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  • The Michael Phelps Diet

    I remember vividly the moment years ago in induction, around Day 9, when I realized just how quickly chemotherapy (especially high doses of it) can ravage your muscles and body fat and leave you looking like Skeletor. I had been mostly bedridden for 2 days, unable to summon the energy to stand long enough to shower or even change out of my hideous hospital pants. When I finally got around to peeling them off, I looked down in horror at what, only 48 hours earlier, had been my relatively shapely legs. Two wobbly sticks with enormous knobs for knees lay side by side. The negative space in between them had grown considerably – neither thigh came even close to the other. It was terrifying. Gone were the hard-earned calf-muscles (all those stairs climbed in 5-inch heels wasted!). No more smooth fleshy thighs to speak of. Just two sad-looking stilts for legs.

    The transplant will take off at least 10% of my body weight, and at 5’9” and 118lbs, that puts me in a precarious position. I know from last time around that as soon as I lose more than 10lbs, things start to become very, very difficult. Between the nausea and the loss of appetite, finding something I could tolerate eating was surprisingly challenging. The less I was able to eat, the weaker I got, and the weaker I got, the more difficult the treatment became. Each chemo was more brutal than the last, each side effect more debilitating. Had it not been for the marijuana pill my doctor prescribed to re-train me to eat on my own (that’s a story for another time), I would have ended up on a feeding tube – a thought so horrific, I will do anything to avoid it this time around.

    With all of this in mind, I’ve taken on a new approach to eating while undergoing treatment. I eat smaller, more frequent meals throughout the day. I don’t wait until I am hungry. I take advantage of every day I have a good appetite (which luckily for me, has been most days!) and perhaps most importantly, I have made a conscious effort to increase my calorie intake significantly to counter-act the effects of the chemo.

    I’ve also come to terms with the fact that it is simply not enough to eat my vegetables and grains and all the healthy “cancer-fighting” foods I read about fanatically – although it is very important to keep those foods as a part of my (and your!) diet. I really need to increase my daily calorie intake in whatever ways I can (some more shameful than others), because I know it’s the only way not only to hold onto my current weight, but to have the chance to gain a few pounds before the transplant. So, for the last few weeks, I have been adding butter to anything even remotely butter-able, I have slurped down milkshakes at 10am, I’ve eaten all the foods I normally consider indulgences (cheesy paninis and gratin dauphinois) with reckless abandon.

    And it is working! I’ve gained a promising 4lbs. At this rate, I should be 10lbs heavier and ready to go for the transplant, which is very exciting news. On the down side, after any of my sisters comes to visit, I inevitably get an angry email once they’ve landed in New York about the sympathy weight they gained while adjusting (even temporarily) to my diet. “It’s fine for you to eat like Michael Phelps, Phoebs, but it is just not acceptable for me!’ they shout across cyber space.

    I can handle a little sisterly agitation. My goal is crystal clear. And with this kind of victory to look forward to, how long can they stay angry with me?

    For more information on how to fatten up, visit the Health & Nutrition section of the website!

  • How To Lose Your Hair in 10 Days

    After spending a few restless nights breathing in strands of hair that had abandoned my head for greener pastures on the pillow case, after shaking it out of my pajamas, blowing it out of my nostrils, and blinking it out of my eyes, I started to warm up to the idea of shaving my head completely. Perhaps this is the natural progression of things, I convinced myself. Perhaps I will soon work up enough courage to pick up the razor, switch the power button to the “on” position and just buzz.

    I thought I would have a few weeks to prepare for the thinning and hair loss associated with the chemo I received in Cycle One: “half-dose chemo,” as my doctor referred to it, implying a slow and manageable transition from shoulder-length hair, to the compulsory boy-cut I knew would come, and finally, the bowling ball baldness that would inevitably follow. I cut off eight inches of perfect ponytail upon arriving in Houston, (which I planned to donate) congratulating myself on having been so ahead of the game. Little did I know how quickly the rest of my hair would decide to make an exit.

    When I tell my doctor my hair is falling out, she shrugs, rolls her eyes (not in an insensitive way, but in a way that indicates she’s been expecting this) and prescribes a vitamin. I leave the office hopeful that whatever hair I have already lost will soon be replaced by new growth, restored by the “super potency” of Nature’s Bounty Biotin.

