My darkest hour arrived while I was cooped up in a hospital room with chemo-induced fever and other mystery symptoms. I was bald and bloated and beyond hope when a well-respected attending oncologist swung by my room with a crowd of med students and announced it could be another cancer causing my illness. Probably leukemia or lymphoma. A bone marrow biopsy would determine my fate, this doc told me, just before he casually strolled away from my despair and moved onto his next patient.
It wasn’t a biopsy that greeted me a few days later. It was a new doc, starting a new rotation. A second cancer wasn’t even on his radar. Rather, he was convinced my dose-dense chemo (given every two weeks instead of three) was to blame. Nothing some heavy-duty meds couldn’t fix.
A few days later, I was home, healthy, and once again, hopeful.
That was five years ago, and it was not the first time I was misguided by a well-meaning doctor, which brings me to this very important medical conclusion:
I’ve been dreaming about my oncologist. Just knight-in-shining-armour kinds of dreams — you know, where someone sweeps in and saves the day, or in my case, a life.
Note: In stories about medieval times, knights were soldiers who rode on horses and helped women in difficult or dangerous situations.
Anyway, my mind has been a bit wonky ever since my body was blasted by chemo five years ago. The whole head thing is sort of cool, really. Sometimes I think something is going to happen, and then it does. Or I wonder why I haven’t heard from someone in a long time, and then that person magically calls or sends me an e-mail. Or, I dream about something that is so telling. I’m dreaming about my doctor, you see, because I have a check-up with him on Monday, and he’s going to take my blood, check for lumps and bumps and determine if I’m still cancer-free. Big stuff. No wonder he’s hijacking my dreams.
Now maybe this pseudo-psychic stuff is not chemo-connected at all, but I don’t recall things like this happening before poisonous potions spilled through my veins, so I tend to merge the two. Either that, or I can’t remember my mindful skills because chemo is wiping out my memory, one cell at a time.
Whatever the case, I’m having doctor dreams, and while I can’t remember them clearly (aha, the memory theory is looking pretty strong), they are generally positive and happy dreams, and I’m taking that as an indication that so will be his news to me on Monday. He is my knight after all, and I’m counting on him to keep saving me.
Speaking of doctors, mark your calendars, because March 30 is National Doctor’s Day. The red carnation is commonly used as the symbolic flower for this special day, so maybe you should deliver one to your own knight at the end of the month.
Losing track of the hurt of cancer is kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth—yes, it is kind of a blur, even though I remember clearly barking at my husband while in labor with my first child, “Why would anyone do this twice?” Then, I did it again 2 years and 5 months later. Both of my babies were big—like 10 pounds, 9 ounces big and 10 pounds, 2 ounces big—and, strange as it may seem, I sorta cannot recount the discomfort of launching them into the world.
I know, if you are fighting cancer at this very moment, you may think I am crazy, suggesting you will block out of your mind how horrible the disease can be, and I do recognize that some of you may always live with the pain of treatment. But, if you are like me, in some small way, you may just forget. I did, and I know this because yesterday, I sat in a dental chair (after 3 months of complete and utter avoidance), and while getting my first-ever crown, I cried.
A crown. Not surgery to remove a deadly tumor, or poisonous chemo, or skin-scorching radiation. I cried because of the sting caused by a needle used to numb my mouth. Five years after the horrors of cancer, and a shot in the mouth brings me to tears. Clearly, I’ve forgotten.
My past four months of unemployment have been delightfully calm and relaxing, but the time has come, and I’m going back to work. Actually, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be right here in my house, with my favorite laptop, cup of hot green tea, candle burning and fire roaring (well, at least until it warms up a bit — gosh, it’s cold here in Florida).
There’s a special someone all the way across the country to whom I am very grateful for my new job. We’ve worked together before, she knows my scenario (the one where I want a life full of family and void of high stress), and she reached out because she wants to work with me. I am flattered, touched and ready to become an at-home professional again. Note to the person I’m writing about: Thank you.
