She Is the Toughest, Bravest Cancer Girl I Know

My cancer is gone, and it’s likely not coming back. Angi’s cancer did come back — she has been diagnosed three times — and while I celebrate my survival from a really sucky disease, I never lose sight of the fact that some women, like Angi, are never free of the ravages of breast cancer. Some live their entire lives in treatment; some die much too soon because treatment doesn’t work. Sadly, it seems that Angi, whose battle has been raging since 2005, is nearing the end of her life. This morning, her husband wrote:

This is not Angi it is her husband. There is no easy way to tell you all this so ill just spill it. Angi is not well. She is no longer able to communicate in any way to anyone. We are weeks if not days away from her end of life. This took a nasty and fast turn the last three days. She is under hospice care and we are currently trying to manage her pain and give her comfort. Thank you in advance for your thoughts and prayers. Feel free to reach me if you feel the need to just know I am overwhelmed at the moment. Ruben Navarro

Angi is 38 years old. She has a 13-year-old daughter. She is the toughest, bravest cancer girl I know.

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Paleo Passes (My) Test of Time and Taste

Over the course of a few days this week, my husband and I helped our sixth-grader study for his World Cultures semester exam, which I would have surely bombed because, while I love learning about history, I have a heck of a time keeping straight in my brain all of the names, dates, places, and key points about so many competing topics. (Note to Joey: I do hope you did not inherit my test-taking mediocrity, and if you did, then may I suggest you become good friends with extra credit.)

It took some pretty savvy study smarts from the dad in the family to help Joey spit out the goods on civilization and culture, early humans, Ancient Mesopotamia, Ancient Egypt, Ancient Israelites, and Ancient Greece. I did come in handy for one bit of content, though, and I hope that when Joey was faced yesterday with paper and pencil and bunches of multiple choice questions that my 60 days of eating like a caveman triggered everything he needed to know about the Paleolithic people.

What Joey needed to know is that the Paleo folks were hunters and gatherers; they ate only what they could, well, hunt or gather. There was just one real mission during those long-ago days — to search for the next meal in the spirit of survival. Then came the Neolithic Age, characterized by the shift to farming, which made life much easier. Food was more of a sure thing; survival was not so elusive. Ever heard of the Agricultural Revolution? This was it. Farming changed they way people lived. (Joey needed to know this, too.)

Then, a whole bunch of years passed by, and here we are today, in a society that dishes out over-sized plates of fried, fatty, processed foods to a population of overweight and unhealthy adults and childen who just might benefit from heading back to simpler times. Or would they?

U.S. News Health, in consultation with a panel of diet and nutrition experts, scrutinized 29 different diets, my own Paleo plan included. The pros ranked each diet according to how easy it is to follow, its ability to produce short-term and long-term weight loss, its nutritional completeness, its safety, and its potential for preventing and managing diabetes and heart disease. The goal was to identify the best approaches to eating, and Weight Watchers, the Biggest Loser diet, the TLC diet, and the DASH diet all came out on top across several categories. The diet gurus gave Paleo a few compliments — it’s low in sodium and high in protein, for example — but overall, Paleo didn’t make the cut. Noted flaws were (a) weight loss is not a sure thing, and one small study showed a maybe loss of about 5 pounds over 3 weeks; (b) heart benefits are unknown, and it’s not clear whether Paleo can prevent diabetes; (c) shunning grains and dairy can minimize nutrient intake; (d) the diet can be pricey; and (e) it’s just plain hard to follow due to the total ditching of major food groups.

In a nutshell (nuts are Paleo-approved, by the way, but not peanuts because they are not actually nuts), I am not swayed by this diet round-up. I’m sticking with my primal ways because I feel better overall eating only lean meats, veggies, fruits, nuts, and seeds (oh, and eggs, too). I have lost roughly 7 pounds in 2 months (that was not my goal, just a perk), I’m taking a few supplements, I’m not spending too much, I love that my body is clean and free of junk, and I personally don’t find the plan too hard to follow. Granted, I have medical reasons — tummy troubles and the endless pursuit of cancer prevention — to embrace the strictness, and I am the first to admit that this could be a rough road for someone pursuing Paleo just for the fun of it. For me, though, it’s a fit. Simpler times seem to suit me just fine, and I am confident I am healthier due to my hunter-gatherer food choices.

Have you tried any of these 29 diets? Got a favorite?

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The Last Word

I had the last word today during a visit with 20-some University of Florida medical school applicants. They were gathered on campus to complete a day-long interview process, structured to give them a glimpse of a day in the life of a med student, and on the agenda was me — a real, live patient.

