Extreme Makeover: Medicine Cabinet Edition

plasticrevolver, Flickr
plasticrevolver, Flickr

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.

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Hope, Dare, Dream

note-paper-200jd122509
Thanks, Mom!

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.

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Flashback: December 24, 2004

Side effect of radiation: limited range of motion in my left arm
Side effect of cancer treatment: limited range of motion in my left arm

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.

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Prevent Cancer by Kicking Butts

isabel bloedwater, Flickr
isabel bloedwater, Flickr

As you may have noticed, it seems like just about everyone is getting breast cancer nowadays, which makes it critical that we do every itty, bitty thing we can in the spirit of prevention — like quitting smoking, even if it’s just an occasional habit.

According to the Breast Journal, women who smoke 100 or more cigarettes in a lifetime increase their odds of getting breast cancer by 25 percent. So, kick those butts, and make sure all the young women in your life know why it’s so important they never start puffing away.

Oh, and while you work at ditching the smokes, you might want to shed a few pounds and start working up a sweat, because getting fit and  slimming down can cut your cancer risk, too. Hey, no one said being healthy was easy, right?

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Wishing You Well

SuperFantastic, Flickr
SuperFantastic, Flickr

Sending out some well wishes to a few friends — Carmen, who, on her second run with breast cancer, is recovering from tram flap surgery. And Lynea, she’s navigating the murky waters that come flooding in after a new breast cancer diagnosis. Also, Stacie, sporting a newly-shaved head as she fights her way through the burden of chemotherapy. Genne, too. She is healing from a mastectomy and reconstruction, and the whole ordeal has challenged her to the core.

If you are somewhere along the path of cancer survival and would like a wish sent your way, please leave a comment and tell me what’s going on in your world.

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New Cancer Drug Shrinks Tumors

annnie, Flickr
annnie, Flickr

Gotta love a new breast cancer breakthrough. This one just in: “A new targeted cancer drug has been shown to shrink tumors in women with metastatic breast cancer after an average of seven other drugs, including Herceptin, failed,” says Charlene Laino for WebMD.

The new drug is called T-DM1. The T stands for trastuzumab (that’s scientific for Herceptin), and the DM1 comes from an old chemotherapy drug called maytansine that was abandoned several decades ago after it was found to be too toxic for patients, according to Dr. Ian Krop of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Well, isn’t it still too toxic? Nope, because Herceptin only zeroes in on cancer cells that express HER2, says Krop, and DM1 is delivered only to those cells. “The cytotoxic drug goes right to the cancer cells, so it’s not floating around and causing other problems,” he says.  “And Herceptin still does all the things that Herceptin does.”

Herceptin is a drug used to fight HER2-positive cancers — tumors that have too much of a type of protein called HER2. Herceptin, a man-made antibody, binds to and blocks the HER2 receptor that appears on the surface of some breast cancer cells. It was one of my drugs, and it seems to be working — I’m alive five years after my diagnosis. But metastatic breast cancer (the kind that has spread to other organs) can become resistant to Herceptin, which is why researchers have been searching for new drugs to attack HER2.

With this new drug, tumors shrank in one-third of women studied (they all had breast tumors for an average of three years). In another 12 percent, tumors stopped growing for at least six months. The women had previously been treated with therapies including Herceptin, Tykerb and Xeloda, and each had failed.

“This is the first study looking at women who have failed so many other treatments,” reports Krop. He thinks the results (presented at the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium December 9-13) are as good as he’s ever seen in such a sick population. And researchers expect T-DM1 will perform even better in women with earlier-stage cancer.

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Famous People Fighting Cancer

Actresses Kathryn Joosten, Dana Delaney and Heather Tom / Photo: En Vacances, Flickr
Kathryn Joosten, Dana Delany and Heather Tom / En Vacances, Flickr

One quick spin through the online pages of PEOPLE magazine, and I turned up a whole bunch of celebrity cancer news. I guess I’ve been letting famous folks fall of my radar (I do love a little Hollywood gossip), because I had no idea that Bryant Gumbel is being treated for a malignant tumor in his lung or that Kareen Abdul-Jabbar has leukemia. Then there’s musical superstar Andrew Lloyd Webber — he’s got prostate cancer, “Desperate Housewives” actress Kathryn Joosten is fighting lung cancer, and Melissa Etheridge is in the news, too — she’s speaking up about the mammogram controversy. “Survivor” alum Ethan Zohn has good news about his cancer, and holy cow, where I have been that I didn’t catch that famous journalist Leroy Sievers died of cancer in August 2008? I followed Siever’s NPR blog posts faithfully when I myself was fighting cancer. But then I got better, and, well, I got busy with more than just following who had the disease and how each person was faring.