Monday is the big day. That’s when I’ll start working with SEED.com — SEED assigns, buys and distributes work for all of AOL’s properties, like That’s Fit (where I last worked) and more than 80 of the Web’s most highly-trafficked and respected websites. I’ll be kind of a community builder among the writers and photographers aiming to get published. There’s more to it than that, really, but I won’t bore you with the details.
I will say this: if you are someone who does freelance writing and photo stuff, you should stop by and register.
I’ve long had a love affair with hair. My mom suspected it the moment I got my first Barbie doll and started cutting away, and she was convinced by the time I owned a whole score of dolls, all with the same short styles. My intention was always to make Barbie more beautiful and stylish than ever. How she ended up looking more like Ken, I’m not sure.
I got better at my art as time went on. I mean, I knew a good pony-tail when I saw one, and that’s because I rarely saw one on my own head. My mom just never could get the hair smooth enough and perfect enough, and forget about two matching ponies — the part was forever zig-zaggy, and I always felt lop-sided, with more hair on one side than the other. This motivated me to master my craft, and I practiced on any head of hair I could get my hands on — sister, friends, sister’s friends, friends’ kids — and whenever I got to see my grandma, we practiced the French braid. It became my signature thing, and my best friend Kim always had a beautiful braid or two when she ran up and down the basketball court in high school.
When I was old enough, I enrolled in a high school Cosmetology program, and I spent my junior and senior years prepping to pass the Ohio State Board exam. And I did, which means I got my very own license to do hair. I still have it. It’s not valid in the state of Florida, and I never did keep up with continuing education or anything, and I don’t really broadcast that I have it, because I don’t want to do anyone’s hair anymore (well, except for family, and, of course, French braids for little girls). I just keep it in a drawer by my bedside — right next to my one remaining Barbie doll, whose hair I never did cut. It’s long, blond, curly and just as it should be.
My point in telling you this story: I love hair, especially my own. It’s because I spent a fair amount of time without hair that I adore it so. And on days when I sit in hair salons, looking at every strand that pours from my scalp, I realize just how important hair really is. Look at the industry built around it and the time we spend washing, conditioning, curling, straightening and coloring what we’ve got. Consider the moods that are born of bad-hair days, the celebrities whose hair we copy and the styles that will go down in history (’80s hair, the Mullet, the Mohawk my 9-year-old wants so badly).
OK, so hair is not everything, and if I had to go bald for the rest of my life to ensure I’d never, ever get cancer again, I’m pretty sure I’d do it. Still, I think you know what I mean, and that’s why I share with you my hair (above). I just got it cut today, and, well, I love it.
The 1/2 marathon I’m going to run next Sunday is kind of like me making a statement. And what I’m saying is that I’m really not that wimpy, after all. Yea, I cried whined the other day when a basketball smacked me in the face during a family game of P-I-G, and I always wimper about doing oh, five regular push-ups, but when it comes to the big stuff (like birthing big babies, beating breast cancer and running long distances), I’m kind of tough.
I’m also saying that the body is a miraculous thing. It can get sick, withstand tortuous treatments and somehow rebound into a healthy, fighting machine. I’ll prove it by crossing the finish line after 13.1 miles with the same legs that five years ago were so weak they could barely support me.
These statements aren’t really visible to anyone else, though — just the stuff that motivates me personally.
I will be running with some tangible statements on race day, though, when I sport one blue ribbon, one orange ribbon and one pink ribbon. Here’s what they’ll say: My orange ribbon will say that I’ve donated blood, my blue ribbon will say that I’ve received blood and my pink ribbon, well, who doesn’t know what that says. Pink is not really part of the event, I’m just adding it, but blue and orange are, because the Five Points of Life race I’m doing raises awareness for the five ways to share life with others through the donation of blood, apheresis, marrow, cord blood, organ and tissue.
Just one week until I make all my 1/2 marathon statements. Then I’ll have to decide on something else to shoot for: an injury-free game of hoops, maybe, or a personal push-up challenge.