I told my 8-year-long story from beginning to end in about 20 minutes (whew!) in a freezing-cold room in the basement of Shands Hospital (I was actually shivering at times), and my favorite oncologist, who serves as the assistant dean for the College of Medicine Admissions, said it went very well. I think it did, too.

It was my job to deliver the last word to the folks sitting with me in a circle formation, the individuals who will likely one day be charged with the responsibility of delivering health care to sick people. “Practice medicine with sensitivity,” I told them. “Even if you must fake it,” I said, “show some compassion because it can make a huge difference.”

Then, I read from a hand-written note that was mailed to me by the surgeon who performed the needle biopsy on my suspicious left-breast mass. He’s the one who called me at home the day before Thanksgiving 2004 to inform me that “unfortunately, cancer cells were found.” His note read:

Dear Jacki,

Just a brief note to let you know that I regret being the messenger of bad news, but know that you will come through this difficult time healthy & strong. I & my staff wish for you a smooth & speedy recovery.

Dr. Mac

That note mattered. It made me feel less like a statistic and more like a cared-for individual. That note still matters; that’s why I keep it at close reach, so I can forever remember that there are doctors who really do care.

Sensitivity.

That was my last word.

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I’m Perfect — At Not Being Perfect

My mom recalls with such clarity my elementary school teachers sharing with her how one itty-bitty mistake in my universe sent me into an I-must-start-over-again tailspin. Imperfect handwriting was not OK, coloring outside the lines was not good enough, and if my ponytails and braids were lopsided, I was inconsolable. Perfection is what I sought. Always.

Danny is nothing like me—when he showed me how he accidentally smeared the marker drawing on the cover of his fourth-grade writer’s journal, he said, “I’m just pretending that it’s water dripping down the front.” What a healthy response to a minor error. What did I see when I spotted the goof, which was topped with bubbled-up sticky laminating wrap? I saw imperfection. I wanted to re-do that project. And fast. But I didn’t. It wasn’t my problem to fix. It wasn’t a problem at all, in fact.

Perfectionism is not all bad. I suspect it’s the character trait that allows me to stick with exercise routines, clean diets, organized schedules, and healthy routines. It’s not all good, either, though, and honestly, I know deep down that it’s mostly detrimental to my well-being. I’ve long been aware of this, and through cancer-related therapy and anti-depressant treatment, I achieved some success curbing my pursuit of all-the-time greatness.

Then I became an editor.

What was I thinking?

Writer and editor Laura Hale Brockway says, “As an editor, the kick in the head is that no matter how hard I try—proofreading backward and forward, fact checking, checking sources, etc.—simple, preventable errors still occur.”

I know. I know. And it’s killing me.

I chose a career I love—one that kinda, sorta, pretty much requires perfection. Clients hire me to fix what they’ve missed. If I don’t catch their flubs, then I’m not really doing my job. Or so goes the story in my head.

What I must learn is that I am doing my job. And I’m good at it. I’ve been told by those who pay me to proofread that I’ve exceeded their expectations, I’ve helped them score good grades, I’ve taught them so much about the written word. Still, that missing comma or extra quotation mark, discovered long after I’ve delivered a project back to its owner, haunts me.

Perfect is an impossible goal. I am human, and humans make mistakes; therefore, I am set up to fail with every task I tackle. Sure, there may be times when I achieve 100%, but can I keep up that gig for all of time? Not a chance.

Brockway cites Joseph T. Hallinan, author of the book “Why We Make Mistakes,” who reports that humans have design flaws that set us up for mistakes. We are efficient, but also error prone. We are just wired that way, and the sooner I get over my hang-ups about getting everything right all the time, the smoother I will sail through life. Am I capable of such an undertaking? I’m really not sure.

According to the experts at the University Of Illinois At Urbana-Champaign’s Counseling Center, I should experiment with my standards for success. “Choose any activity and instead of aiming for 100 percent, try for 90 percent, 80 percent, or even 60 percent success,” they say. “This will help you to realize that the world does not end when you are not perfect.”

Yea, I realize the world will not come to a screeching halt just because I stumble when I intend to soar. My concern is that maybe editing is not what I should be doing in this world. The pressure to perform at such a high standard is just so consuming.

I don’t intend to make any big career moves at this very moment. I’m just soul searching, trying to find peace in my body so that I can enjoy more happy and less haunt.

And you do know that I’ve proofed this story about a zillion times in hopes of catching all of my blunders, right? Did I leave some behind? I’m sure I did. But I’m moving on. Really, I am.

