Friday, April 22, 2016

Dreamy French Polynesia

This image says it all; French Polynesia is the quintessential tropical paradise. The water and the air seem to be about the same temperature and texture; warm and silky.  The sea is absolutely clear and magically sky-colored. This photo was taken on the atoll Fakarava.
Damn lucky, that's how I feel after 10 days cruising islands and atolls in French Polynesia in the vast and spectacular South Pacific. By invitation from relatives, we relished experiences, saw places and interacted with people we could not have imagined. I would love to be back in the photo above, or floating on the turquoise sea, smiling at the heavens, which seemed very close to earth.

French Polynesia is stunning, but in the context of the vast South Pacific, it is insignificant. I appreciate anew that 75 percent of the earth’s surface  is water, and the meaning of human life, and all life on terra firma, is dwarfed by sea life. We’re not inconsequential, as we sail along on the deep blue in our fancy ship enjoying five-star dining and air conditioned suites, but we are in a bubble separating us from sea creatures, and even from indigenous people whose lives are enmeshed with the sea. I found myself admiring such people, with a touch of envy.
We were on an Oceania cruise on the ship Marina. It carried 1,200 passengers, 900-plus crew members, and four 5 *****-star restaurants plus the usual over-the-top cruise amenities. It was classy and we felt pampered and spoiled. The little orange boat is a tender carrying passengers to the pier and back again.

 The best part, though, was that the ship visited remote ports that don't see a lot of cruise traffic. The only company we had in a couple harbors was a working cargo ship that made room for 200 paying passengers. The other ports we had to ourselves,  all 1,200 of us, always outnumbering the local population. The exception: Papeete, our embarkation and debarkation port.
This cargo/cruise ship carries freight to and from Polynesia atolls and islands while its passengers enjoy paradise. If we ever go back to French Polynesia, and I would love to, we'll look into this more affordable option. I also like the idea of fewer people, although we'd have to forego the gourmet restaurants, the casino, the gym, the pool, and the espresso bar. To name a few.

The view from the Marina's deck in Mo'orea's harbor. Note that few folks are in the pool area. Two reasons: it is late afternoon and guests are thinking dinner.  It will be dark soon - just a bit after 6 p.m., as we are near the equator.  But perhaps the most important reason; the ship's demographics tend toward senior citizens, not unlike PK and me. Many are members of university alumni groups. The last thing I want to do on a vacation in French Polynesia - or anywhere else - is lounge around a pool trying to get a tan, or work on my melanoma. This attitude occurred long before I actually developed the disease. 
I love this photo of my uncle, cousin, and aunt, our companions on this trip. Here they're getting a good look at where the
open ocean and the Bora Bora harbor intersect. Big surf! 

They may have been captivated by reef sharks, which were plentiful almost every place we visited. 
On another day, PK seemed oblivious to the reef sharks behind him. That's
because sharks surrounded him. He had plenty to look at! 
But nothing to worry about.
We opted to arrange excursions from locals on piers rather than prearrange from the ship, which meant paying half the amount but also not knowing until we reached the pier what we'd do that day. On this day, we scored the remaining two spots on a 20-passenger boat taking cruisers to the Blue Lagoon. This sounded intriguing, so within a few minutes of alighting on the pier, we were on one of the small boats in the background. The lagoon was shallow (we weren't quite there yet) so we need to walk a short distance. The boat ride out and back turned out to be a daunting three hours. But the lagoon was gorgeous and the company engaging.

We visited French Polynesia during the rainy season, and the daily forecast most often featured scattered thunderstorms. We had brief bouts of fierce rain and wind, but it rarely mattered to what we were doing because of the short duration. The clouds made for dramatic skies, much appreciated by photographers and drama aficionados. That's a heart and dove sculpture on the pier, by the way.