    Thinning hair is a nuisance at best, as troubling as a little nausea or brittle nails. I can list a hundred aspects of the next six months that completely eclipse this one small side effect. But as the days go by, and my hair continues to fall out in wet clumps in the shower, I realize I’ve crossed the line from thinning to baldness. And baldness is something else entirely. Seeing myself for the first, or second, or even tenth time without my hair is curiously upsetting. My bald head is a constant physical and visual reminder of my current circumstance in life, my “status” as cancer patient. Somehow, when I still had my hair, I could trick myself (and everyone else) into believing I was just a woman in a hospital. I suppose this is why women wear wigs. If you look like yourself, you may feel more like yourself, and thus you may feel better.

    But as I watched the last of my hair fall to the bathroom floor today, the hum of the razor reverberating off the tiled walls, what I felt, above all, was relief. I no longer have hair, but more importantly, I am no longer tormented by the fear of losing it. And that is something to celebrate. 

  • The Importance of Platelets

    The Importance of Platelets

    This morning, as I prepared for another day in clinic, my little sister Irina and her boyfriend Michael made their way to MD Anderson’s Blood Bank to make a donation. Platelets, even more than red blood cells, are pretty hard to come by here. They are hugely important, as they are what clot your blood and prevent the sometimes serious bleeds associated with cancer treatments. After I was bumped from the transfusion list two weeks ago (a patient with an active bleed took priority, and rightly so), I felt firsthand how important it is to have a fully stocked blood bank. I asked my family to do their part and donate their platelets to the cancer center.

    Irina and Michael arrived on Saturday, excited at the prospect of “doing” something to help. They hydrated liberally all weekend, eating the super foods (ie. Magnum double caramel ice cream bars) that they believed would yield a perfect batch of platelets. They speculated about whose platelets would be better, stronger, and more “potent.” And this morning, they set off to the Mays Clinic, full of energy, positivity, and good platelets.

    Irina had a slow start. The nurse declared her veins to be unsatisfactory, showing them around to the other IV nurses and shaking her head as if to say “these won’t do!” She ordered her to eat a bacon cheeseburger and return once her belly was full. Michael, on the other hand, sailed through the screening portion, was hooked up to the complex apheresis machine moments after checking in, and was halfway through the donation by the time Irina returned. 

    Meanwhile, over in the fast-track lab of the main buidling, the results of my CBC came back. My platelet count had dropped again, down to 15. I would need a transfusion. Before making my way over to the infusion center, I popped in to check on Irina. I found her in the corner of the blood collection room, resting on a lime-green leather recliner, hooked up to an IV connected to three different bags of blood products. She looked so small, skinny arms peeking out from under a heap of warm blankets. I suddenly became lightheaded. I felt hot and dizzy, almost seasick. I staggered to a chair and dropped my head between my knees. I gulped in the air around me, trying to steady my breath.

    As I sat there trying to remember the words to the breathing mantra my mother-in-law had taught me the week before, memories of long days spent in the hospital, my sisters sharing shifts, came flooding back. I remembered the three of them, sitting dutifully at my bedside, alert, ready for action, but unable to do anything besides exist in those moments with me. Through uncomfortable tests and treatments, countless transfusions, on days where I was feeling weak and tired, they carried on, infusing me with positive energy, providing endless reserves of support and comfort. And I know that still, they wished they could do more. 

    I realized today that giving the gift of blood or platelets may be the most important donation a person can make. I am proud to know that sometime in the very near future, Irina’s platelets, and Michael’s, and those of other family and friends, will help someone like me to make it through the next few days of his or her own battle. There really is no greater gift than that. 

    For more information on how you can donate blood or platelets, please visit:

    http://www.mdanderson.org/how-you-can-help/donate-blood/index.html

    or

    http://www.redcrossblood.org

     

  • The Art of Packing

    The Art of Packing

    My first year at Vogue, when all the senior editors were off in Paris for collections, my friend Luisana and I, both assistants in the Accessories Department at the time, booked a last minute ticket on a Friday flight from JFK to her family’s house in La Romana in the Dominican Republic. The flight took off at 3:00pm (9:00pm Paris time) and having personally scheduled our director’s itinerary down to the 15-minute interval, I knew at that precise moment she would be savoring the last few drops of a delicious Bordeaux at L’ami Louis in the 3rd arrondissement. We wheeled our T. Anthony rollies down the quiet hall at 12:30pm on the dot, and took the elevator down to the 43rd street side to find our car. From the moment Luisana’s perfectly fitted travel khakis hit that leather seat, it was clear her holiday had begun.

