A Miracle in Mexico (where healthcare is good, doctors are accessible, and the cost doesn’t bankrupt you).

(This is the fifth in a new series of blog posts, the focus of which is keeping yourself sane and healthy in the face of Real Trouble. The photos for this series may, or may not, have anything to do with the subject matter. Just some nice photos from Mexico taken during this time.This one is a snapshot of my chemo oncologist, Dr. Juan Feregrino.)

The first thing I knew when the health crisis hit was that I would stay in Mexico to take care of it. The idea of returning to the USA was so hard for me that I don’t think I would have been able to do it and keep my spirits up for staying alive. Fred agreed, and said he would go along with whatever I needed to do. We spoke with the surgeon involved, and he gave us a rough idea of what it would cost to do everything in Mexico. While this was just a general idea, it definitely helped us in deciding to stay. We saw that we could pay for it out-of-pocket, as we had no insurance in Mexico to cover the costs. The total cost of all the traditional medicine treatments—including 5 nights in a hospital (three for the surgery, and two for the last radiation treatment), the surgery, which was long and involved, all the tests and scans, any drugs we had to buy, all the doctors’ fees, the chemo and the radiation, was about $20,000 US. That is a lot of money, but probably not as much it would have cost to live in the USA for 8 months, plus the co-pays that would have been involved if we had chosen to return to the US and use Medicare, and all the many other expenses that would have been part of whole process.
A few of our American friends here in San Miguel that we discussed things with said that they would choose to return to the States. I think a lot of people feel that the US has the world’s best medical care. I never had a really serious health problem while I was living in the US. I can’t really compare the two places, because I have nothing to compare. I can only say everyone has a right to their own opinion. I can also say that you never really know how you would handle a situation until you are actually faced with it. I was so determined to stay in Mexico that all of this advice hit deaf ears. We had just bought our home here, and here is where I wanted to be. One of the earliest realizations I had was that my success for surviving would depend on the amount of normalcy I was able to keep in my life. Normal life to me means being at home, seeing friends, and not giving in to whatever catastrophe that is going on. The thought of us going through the past several months in some place like Houston is simply more abnormal to me than I can imagine.
Now that I am on the other side of this situation I can tell you in no uncertain terms that I know I made the right decision. The health care I have received in Mexico has been outstanding. All the doctors that I have seen have been extremely competent, caring people. They have spoken good English, which I appreciate since my Spanish is still pretty elementary. The nurses and technicians mostly spoke Spanish. I know enough Spanish to communicate in very crude terms, so somehow we all made it work.
The hospitals have all been run very well, extremely well maintained, and well equipped. I had most the treatments in Queretaro, at three different hospitals…one for the surgery, one for the chemo, and one for the radiation. The only treatment I had outside of Queretaro was in León, one of the two hospitals in Mexico where they do the last form of radiation that I needed. I could have chosen to do that in Mexico City, but was advised that in León (which is only an hour from San Miguel) it would be exactly the same treatment at half the cost.
Doctors here are very accessible. My chemo oncologist gave me his cell number and his email, and he always responded if I needed him for any questions. My radiation oncologist used What’s Ap to stay in touch, and sometimes she just sent me a smiley face. She always responded immediately. I felt I could ask these two anything, and that they were there for me. They didn’t ever do that thing where I felt they were in the middle of seeing several patients at once. I felt I had their complete attention.
The doctor I have developed the closest relationship with is my chemo oncologist, Dr. Feregrino, the man in the photo here. In fact, I saw him yesterday to go over the results of my follow up blood work. This guy was so supportive during the chemo treatment process. When I told him I was most afraid of having one of those ports, he arranged my treatments so that I didn’t have to. While I have very small veins and it was sometimes hard to find one to accommodate the insertion of the needle for the chemo, he set me up with a technician who is very experienced and she was able to do it every time. He completely understood my concerns, and instead of insisting I had to go the usual route, found a way to help me avoid what I didn’t want to do. He took the time to consider me as an individual. He showed up for every one of my treatments, hung out with us and visited, never seemed to be in a rush, and always made us feel like he believed I was going to make it. After Fred and I met with him for the first consultation we both had a very good feeling, both about him and about our ability to get through the process.
He was interested in what I was doing with all the alternative treatments I was using. While there seems to be a gulf of distrust between traditional medicine and holistic medicine, I gradually came to see that I could share these things with him. He never made me feel that he disapproved. As I got to know him I came to really appreciate his curiosity and his open mind. I was warned…don’t tell your chemo doctor what you’re doing, he’ll talk you out of it. That was not the case at all.
After my last chemo I had a PET scan. I knew in my heart that I was clear, but I wanted to hear him say it. He was as happy as we were.
I am sure of one thing…every person is different and has a different experience. I can only speak for myself, and I can only talk about my own experience. But, based on my very personal experience, I can say that my medical care in Mexico has been wonderful. I am so glad that Fred and I decided to stay here for this. It was the absolutely the right thing for us to do. I will close this post with a word of advice. When you have a rocky road to travel, your own heart is your best guide. When you decide on the course you will follow, stick with it. Don’t let yourself be distracted by all the advice, articles, and projected fears of your friends and family. That is the main reason I was very, very careful about sharing about my condition while I was in the middle of it. More about that in a future post.

The Vanity Thing. Staying Sane and Well in the Face of Real Trouble.

This is the third in a series of posts about my own experience with cancer, chemo, radiation, and various alternative therapies. It is the story of a year that I will never forget. This picture was taken shortly after I finished all radiation. We had gone out to brunch with friends. My hair coming back (notice I already had it colored). My eyebrows and eyelashes also back. Looking happy, feeling good, loving life. If you know anyone who could benefit from these posts, please share.)