This is the atoll Raroia. I didn't have a clue about atolls, but learned that they were formed by ancient volcanoes, which, over eons, sank, eroded and eventually disappeared, leaving a coral ring surrounding a lagoon. The ocean rushes in and out of openings with the tides. Raroia was made famous by author and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl when he landed the Kon Tiki here in 1947. Heyerdahl aimed to prove that currents and winds could have propelled seafaring Peruvians thousands of miles to the South Pacific without navigational tools or steering. The Marina was scheduled to visit Raroia, but turbulence between the open ocean and the atoll's largest passage prevented it.

This is what Raroia looked like as we approached, mere wisps of vegetated land. Raroia's population is around 200. Residents farm pearls, cultivate coconuts, and welcome occasional visitors. I'm certain they were eagerly awaiting our arrival but, alas, strong currents prohibited entry into the lagoon. Drat! This atoll was the most remote on our 10-day cruise. We were all primed after a lecture the previous day about the Kon Tiki, during which the speaker noted that at least one cruise passenger had purchased a ticket based solely on visiting Raroia. Thus we had an unexpected day at sea as we made our way to the next stop, the atoll Fakarava. As a consolation, we watched a  Kon Tiki film. But many passengers chose instead to baste by the pool, enjoying tropical beverages.

This Fakarava pier was part of a resort that allowed cruise passengers to crash, so long as we didn't use guest amenities.
The resort had netted off an area in which a few fish and some corals lived. Water clarity, net reflections, and light made for one of my favorite photos. Below are a few more images from Paradise.
Sunset on the island of Huahine, known as the Garden Island. Actually, it is two islands connected by a bridge. This was the last port we visited, and one of the most engaging and surprising. We saw the sights from a Jeep tour that included sacred blue-eyed eels, a pearl farm, and a stop for the real-deal homemade vanilla ice cream. 
Here's a piece of the Hilton Hotel on Bora Bora, an island made famous by movie stars, lush scenery, and premier diving.
And here's an occupied Hilton unit in a prime location. These luxury suites
on stilts rent for at least $1,000 a night. Probably more.


A guide staring at stomachs. What could possibly go wrong? Plus thoughts about the Polynesian personality.

Monday, April 11, 2016

Contemplating crabgrass plus Cancer Club updates

That's me and my shadow capturing crabgrass before it runs amok in the garden. Rodale lists it as number one
on the list of worst garden weeds. 
I spent a couple hours this afternoon wrenching young crabgrass from the garden. I do this every year; dig clumps with a potato fork then comb through, seeking white tendrils snaking through the soil. I shake dirt back into the garden, dump the tendrils and grass into a bucket, and toss it into the orchard, far from the garden.  Over the years, the crabgrass invasions have become fewer and less dense. I'm making headway.

Combing the clumps with my  gloved hands to get every last tendril is daydreamy repetitive work, however, and the mind wanders. Mine wandered in the wrong direction, perhaps because I'm having a colonoscopy tomorrow, everyone's favorite cancer prevention procedure, right?

And that set me thinking, yet again, about the melanoma terrors I endured for 30 days from late December 2015 to late January 2016.

I thought about how the itty bitty pink mole required a five-inch incision plus a couple smaller cuts to remove lymph nodes for biopsies. About how PK and I put our lives on hold awaiting the surgery and biopsy results. About how agonizing it all was. And now, how our lives can go on almost as if it didn't happen.

Even a tiny piece of crabgrass root can regenerate. I couldn't help but think of crabgrass today as garden cancer. I'm using the surgical approach to cure. We tried "chemotherapy" on it years ago to no avail. I learned tonight that "prevention" chemicals are now being sold to keep it in check. I'll stick with the manual labor and avoid applying chemicals.
After the melanoma terrors subsided, I scheduled a mammography, (Benign results were back in a couple days! Thanks, Asante.) a dental appointment, and tomorrow's colonoscopy. I hate the colonoscopy prep, which I am enduring as I write. The procedure itself isn't problematic, veiled, as it is, by unconsciousness. And when I wake up, I can eat!

