Sometimes No can mean Yes when it comes to cancer

Cancer is truly an awful disease.  It’s different for everyone.  Just because breast cancer is ‘cured’ for one person doesn’t mean that the same drug or drugs will work on another person.  Breast Cancer can be called ‘cured’ after five years with no recurrence.  However, it can come back after those five years.  And, once a person is one year from diagnosis, they enter the ‘recurrence zone’ which lasts another four years.  The smallest ache, pain or cough cannot be overlooked.  The cancer could be back or spread to another location.  Found any new lumps or bumps?  These have to be checked out.  Which brings me to my situation…

I found a new lump in my left breast last month.  I’ve also had a cough for the past month that hasn’t resolved.  I waited a few days and after realizing the lump wasn’t going away (wishful thinking), and I made an appointment with my Oncology Surgeon for an Ultrasound and followup.  The ultrasound revealed an area that was worrisome.  My doctor palpitated the area and her comment was, “I don’t like the feel of this.”  A needle biopsy was ordered and performed this week.  She also ordered a PET scan.

I’m presenting these facts very simply — but you should understand that I’ve been a mess for the past two weeks.  I updated my will and even went so far as to make a list of the things I want to do in the next few years:  Attend Robert & Eva’s wedding, attend John and Kristi’s wedding, attend my 45th high school reunion, go to London, see Mount Rushmore…you get the idea — my bucket list.  I’ve been sad, angry, crying, worried, scared — you name it, I’ve felt it.

So, back to the biopsy.  The doctor had a difficult time getting the “correct” tissue.  My “whatever it is” was sitting right on my chest wall just beyond my implant.  The doctor knew that there was scar tissue, but there was a 9mm nodule right on top of the scar tissue.  The nodule was what everyone was concerned about.  So, after poking me with a huge hollow needle for 20 minutes (fortunately I don’t have a whole lot of feeling in my left breast) he was finally done.

Next up was a PET scan on Thursday.  The results from the biopsy came back (all scar tissue) so my PET scan was changed to a CT scan of my chest and hip area.  (The CT scan was to check out my lungs to see if there was some reason for my unresolved cough.)  My Oncology Surgeon (really love her) called me while I was waiting for my CT scan to give me the biopsy results.  Her words were, “The biopsy was scar tissue, but I don’t believe that result is consistent with the imaging studies that were performed.”  (Here’s where No could still be Yes.)  She ordered a Breast MRI to get a better look at the area.

Interestingly, now that all the testing has begun, I’m feeling much calmer.  I love that my doctor is being very cautious when it comes to test results.  And, she said that if it does turn out to be all scar tissue, she may remove it anyway.  I’m fine with that.  I hate having that lump in my breast!

So, it’s sort of good news (scar tissue), but the MRI will give us some better information.  And, of course, there’s the CT scan results.  Thanks everyone, for the good thoughts and prayers.  Stay tuned for more information!  (I really, really hate cancer.)

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Blog: The Language of Cancer

I’ve decided that a cancer diagnosis really sucks.  The slightest ache, pain or cough? My first thought is:  CANCER.  I know I’m being unreasonable, but that’s how it feels.  I guess this feeling never fully goes away.  After 5 years of being cancer-free I’m considered, “cured”.  Sort of.  The best information says that most cancers will not return after 5 years.  I know people whose cancer has returned after 10-15 years so that’s not terribly comforting.  It just never goes away.

It’s been almost a year since my last chemotherapy treatment.  I feel like I’ve gotten my life back.  My hair has grown in, I’ve put on a few pounds and have worked on getting back into running.  Unfortunately, I’ve had a few injuries so running has taken a back-seat lately.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and reading about “the language of cancer”.  How many times have we seen, “She/He bravely fought cancer until the very end.” or “I plan on winning the war I’m waging against cancer.”  Here’s a question, “Who decided that “war terminology” was the way to describe someone’s illness with cancer?”  Have you ever heard someone say, “He lost his war with heart disease.” or “He/She bravely fought and lost the war against Parkinson’s.”  No. It’s almost exclusively used to describe how someone responds to cancer or it’s treatment.  Well, I’m here to say no more.