I don’t worry only about breast cancer. I’m a little freaked about skin cancer, too. It’s because I spent far to many hours seeking sun in my younger years, and I am painfully aware of the side effects of such behavior. I’ve had several pre-cancerous lesions cut and frozen off my fair skin, I have a one-and-a-half-inch scar where a basal cell cancer was removed a year ago, and just today, my dermatologist shaved off a bit of a mole she didn’t like — it was an odd color, different from the others on my body, she said.
A piece of my mole is on its way to a lab somewhere, and in about a week, I’ll know if it’s cancer or not. If it is, it’s likely one that is common and can be cut out without any serious health consequences. But in the back of my mind, there’s this little twinge of fear that melanoma is in my future. Melanoma is the deadly kind of skin cancer, and it’s real, folks. Just ask Miss Melanoma — she lost a toe, part of her foot, and all 16 lymph nodes from her groin to the disease. And if you don’t think it’s serious stuff, listen to Claire Oliver in the video below.
See why I’m scared? If you are, too, the best thing you can do is cease all tanning, and get yourself to a dermatologist every year for a thorough once-over. That’s how my funky mole was discovered. It wasn’t even on my radar. Ah, and don’t forget your sunscreen.
So, I’ve been training for a marathon (training: I love that word — sounds so athletic, which I am totally not), and it’s been going really well. Oh, except that I’m hungry all. the. time. which means I’m eating all. the. time. which means my number on the scale is not exactly what I want it to be. But hey, it’s temporary. Once I cross the finish line, I can back off on the hard-core stuff and get back to modest exercise and moderate eating.
Anyway, the actual running has been great, and I know I can conquer all 13.1 miles on February 14, because this past Sunday, I ran 12. And that leaves just 1.1 to accomplish, and I’m pretty sure I can drag my tired old body that distance to finish the race — well, barring any injuries, that is, which is why I’m writing this update.
Today, 4 miles was my goal. But not long after I started pounding the pavement, something like an ache or a pain twinged in my foot, and it wouldn’t go away. I mean, it did go away for a minute or two, but then it resurfaced, and there was just no way I could put running pressure on it. So I walked, and even that wasn’t pretty — it was all limpy and wimpy, and boy am I bummed. This is the first time I have not complied with the training schedule. Just a blip on the screen, I suppose, so I will take it easy today, and I’ll get back out there tomorrow, because I’ve got 5 miles of ground to cover, and I really, really want to run the whole distance.
I really, really want to stop inhaling food, too, so let’s just hope all my dreams come true, OK?
I like to chart my progress after cancer by my kids’ birthdays. Take Joey, for example. Today, he turns 9. Significant for him, because he gets a party (it was yesterday, check it out) and presents, plus he’s one year closer to scoring that F350 he wants so badly. A big deal for me, too, because the guy was not even 4 years old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, and his turning 9 is proof that I am still kickin’ — and thank goodness for that, because there were some pretty dark days way back then, and I was not always convinced I’d see my babies grow up.
Yep, January 3 is a big day. So is May 30 — that’s when Danny turns 7, and he was only 18 months old when I found that dreaded lump in my left breast in the shower in 2004. But there are reasons other than cancer that this special day is worthy of mention. Here’s my favorite:
Joey made a grand entrance into the world on this very day, weighing 10 pounds, 9 ounces and filling his nursery bassinet like a champ. His pediatrician, upon meeting him for the first time, said to me, “Congrats, you just gave birth to a 2-month-old.” If I had to rank all of my life accomplishments, pushing a monster child out of my body comes pretty close to the top. And to now witness the wonder of my 4-foot, 8-inch, 90-pound son is a true pleasure. (Incidentally, Danny was no small potatoes when he arrived either — 10 pounds, 2 ounces — but I’ll talk more about him in May.)
So, here’s to being alive to enjoy another one of Joey’s birthdays. And here’s to Joey, who keeps growing and growing and is becoming one heck of a great guy.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got drugs stored away in a cupboard somewhere — not elicit drugs or anything, I mean prescription medications meant for you and only you. Stuff you’re saving, not because you want to use it later down the line, but because you’re too lazy to trash the stuff that is no longer necessary or even effective. Well, if you need a New Year’s resolution, and you’re not choosing the one most Americans make year after year (lose weight and get in shape!), then may I suggest you clean out your cabinets, ditch the drugs you no longer need and start 2010 with a medicine makeover.