With every passing day, I’m losing track of cancer (and celebrities, too, apparently), which just fine by me. I mean, while I still plan to keep educated on the breaking cancer news of world, I tend to think my time is best spent on other things — like, braving boys!

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Happy Holidays!

Happy Holidays 2009!
Happy Holidays 2009!

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?

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5 Years and a 1/2 Marathon

Not me, or my shoes. But a cool pic, I think / Photo: Perfecto Insecto, Flickr
Not me. Or my shoes. Just a cool pic / Photo: Perfecto Insecto, Flickr

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’m signing up.

Right now.

Before I chicken out.

I’ll be right back.

Done. I’m registered. I admit: It was hard to push that submit button (especially after realizing that it will likely take me hours to run this event), but it’s a done deal now.

I’m off and running.

Updates to follow.

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Officially 5 Years

Photo:  AndrewEick, Flickr
Photo: AndrewEick, Flickr

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?

The party starts now.

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Flashback: December 2, 2004

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.

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Flashback: November 29, 2004

SarahMcD ?, Flickr
SarahMcD ?, Flickr

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.

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Live Like We’re Dying

Remember last season’s “American Idol” winner Kris Allen? Here’s his new song, “Live Like We’re Dying.” According to Austin360.com, Allen’s self-titled album, where this single lives, gets a D+. Says blogger Patrick Caldwell, it’s “precisely the sort of pop confectionery you’d expect from a carefully groomed would-be star, a generic outing that’s all soaring harmonies, inoffensive guitar and utter lack of soul.” About the single that kicks off the album, he says, “with cliche lyrics that — aside from, um, urging you to live like you’re dying — elect to go as broad as possible, lest any listener be alienated by an actual glimmer of personality.”

Call me sappy and cliche, but I, um, kinda like the song, even though the title is a little too much like this one.

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Beautifully Benign

matze_ott, Flickr
matze_ott, Flickr

Five years ago, on November 24, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. And today, on another November 24, I learned that my recent MRI, showing some suspicious little nodules, is nothing to worry about. The news comes from my surgeon, who offered me a second opinion. The first opinion, by the way, was that I probably had nothing to worry about, but now it’s official:

“Your MRI is fine, the small spots represent fibrocystic disease, a benign condition.”

Whew!


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Flashback: November 24, 2004

 alanclarkdesign, Flickr
alanclarkdesign, Flickr

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.

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Flashback: November 23, 2004

Brittany G, Flickr
Brittany G, Flickr

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.

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Turn on the Boob Tube This Thanksgiving

kaleidoscope-400jd112209
womens.cancerinformation.com

Got a Thanksgiving TV tip for you, because, admit it — you know you’ll be curled up on the couch or stretched out on the recliner after your Turkey Day feast! Might as well grab the remote and tune into a special called “Kaleidoscope: A Celebration of Survivorship through Sport and Song.”

Why?

One out of every three women in the United States will develop some form of cancer in her lifetime — yikes! — and this program should very well open your eyes to the female fight against the disease.

Sponsored by sanofi-aventis, this heartwarming show will feature ice skating, music and celebrity cancer survivors. It all happens on November 26, 2009 on the Fox-TV network. Check your local listings for time (looks like it’s on at 4 p.m. in Florida).

For more information, please visit womens.cancerinformation.com. And if you want a cool and inspiring something to send to a friend, check out these free kaleidoscope e-cards you can craft all on your own. That’s mine pictured above.

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For Kelly

kelly-175jd110809
Kelly

This is my cousin Kelly. She was 5 years old here, and she died just three weeks before her 8th birthday. This month marks 30 years since her passing from leukemia, and that means had she survived her disease, she would have been almost 38 years old.

Nowadays, many kids survive cancer. According to St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital,  just 4 percent of children survived acute lymphoblastic leukemia (cancer of the blood) in 1962. Today, about 94 percent conquer the disease. That’s a pretty impressive improvement — I just wish Kelly, who was diagnosed at 14 months, could have benefited from the better statistic. But she didn’t, because she fought cancer in the 1970s. And that’s just plain crappy.

So, I write this post to honor Kelly who, sadly, didn’t get a fair shot at life. Those almost-eight years sure were cherished, though. Says her brave and strong mom of the time they spent together: “I am so grateful to have had those years with her. She will live in my heart forever.”

I honor you, too, Sandy, and all the moms and dads who have loved and lost (you know who you are). I’m not sure how you go on after such tragedies, but I admire you completely for so gracefully doing it.

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