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Give the Gift of Comfort

I know you’re probably consumed with holiday gift buying right now — I know my head is still whirling from all the madness surrounding Black Friday (no, I didn’t shop on that day) and Cyber Monday (I did order a pair of discounted running shoes) — but if you can take just a teeny tiny moment (3.5 minutes, actually) to watch this video, I think you’ll discover the true meaning of giving.

Giving Comfort welcomes donations for comfort kits that are given to cancer patients in need (donate now!). You can also purchase kits for our own friends and family members (purchase now!). I can’t tell you how many times people have asked me, “What do I get my friend who has just been diagnosed with cancer?” I usually point to books, candles, and comfy socks (these were my favorite goodies). I’m adding comfort kits to my list of suggestions. Starting now.

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Today, It Happened (Well, 8 Years Ago Today)

It wouldn’t be a proper day before Thanksgiving without mentioning that 8 years ago at almost this exact time, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember where I was standing when the phone call came in (in the kitchen, leaning on the counter), what I was wearing (a white, long-sleeve shirt and shorts), what I was doing prior to the dreaded announcement (managing the chaos of my little boys and a baby girl whose mom was busy at work), whom I called immediately after the devastation (John, who was at work, then my mom, who came rushing to my house), and the numbness turned terror that consumed my entire holiday weekend. Man, that was horrible. And while I can’t say that the days that followed got a whole lot better — cancer delivers some pretty crappy moments — life did turn around, and while I was not very thankful on that pre-Turkey-day 2004, I am way grateful on this 2012 Wednesday for the mere fact that I am alive and that these baby boys (ages 3 and 18 months in the photo) are now 11 and 9.

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Healing My Body One Bite at a Time

My tummy is troubled. Not always. But when it’s all out of whack, I feel bloated, tight, pained, and uncomfortable. I’ve had so many tests, I can’t even name them all, and nothing (nothing!) has revealed itself as the problem. I have narrowed down my suspicions, though, and I keep coming back to the worry that something I’m eating is screwing up my insides. That’s why I’ve decided to take matters into my own hands and heal my body one bite at a time.

For almost one week, I have eaten a Paleolithic (Paleo) diet  — basically, I am mimicking the eating habits of our long-ago ancestors who ate only what they could hunt and gather. My diet, therefore, consists of animal protein (but no red meat for me), vegetables, fruits, and naturally-occurring, high-quality fats (like some, but not all, nuts). The purpose of eating primal is to decrease inflammation inside the body and to achieve a higher level of physical and mental health. Buying grass-fed meats and organic foods is the best way to accomplish this way of life, and while I am not totally there just yet, I’m doing my very best to follow the rules. The proof is in my gas bill — I have trekked to grocery stores and markets every day this week chasing down products that fit the bill — and in the new items that now line the shelves of my fridge and pantry. Paleo Bread is today’s score.

The bread I am accustomed to eating is not on the Paleo list. But this way-expensive, gluten-free, grain-free, yeast-free, dairy-free, soy-free, starch-free option, made by Julian Bakery and available at my local D’lites Emporium, is approved. It’s made with coconut (there’s an almond option, too) and is low in calories, low in carbs, high in protein, and high in fiber. It’s also not quite as tasty as real bread — the kind I once slathered with honey butter at the Outback and dipped in oils at Macaroni Grill. I did yummy up my new purchase with a bit of almond butter and sliced red grapes, and I think I’ll be fine with this mini treat, even though the bread slices are really small and really thin, and they don’t toast very well.

I am not sure whether I’ll be a loyal fan of this bread. (To its credit, it is very filling.) Honestly, I’m not certain where this Paleo journey will lead me. All I know is that I am taking this quest one day — and one bite — at a time.

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Colonoscopy — Normal

Yesterday, I had my first colonoscopy. The test was ordered to rule out malignancy as a cause of my recent tummy troubles. My GI doc was pretty sure cancer was not a culprit, but she wanted to cover all the bases given my history. And now I know — no colon cancer.

Something else I know — the test itself is a breeze; the prep, which includes near starvation for more than a day and the guzzling of a thick, laxative-type drink that can induce vomiting (in my case, anyway), is not so fun.

The good news, besides the no-cancer result, is that I won’t have another colonoscopy for 10 years (whew!). The bad news is that I still don’t know what’s wrong with my insides. My self-diagnosis, in the absence of answers from all my tests is either (a) something food-related, (b) something chemo-drug-related, (c) something scar-tissue-related due to past abdominal surgery, or (d) something pelvic-floor-related due to problems that have already been diagnosed.

Nothing like narrowing down the problem, right?