I purged a bunch of my pills, syrups and such not long ago, because why in the world do I need the anti-nausea Zofran almost five years after I used it for my chemo tummy and numbing cream when my port is long gone? Years over-expired, I threw them away, along with all sorts of pills and potions I can barely remember taking. If you’re ready to do the same, here are four tips from Ladies’ Home Journal (December 09/January 10) and Dr. Angela Gardner, president of the American College of Emergency Physicians, for getting rid of the old — which you should really do once per year, you know? Yea, I didn’t know either.
Empty everything from your cabinet, cupboard, basket, wherever you’re stock piling, and place everything on a counter so you can start sorting.
Toss anything that has expired. But don’t dump it down the toilet. Instead, crush your pills and dilute your liquids, then place them in a sealed plastic bag along with some coffee grounds or kitty litter so kids and pets won’t be tempted to eat them (well, we hope not, anyway). Put the plastic bag out with the trash.
Don’t keep your meds in the bathroom — it’s the worst place, because the heat and humidity can cause drugs to lose their potency. Opt for a childproof box and hide away in a dark, dry place, like a closet.
Replenish your essentials often — like bandages, gauze, tape, antibiotic ointment, antiseptic wipes and more.
I asked my mom for note paper this Christmas. Just something simple for jotting down all the stuff I’m always scribbling (lists are my life, they’re the only way I stay sane). And like always, my sweet momma delivered. She didn’t just grab a few boring pads of paper, though. Nope. She found the inspirational stuff that makes me motivated to live like it matters — you know, to be a good mom and wife, help others, run a half marathon, eat healthy (after the holidays, I promise!), take risks, kick cancer’s butt, that kind of stuff.
And here sits my stack of stationery, right next to me on my desk, reminding me to hope, dare and dream. Oh, and she threw in a cute pad with apples on it (another reminder I need to get a grip on my nutritious ways, maybe?), and two pretty personalized pads, too.
I got a lot of great gear for Christmas this year — a hot pink sports bra and running shorts for those 13.1 miles, yummy body lotions, delicious candles, a trendy little vest for chilly Florida days, a mom-made scarf and more. The paper: A definite favorite.
Thanks, mom, for everything — you know me so well.
I do have my breast. And I have a fairly good prognosis. My lump was removed and measured 1.1 cm, which is small. My lymph nodes were negative for cancer, although four were removed for biopsy purposes. My margins were clear, and there was no apparent spread of cancer. My cancer is considered stage 1. And that is good. I have two incisions, one in my armpit where lymph nodes were taken and one underneath it, on the side of my breast. They are both about 3.5 inches long. Besides a bad skin reaction to the tape I was bandaged with, everything went well. There are minor inconveniences right now. As my incisions heal and my skin tightens, it’s harder to lift my arm. So I have exercises I must do each day. Because of the missing lymph nodes, I may have trouble with swelling in my arm so I have to watch for that. I have not been able to shave my armpit since my surgery on December 3.
And now I await the next step in this battle. I will begin receiving chemotherapy in mid-January. This will last for three months. I will go for treatment four times, once every three weeks and will have a combination of drugs sent through my body via IV. The purpose of chemo is to kill rapidly growing cells, and cancer cells are rapidly growing. Unfortunately, all rapidly growing cells are killed, like hair cells and bone marrow cells. The chemo should kill any cancer cells that floated away from my breast, if any did. I don’t know how I will react to this process, as each person responds differently. At the very least, I hear I will be tired at times during each three-week time frame. I may also be tired from the radiation. This will begin three weeks after chemo ends. NOTE: It didn’t happen exactly like that: Instead of receiving chemo every three weeks, I had it every two weeks — it’s called dose-dense chemo, and if the patient can tolerate it, it’s thought to be more effective. Did I tolerate it? Well, I survived, but I was hospitalized twice because it was so hard on my body.