    We found our seats, located at the very back of the plane, three rows from the bathroom. We were seated in the middle section, in a row of four, flanked by two generously proportioned women  – both of whom requested seat belt extensions. I glanced over at Luisana with growing apprehension. “I picked us up a few sandwiches from St. Ambroeus," she cooed, totally non-plussed. "Do you prefer tomato mozzarella or prosciutto di Parma?” As we bit into the buttery focaccia, Luisana got organized. Out of her tote she plucked a dainty Prada travel pouch, slathered on a layer of Avène hand cream and spritzing her face with a mist of Evian, she reclined her seat and produced a stockpile of Hudson News's finest. “Reading material!” she exclaimed. Three hours later, we landed in Santo Domingo, completely rested, rejuvenated even, and so very moisturized. I had never experienced anything like it.

    I dedicate this post to Luisana, who taught me that you can create your own serene and warm environment wherever you are, be it wedged between two strangers on a flight or dozens of sick patients awaiting chemo in a crowded hospital waiting room. Today, inspired by the contents of Luisana’s travel tote, I will show you what helps me settle in for a long day in the hosptial's clinic.


    First, the medical stuff:

    Masks: when your white blood cell count falls below 0.5, and your ability to fight infection is almost nonexistent, as has been the case for me throughout most of this treatment, a mask helps me feel protected from a patient coughing or sneezing close to me. I also just happen to believe that hospitals are full of germs, and any barrier helps. Wear your mask as you enter and leave the hospital, ride the elevator, or as you sit in the waiting room. Once in a private room with just your nurse, feel free to remove it.

    Hand sanitizer: doctors, nurses, anybody affiliated with a hospital will tell you that frequent hand washing is the single most important thing – even more important than wearing a mask – to prevent and spread infection. If a bathroom is not readily available, just keep using hand sanitizer, especially before eating or drinking anything.

    Sanitizing wipes: you can use these to clean arm rests, table tops, anything that makes your personal space feel a little less grimey.

    Tissues: buy the softest you can find

    Snack: This will depend entirely on how you are feeling and what your dietary restrictions may be at the time, but for days when nausea is an issue, I pack a ziplock full of Golfish, saltines, and a banana and munch on them throughout the day when my stomach starts to feel empty.

    Beverage: I always carry around a refillable glass bottle of water, and sometimes a Vitamin water for an extra infusion of electrolytes. My friend Patty combines sparkling water with a splash of lemon juice and a peel of fresh ginger - delicious, and helps with nausea too.

    Agenda & Notebook: My page-at-a-glance is with me at all times. It is where I check off every medication I take each day. It is where I record symptoms or questions for the doctor. I would be lost without it.  

    And now for a little luxury…

    iPad mini: download mindless TV shows, US weekly, your favorite book, music that calms you – just make sure your iPad is stocked and fully charged

    Comfortable headphones

    Chargers: I keep all tech gadgets, phones, iPod, and their respective chargers in a small bag so that I can easily access what I need

    Lip moisturizer

    Avène hand moisturizer

    Evian atomizer for the face: one spritz will rehydrate tired skin and make you feel instatnly rejuvenated

    Worn-in pashmina or throw: bundle up in here when you get a chill and you will feel instantly transported back to your bed at home, feeling snug as a bug.

    Cashmere socks

    Ballet flat or easy loafer: One should never walk around a hospital in bare feet or socks, so be sure to have a shoe you can slip into when it's time to get up and use the restroom or move around the floor.

    Eye pillow: my latest discovery. Look for one made of silk and filled with flaxseed - the weight of the seeds will put pressure on just the right spots along your eyes, brows, and forehead. My eye pillow is lightly scented with dried lavender. The combination of the scent and the the feel of cool silk on tired eyes will transport you right out of your hospital bed.