First of all, by using “war language” to describe someone’s treatment, you’re implying that the outcome will have a win/lose objective.  If my cancer returns, does that mean I lost a battle?  No. If someone dies from cancer or treatment, does that mean they “lost the war”?  No.  I would rather look at this with a win/win scenario.  If the cancer returns, I’ll face the future head-on and move forward.  I believe that is a winning position. I believe in lifting up those who are currently in treatment for cancer.  Chemotherapy?  Good for you!  Radiation?  Awesome!  Clinical Trials?  Way to go!

Cancer is not one disease.  It’s different in almost everyone.  (Hence the difficulty to find a cure.)  Every type of cancer has different properties and each individual also contributes their own DNA to the cancer.  That’s why certain drugs will work on one person and not another.  There’s just no absolutely “road map” to eliminating the cancer.

There is nothing brave about how someone deals with a cancer diagnosis.  Bravery implies that a person lay down their own life to save another.  I do not consider myself brave.  I deal with what’s put in front of me.  That’s life.  Some days I deal with the cancer diagnosis with humor and lightness.  Other days I deal with it tears and anger. Putting me up on some imaginary pedestal does not help me to continue living a fulfilling life.

In my world, I do not believe that a cancer diagnosis means you have to “fight”.  What it does mean to me is that treatments are attempted and some prevail better than others.  Some days the cancer has the best hand; other days I do.

As a cancer patient, I believe in living my life as well as possible. I will cope with whatever comes my way and accept the situation that is presented to me.  I will use positive language and seek out support for my workable positions.  I will continue to set goals and rejoice in the achievement of them.

Tomorrow I see my Oncology Surgeon and have an ultrasound.  It may be nothing.  But, if it turns out to be cancer again, I’ll deal with it head on.  Thanks for listening, my friends.

Blog: It’s Been A Long Time Since I Posted a Blog…

I haven’t written anything since my October rant about everything pink.  Lot’s to update, so here goes:

I’ve gained about 15 pounds which I’m working on losing.  Being overweight is not good for a cancer survivor.  Exercise seems to be hit and miss for me.  I need to do better.  I’ve been walking some and adding in running for 1-2 miles during my walks.  I was sidelined with terrible hip pain for a few months, but I think whatever was going on has resolved itself.

I had a mastoplexy surgery (breast lift on the right side to match my fake breast on the left) in November, 2014 which was a breeze.  I was sore for a few weeks but the scar never seemed to heal correctly.  I complained to my Oncologist about it and she insisted I contact my Plastic Surgeon about it.  Turns out I have what’s called a hypertrophic scar so I’m getting steroid injections in it which seems to help.  I’ve already had two sessions and I am scheduled for another next month (May).

My hair is back to normal.  When it was growing out I wasn’t sure if it would ever grow enough to cover my head. After chemo, hair grows back like a baby so it’s thin and wispy.  The hair on top of my head grew back straight, but the back was kinky, kinky curly.  Very odd.  My stylist, Sabina, laughed and said it was nearly impossible to cut it evenly due to the curls.  After about six months, she cut the back and voila! it grew back straight.  No more chemo curls!  Anyway, now when I look at myself I no longer see chemo hair — but a normal cut  The one thing I haven’t done is dye my hair.  I figure I might as well leave it natural.  I have totally white hair.  No gray.  It’s pretty cool looking.  (Secretly, I figure if my cancer returns I’ll lose my hair again anyway to chemo — I may as well save the money I was spending on coloring my hair.)

I had my follow-up mammogram and ultrasound in March, 2015.  Everything was fine and I had a good appointment with my surgical oncologist the same day.  I was a little surprised she wanted to see me again in six months.  I guess that’s her normal follow-up with surgical patients.