I will receive radiation every day for 6 weeks. The purpose of radiation is to zap the actual area where the cancer was found to prevent it from recurring. Many women take a drug after chemo and radiation to prevent recurrences. The drug (usually tamoxifen) is taken for five years. My body will not respond to this type of drug due to negative estrogen receptors (if they are positive, the drug can be taken) so chemo and radiation will be my only two real treatments. NOTE: Radiation went just fine. It was a breeze compared to chemo, and my skin didn’t burn too badly. The biggest hassle was the drive to and from the appointments. And while it’s not such a big deal, my left arm has limited range of motion due to the combo of surgery, scar tissue and radiation. See photo above — my right arm touches the ground, but my left arm won’t.
For now, I am trying to keep life simple. Joey and Danny help me do that. Joey knows I am frequently going to the doctor for a “boo-boo” I had in my “booby” and he has been very attentive. One day after a doctor appointment, he said, “Mommy, you need to go home and rest. I’ll bring you a banana.” He is almost four years old. Danny, at 19 months, does not seem to know anything is going on and it’s my hope that he never has any recollection of this path our lives are taking. I will never forget it, though, and that’s OK. I will take this experience and make it matter. A friend sent me a breast cancer bracelet inscribed with trust your journey. I do. I trust that I will be fine in the end. And I trust that I was given this fight so I can help others. That is why I have written this. I hope everyone who reads about my journey is affected in some way. Perhaps it will increase the amount of women who do self-exams. Maybe it will arm others with information to help loved ones who are affected by this common disease (about 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer at some time in their lives). Maybe it will spread hope. At the very least, writing helps me. And for now, that is enough. NOTE: Writing still helps, five years later.
I love Christmas. Really, I do. I mean, I’ve strung white snowflake twinkly lights and red bows on the front of our house and fashioned a pretty festive tree in our living room. Santas, stockings, a light-up little holiday house and all sorts of seasonal trinkets are scattered here, there and everywhere. My gifts are bought (and wrapped) and I’m even planning to donate blankets to a homeless shelter this year. What I won’t be doing this fine December: Mailing out holiday cards. I know I’ve done it for something like eight years, and yes, it’s kind of a tradition and all, but I’m opting out this time around. For those of you who are crushed that you won’t be receiving a glossy update of Joey and Danny, I apologize, and I offer you this digital version of my 2009 guys. Want more? There’s plenty of family moments captured on this blog (and this one, too).
Go ahead, call me lame, cheap, bah humbug, whatever. Just don’t call me a party pooper, because I really do wish you the grandest holiday ever. I’m just not dumping a lot of cash into prints, envelopes and stamps (I’m unemployed, remember!) so that the majority of you can toss the greeting in the trash (come on, you know you do!). I’m also not wrangling my kiddos into the perfect pose (this one took one point and click) and spending hours prepping a mass mailing. I’m just not. And I’m totally OK with it — I don’t actually feel like a slacker at all, which is quite an accomplishment for a Type A girl.
If you’re not convinced this is the way to spread cheer, think about it this way: No clutter on your kitchen counter, and you can come back and look at this pic whenever you want. Well, that’s my take on it, anyway.
Oh, and how can you not like the sight of two patriotic boys who proudly sport their Marine shirts whenever they get the chance?
You might think I’d celebrate my 5-year cancerversary by going out to dinner. Nope. Buying myself something fun? No. Indulging in a massage or pedicure? Well, the pedicure I’ll probably do, because my sweet sister bought me a gift certificate for one, but mostly, I won’t be splurging on anything in the spirit of survival. Instead, I’m signing up for a 1/2 marathon. And I plan to run. the. whole. thing.
The final four on “The Biggest Loser” Tuesday night convinced me I could do it. They ran a full 26.2 miles, but I’m starting small. I really haven’t ever run more than five miles at one time, so I’m putting myself on a 10-week training schedule in order to work up to the feat. It all started today with a three-mile run. Saturday is four. There will be some rest drizzled in, some strength stuff, and then on Sunday, February 14, I’ll hopefully crank out 13.1 miles for Five Points of Life.
