchen table, crossed Peru Prosthesis off the list, and smiled a smile of success.