I have always had a pretty healthy dose of vanity. I’ve never been a beauty queen, but always felt like I looked pretty good, all things considered. When the health crisis hit, I just felt numb. During this time I could barely function, much less put on my contact lenses and makeup. My skin and hair seemed lifeless to me.

I think the hardest part of the whole experience for me was knowing something was wrong, but not knowing what. Then when I realized, after the ultrasounds and the blood work and the scan and the very serious reaction of the gynecologist, that what was wrong was going to require major surgery, I felt paralyzed. How I looked was the last thing on my mind. I felt completely detached from myself. The mind/body connection was completely disconnected. I would look in the mirror and fail to recognize my own reflection. I didn’t know the face that was looking back at me.
On my last day in the hospital after the surgery, the doctor came in the room. The vibe was very heavy. He told me that without chemo I had maybe six months to live. Of course I decided to do chemo.
Sure enough, about two weeks after the first chemo, when I combed my hair lots of it stayed in the comb. I knew that would happen, so I wasn’t surprised. I decided to go in the bathroom, pick up the scissors, and chop about half of it off. I now had a sort of nice bob. It was still coming out at a rapid pace, so three days later I walked across the street to a Mexican barber shop and got it cut super short. I was surprised at how much I like that look. A few days after that, when I realized that I was shedding like a cat, I had Fred take his clippers and just go for it. For me, taking it off in stages was easier. It wasn’t quite as traumatic as I would have thought, and I already had gotten a wig. If you have to get a wig, it is to your advantage to have a friend who does drag. My dearest friend, Andrew, had gotten one shipped to me. If you are getting a wig, get a good one, and definitely get a lace front wig, because it is a much more natural look.Mine was very much like my own hair, shoulder-length and blonde. I would also advise going for short hair in a wig, especially if you are going to wear it in the summer. I did not like wearing the wig. I ended up having it cut, so that it wasn’t touching my neck. I also didn’t like doing the scarf wrap thing because I felt like I was wearing a sign that said, “I have cancer and all my hair fell out.” I got very paranoid when I did the scarf thing because I felt like people were giving me weird looks. (They probably were, actually.) I was more socially comfortable in the wig, and I didn’t like going around the house without something on my head. I didn’t like for Fred to see me bald. I had a little crocheted cap I wore around the house.
A few weeks after the hair fell out, I realized my eyebrows and eyelashes were going, too. I think that bothered me more than the hair. By this time, I had gotten back into wearing makeup, and was very thankful that I’m pretty good with it because my eyebrows were completely drawn on. I compensated for the lashes with eyeliner. If you are in this situation and you are not good with makeup, I strongly suggest that you go to the nearest MAC store and get a lesson or two. Makeup really can help. I had gone into “If it feels good, do it” mode. Makeup definitely felt better than no makeup.
By the time I had the chemo, I felt much better than I had felt before I knew what was going on. Somehow, by a true miracle, I knew I was not going to die from this. I definitely knew it was going to be a challenging time, but I knew it was not going to be the end of my story. I think that God…and you can substitute the word Universe here, Divine Energy, whatever….does speak to us, and I was very open to listen. I found the strength to get through it, and the guidance to know how to plan this journey I never expected to take.
I lost a lot of weight as the spring turned to summer, and summer turned to fall. One day I got out of the bathtub and wrapped a large white towel around myself. I put on my round tortoiseshell glasses and saw my bald self in the big bathroom mirror. The thought hit me that if I had brown skin I would look very much like Gandhi. I was able to find that thought very funny. I’ve always had a quirky sense of humor, and it helped me get through this year. I could probably do some serious standup comedy about this whole thing.
I have learned to love my skinny body, maybe more than I ever have. I have been working out again, now that the last of the radiation is done. My main motive for working out is to be strong. A nice side effect is that I am getting my muscle tone back, and because I don’t have a lot of fat, I can see my arms starting to take shape. I am feeling like my mind and body are a team again, and I really enjoy my time of going for walks, exercising, or spontaneously breaking into a silly little dance. I can make it up a hill again without having to stop. My hair is back, and I am going to keep it short. I have already had it colored (not quite there yet, but I think it needs to be brighter than any color found in nature) because I decided that after all this, I really am not ready for grey hair. I have a lot more wrinkles than I did a year ago, and I haven’t had my Botox redone. The jury is out on that one. I may have passed the point where Botox would help. Sometimes I look in the mirror and kind of like the wrinkles. I always thought that cliche about “I’ve earned these wrinkles” was a bit lame, but actually I have earned them. It’s a new face, that’s for sure. When I see it in the mirror now I know it’s me. A new me, but a good one. I’m so glad to be alive. Being happy is a great beauty treatment.
I feel like a new creature. It is fun to decide, especially at age 73, what my new look will evolve into. (Stay tuned. Work in progress. Red lipstick will definitely be involved). If you are about to go through a similar experience, of course you are not looking forward to these challenges. But the good news is, my hair is back, my eyebrows are back, and my eyelashes are better than ever. (I was pleased to find Latisse at a nearby drug store.) I have gained about 4 pounds since the radiation stopped. I look healthy now, in a Skinny Bitch sort of way.
I still love accessories, makeup, and manicures. Fashion is fun, and will always be a form of self-expression. Vanity is not a bad thing. It is good to try to look your best. It’s just that my thoughts about what defines me have radically changed. The main thing I have learned that the way we look is not the thing that makes people love us. People love us because of how we make them feel.