Here’s the scoop: Five Points of Life raises awareness for the five ways to share life with others through the donation of blood, apheresis, marrow, cord blood, organ and tissue. Then there’s the exercise component — setting a goal of running or walking a marathon is a great way to commit to a fitness plan that can make a permanent difference in someone’s health and life.
This is perfect for me, because (1) I am a recipient of blood donation — when chemo knocked me on my butt and landed me in the hospital, two units of someone’s blood perked me right up. (2) I’ve also donated. It wasn’t pretty, but I did it — I got all dizzy, had to be carted off on a red chair and was fed cookies and juice until I revived. But hey, someone got my blood, and maybe a life was saved. (3) I’m all about being fit, since I’m pretty sure it might be my key to living a long life, and I figure this training thing will keep me motivated to stay in shape.
OK, so this personal challenge might not be all roses and sunshine. Thirteen miles is, yes, a lot of miles. Training could take a lot of time (which I happen to have, thanks to my no-job scenario), it could be really tiring, I’m going to have to tweak my diet so I’m getting the proper fuel, and I’m not really looking forward to the strength training thing — I just don’t love it. Still, I’m inspired.
So, I guess today is officially my 5-year cancerversary. For most of the years, I’ve been calling November 24 the big day, because that’s when my diagnosis came screaming through the telephone.
But many people use the date the cancer was removed — December 3 for me.
It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. I mean, if we’re talking “surviving” cancer, I tend to think it starts the day one learns of the invasion. November 24. But December 3 works, too.
Maybe I’ll celebrate on both days. While I’m at it, I might just add the anniversary of my first chemo infusion, radiation session and Herceptin treatment. I’ll rejoice on the date I starting losing my hair, the day I spotted it growing back and that magical moment when my port was removed for good. Hey, I’ll just make life one big celebration — as it should be, right?
On Thursday, December 2, I had a radioactive dye injected into my breast. The dye slowly collected in my main lymph node, the sentinel node. During surgery, this lymph node would be blue so the doctor could easily find it and biopsy it. The biopsy would give him clues about my other lymph nodes. For the rest of this day, I was very anxious about surgery. I didn’t know what kind of prognosis I would wake up to hear and whether or not I would still have my breast.
On November 29, I met with a surgeon at Shands who prepared me for my first step: surgery. He said he would remove the lump and would determine whether or not my lymph nodes were cancerous. He would check all the margins around my breast to see if any surrounding tissue was affected and would identify all the defining factors of my cancer. If he found extensive cancer, he would have to remove my breast. I had to sign a form stating that my surgery was to be a lumpectomy but could turn into a mastectomy. My surgery was scheduled for Friday of this same week.
My phone rang at 10:00 a.m., and the doctor who did the biopsy said the pathology report was back already. He said that unfortunately, cancer cells were found. He said I would need a lumpectomy (surgery to remove the lump), radiation, and possibly chemotherapy. He told me to buy a book called Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book. I got the book that day.
Somehow, I made it though the Thanksgiving weekend, with my thoughts jumping from the hope that this would turn out OK to the fear that I would not see my boys grow up. My mind wandered and worried about surgery and what treatments I would have. I wondered if I could have more kids and whether or not I would lose my hair. I cried and lost sleep and was hopeful, too.
I learned a lot from reading my new book. I learned that many women do go on to have kids after cancer, but I also learned that chemotherapy in young women could cause early menopause. I learned that I have an 85 percent survival rate, and also that I will get tiny little tattoos surrounding my breast to aid in the proper delivery of radiation. These permanent tattoos will also alert any future doctors that my breast has had radiation because I can never have it again in that same area. The book helped me feel positive about this journey, but it also helped me face reality.
Note: My survival rate turned out to be more like 93 percent for five years. And here I am — at five years.
On November 23, I had a biopsy. A large needle was placed in my breast and a piece of the lump was pulled out. The surgeon had a hard time getting a piece, however, because it moved around so much. He said this was a good sign, the movement. He sent the tissue to pathology and told me to call his office the next afternoon for the results.