I've had two previous colonoscopies. The first was about 10 years ago after my primary care provider talked me into it, and I am grateful that he did. A precancerous polyp was biopsied. If I hadn't agreed to the procedure, the polyp would have eventually developed into full-blown colon cancer, which is infamous for being asymptomatic until it is advanced.

Another was performed three years later with good results. Tomorrow, who knows? But if something evil lurks, it will be caught early.  And la-de-da.

Crabgrass was useful in leading me to put things in perspective and also do some follow-ups.......

Updates in case previous posts left you wondering:

A post about the agony of awaiting medical test results generated a noisy response from readers, mostly via Facebook comments. It is clear that my experience was not unique, and that tolerance for delayed test results is low.

Here's an excerpt from that post:
....I'm approaching two weeks out from surgery where lymph nodes were biopsied, for God's sake. Isn't two weeks too long to wait to learn whether you'll hop back into your merry little ordinary life, or if you'll spend the next year or two in and out of treatment and, undoubtedly, a lot more long days and nights in the Limbo Lounge having your brain devoured by fear monsters? ....Do all poor suckers who get punched by cancer also have to suffer inattention from medical people? 

An earlier post explains about the melanoma and my induction into the Cancer Club.

In a later post, I pledged to inquire with my medical providers, at least, why timely results were not delivered and why my requests were ignored. Post excerpt follows:

But still. I think all medical care providers need to respect that patients are often anxious to the max, to the point of nausea, to blowing up the blood pressure gauge, especially regarding cancer test results and staging. Sharing test results in a timely manner should be a top priority in medical offices. Not necessarily for routine test results, but certainly those upon which a patient's life may turn.
Medical office managers might consider providing a form to patients listing options about how they prefer to learn critical test results, and then making sure somebody has responsibility for contacting patients as a part of their job. I know it's complicated. Doctors don't have time; office staff lacks credentials to answer medical questions etc. etc. But there must be a solution.

When I saw my surgeon on a Monday, 10 days after surgery, he was pleased to tell me I was fine. I was pleased to tell him I already knew because a physician friend who read my blog offered to show me the online results on a Friday morning, sparing PK and me a miserable weekend of waiting. The results had been available to medical offices since Wednesday! Three days they could have called me!

The surgeon was great. Very apologetic. He said that contacting patients with negative (good) results can be done by an assistant, but that patients whose results are positive for disease either must wait until their post-op appointment with him, or he calls them personally. He had no idea that I'd called his office three times and stopped by in person once.

I asked to speak with the surgery practice's office manager. I gave her a copy of the Beautifully Benign post (link below.)  I told her that results from my surgery/biopsies had been available for three days, not including the weekend, and that at least one of the three people in her office that I'd spoken with could have called me. She was receptive and promised to have an office training to reinforce already established rules about tracking patient contacts (one of my calls was not listed). She seemed to be in complete agreement that the surgery practice could do a lot better in sharing patients' test results in a timely fashion. I hope she followed through.

As for the dermatology office that took 19 days to deliver my bad diagnosis, I waited until my 3-month appointment to talk with my doc in person. By requesting paperwork ahead of time, I knew for sure that he could have called me five office days before he actually did.

He explained that my diagnosis was difficult, and after a group of dermatologists reviewed the slides and agreed with the first diagnosis, it was sent to an outside lab for a second opinion, which required more time. That opinion was "invasive" melanoma rather than "metastatic." Super bad either way.

The dermatologist didn't provide a reason why for not contacting me during one of those five days, but I cut him some slack because it was during the holiday season.

Another spot was biopsied at my three-month visit in early March - I'll be seeing the dermatologist every three months for an undetermined time. The benign results were speedy, delivered by phone and mail within a week.

Maybe my frank talk made a difference? I can only hope.

Earlier Cancer Club Posts
Welcome to the Cancer Club - learning the terrible truth
Beautifully Benign! But how about more timely results?  Get with the program, medical offices.
Back from Cancer's Brink - lessons learned