So, I’ve made it out of my first year as a cancer survivor.  In some ways it’s comforting, but in many ways it’s also disturbing.  You see, I have TNBC (Triple Negative Breast Cancer) which is the most aggressive breast cancer one can have.  TNBC has no receptors that can be utilized to stop a recurrence.  Luminal (or hormone positive) can be treated with Tamoxifen or Arimidex to block the production of hormones following chemotherapy.  Her-2 Breast Cancer can be treated with Herceptin following chemotherapy.  There is no drug I can take following chemotherapy to stop a recurrence.

You see, even though my cancer  was caught early, I only have a 65-75% chance of survival at five years.  TNBC most often recurs during years 2-3 so I’m spending lots of time checking my breasts and worrying about any ache or pain.  I hate it.  Sometimes it feels like I’m consumed with worrying that my cancer has returned. I’ve been thinking about joining a support group or perhaps talking to a psychologist because I seem to be obsessed with worry.  I’ve decided I’m going to talk to my oncologist next month to see if there’s someone I can talk with.  My one saving grace is that I can call my sister-in-law, who is a four year breast cancer survivor, and talk to her.  She’s really wonderful — but I hope I can find someone local who I can regularly speak with.

Leon and I subscribe now to Blue Apron so we get dinner ingredients and recipes delivered to us weekly.  We’ve really enjoyed the varied menu and are definitely eating healthier.  I’m proud that we’ve been so willing to try meals we never would have just a year ago.  Now, if I could only get my between meal snacking under control…

So, that’s my update for now.  I’ll let you know if I find someone to talk to.  Cheers and good health to all!

Blog: Pink October

Yes, it’s breast cancer awareness month. Here’s a question for the universe: Am I the only person who has a personal issue with all the pink? You’d think since I was diagnosed with breast cancer in March I would be all for Pink October — but, I truly am mystified with all the hoopla and people calling me a “warrior survivor” and “such a brave person”. Please understand — I am not criticizing others who stand up and shout, “I’m a survivor and I’m fighting like mad.” I’m just saying its not me.

I’ve had a few challenges in my life. A couple of divorces, a bout with alcoholism in my early years, cervical cancer, herniated disk, heart murmur and now breast cancer. I look at these challenges as part of who I am today. Yes, I’ve had a few problems — but I’m not about to let them define my life. I have a great life. I’m married to a wonderful man who gives me room to grow and to have my independence. He supports me totally — I can’t ask for anything more. I live very comfortably and enjoy many of the finer things in life.

I rocked chemo. My surgery was just a minor blip on my radar. I look at myself and feel so very fortunate to still be able to run 20+ miles a week. My cardiologist keeps reminding me that eventually I’ll need a pacemaker — but in the meantime, I’m going to continue running and exercising as much as possible.

I don’t see myself as especially brave or courageous since my breast cancer diagnosis. I’m just a normal person who handles what’s in front of me. To me that’s not brave — but life. I think my brother is brave — he’s battled Parkinson’s disease for 20 years. I think children with life threatening diseases are brave. People with degenerative diseases with no cure (ALS, Huntington’s Disease, Alzheimer’s Disease, etc.) are brave. Firefighters, police and soldiers are brave. People with stage IV cancers are brave. My stage II breast cancer was very curable. Yes, it’s triple negative breast cancer which means I have about a 25% chance of recurrence in the first 3 years. But, that means there’s a 75% chance it won’t! I like those odds. And, if it does recur, I’ll just handle it.

So, that’s my rant for the month. Give to cancer research to help find a cure and/or better treatment options. Please don’t call me a brave warrior. I’m not. I’m just handling life.

Blog: Here’s to Feeling Good!

Wow, it’s been a very interesting 4 weeks! I assumed that once I completed my chemo cycle I would have a couple of days of feeling bad and then be on the mend. Well, I couldn’t have been more wrong!

My fourth cycle really hit me hard. I spent days feeling terrible. My stomach issues seemed to last forever. Everyday I would end up taking Compazine, Ativan and sometimes both. I had terrible headaches and the awful taste in my mouth just wouldn’t go away. I told Leon I was beginning to wonder if I had felt bad for so long I had forgotten how to feel good!

Some days I would feel “ok” and try to go out for a run or a walk. I found this very difficult as my stomach would start acting up during my outing. I found myself finding reasons why I shouldn’t walk or run each day. Ugh.

In addition to my stomach issues and generally feeling like yuck, my fingernails started pulling away from my nail beds! (I guess this is rather common.) Fortunately, it doesn’t appear that I’ll lose any nails and I think the worst is over.

And, to make matters worse, I actually came down with a little cold in the middle of feeling like crap!

However, I woke today feeling GREAT! I can’t remember the last time I felt this good — but I’m sure it was before Chemo started. I jumped at the chance at a short run this morning (even with the heat) and even ran one minute faster then I’ve been running.

I’m hoping to be “over the hump” regarding my chemo effects — but I’m also not kidding myself. If I have another (or even more than one) bad day, I’m going to remind myself that each day that passes brings me closer to being totally chemo free.

Blog: March 14, 2014 to June 30, 2014

March 14, 2014 was the first day I walked into City of Hope hospital. Treatment basically began that day for me as I had an immediate mammogram and ultrasound. I followed that up with a visit with the radiologist who scheduled me for a biopsy on Monday, March 17, 2014. Monday, March 18th, I got the final word: Breast Cancer. Aggressive Breast Cancer. Things seemed to move at lightening speed from that moment on. High Blood Pressure — see Dr. Ven to be cleared before surgery. See Dr. Andersen about immediate reconstruction and nipple-sparing surgery. In less than two weeks I was in surgery having most of my left breast removed with reconstruction done at the same time. (Very thankful for that!)

After a brief time-out for healing, I started chemo on Monday, April 28 and I completed my last infusion this past Monday, June 30th. I have some mixed feelings about being DONE with chemo. Even though the side effects could be uncomfortable, it was comforting to me to know that I had drugs coursing through my system killing those nasty cancer cells. Since I’m TNBC (Triple Negative Breast Cancer) there’s no drugs I can take that will interfere with the cancer receptors. Except Vitamin D. Studies have shown that huge amounts of Vitamin D in Cancer patients have about a 50% increase in survival rate. So, needless to say, I’m taking A LOT of Vitamin D.

My next oncology appointment isn’t for three months — I’m sure I’m going to go through some withdrawal over the next few months but I’m sure looking forward to getting back to being my old self. I’m tired of being tired all the time and I would love to leave my house without a cap or a hat on. It’ll be months before I start looking like my old self, but I can take comfort in the the worst is behind me! The only thing outstanding right now is the slight reconstruction on my right breast so that it matches my left. It’s an OP procedure so I’m expecting a quick recovery sometime in October or so.

I brought the chemo nurses goodies on my last day: homemade Peanut Brittle, Chocolate Clusters and Pecan Sandies Cookies. They loved them! They also presented me with a song (Zip it e do dah, Zip it e day, my oh my what a wonderful day!) and a lovely medal.

Of all the medals I’ve received over the years (and I have a lot!) this one holds the most meaning. Thank you, City of Hope for all you do and all you are. You are truly a magnificent organization and I can’t say enough good for what you’ve done for me and my family. I truly love all you guys!

Blog: Feeling Normal!

Chemo cycle three certainly has been interesting.  Week one I felt nauseated, fatigued and just plain blah.  Week two was better, but I still felt very fatigued with little energy.  Week three has been awesome.  I’m actually starting to feel normal!

Today I got up at 530 and had a lovely morning with Leon.  After he left for work I went for a nice 3.5 mile run and afterwards I cleaned the entire downstairs.  I know that doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s a big deal!  Since starting chemo I’ve done most of the cleaning — but rather than clean an entire floor in one day, I’ve been cleaning each floor over several days.  Today was a milestone for me!

I dusted, vacuumed, cleaned the kitchen and half-bath, mopped the basement floor and sanitized and mopped the kitchen and bathroom floors.  It’s the first time the entire downstairs has been clean since I started chemo.  Tomorrow I have big plans to run and to clean the entire upstairs!  What an exciting life I have!  Ha!