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Raw October — Day 31 (October Wrap-Up)

Raw October: raising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

Every October, I receive emails from marketing people trying to push their pink products. “Please help us promote our pink this and our pink that, and we’ll give you a pink this and a pink that as a token of thanks,” say the folks who promise to give a percentage of proceeds to the breast cancer cause. Maybe they do donate money to research; maybe they don’t. I have no way of telling, really, but I do know that the percentage is usually not enough to make a huge difference, and it’s always capped at some strategic amount. Plus, I’m almost certain the companies stand to make a pretty profit for their pink projects. Sometimes, they even peddle pink items that are not all that healthy for women trying to prevent or beat breast cancer (think alcohol and fried chicken).

This year, I declined all pink offers, and I devoted each October day to something breast-cancer real and breast-cancer raw. I shared sobering statisticsfantastic cancer findings, transcripts of interviews with my growing boys who don’t even remember my disease (here and here), photos of lost hair, and graphic images of scars and surgery.

My intention over the past month was to offer you an honest peek into the world of breast cancer. I want you to see that breast cancer can be crazy scary, but it can also be enlightening and happy. My ultimate goal was to pass on just one nugget of information that may help you or someone you know or love who will one day fight breast cancer. I could have given you a link to a discount on a cute pink bathrobe and fuzzy slippers, but I think what I gave you — a little bit of knowledge and a whole lot of hope — is even better. I hope you agree.

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Raw October — Day 30 (‘Parenthood’ Poll)

Raw October: raising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

If you’ve been tuning into “Parenthood” lately, you know that a breast cancer storyline is weaving its way through the Braverman family dynamics. The TV journey stems from personal experience — show creator Jason Katims’ wife is a breast cancer survivor — and so, it would seem, the topic should be portrayed pretty realistically. What do you think — is the “Parenthood” storyline rockin’, floppin’, or is it a so-so representation of a real-life experience. Cast your vote in the poll below, then share your thoughts in the comments.

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Raw October — Day 29 (This Never Gets Old) (VIDEO)

Raw Octoberraising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

the power of songThis never gets old, and it never ceases to make me cry. This man sang to me during one of my chemo treatments — he sang to every patient in the infusion room on this January 2005 day.

You know how I mentioned in yesterday’s post how my mom and Jordan sat with me during each session? This is one of those times.

Click on the image to start the video. See if it makes you cry.

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Raw October — Day 28 (My Survivor Reminder)

Raw October: raising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

My niece Jordan is my survivor reminder — she was born in October 2004; I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2004. Every time she turns another year older, I tack on another year of survival. She just turned 8 — that means I am about to celebrate 8.

Jordan’s age is not the only cancer connection she and I share. We also have memories (well, I do; she doesn’t) of infusion-room bonding. Jordan was 6 weeks old when I started chemo, and she sat with my mom and me every time toxic drugs dripped through my veins. My recollections of sickness and despair are tempered by the vision of that sweet, new baby in my mom’s arms — the baby who now has beautiful long hair; perfect freckles; a mean volleyball serve; and a huge hug to share whenever she sees me.

Thanks for being my survivor reminder, Jordan. I love you!

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Raw October — Day 27 (Reconstruction Options Compared)

Raw October: raising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

Thank you to the folks at Miami Breast Center for the following infographic, which details and compares several breast reconstruction options. I am not in the reconstruction loop at all, so I was not aware of the BRAVA + AFT method (see third column) — if you are in the know and have thoughts on this topic, please share.

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Raw October — Day 26 (What Cancer Means)

Raw Octoberraising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

Cancer, by Joey

Joey is loving his sixth-grade technology class — so much so that he’s been coming home, hopping on the computer, and practicing his new skills. I recently asked him to put his know-how to work on an image representing what cancer means to him. I love what he created with SMART Notebook.

I also asked fourth-grader Danny to render me an image. He complied, crafting me this beauty using iPad Sketch:

Cancer, by Danny

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Raw October — Day 25 (Cancer Talk Coming Up)

Raw Octoberraising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

On January 4, 2013, I will talk about cancer — not that I don’t spout out about it all the time as it is, but I will officially discuss the disease that is now 8 years behind me when I join my favorite oncologist at Shands Hospital for an interview session with prospective med students. My doc will highlight how the school/hospital operates from a patient-centered perspective, I will share my patient story, and the students will get to ask me questions. In all, I will give about 2 hours of my time. I know I will enjoy every minute of it.

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Raw October — Day 24 (Recurrence Will Not Happen)

Raw Octoberraising breast cancer awareness — one fact, figure, feeling, and photograph at a time.

What a difference a year can make. Last November, I nearly lost my mind after a bogus MRI revealed a possible malignancy. Yesterday, I learned that I pretty much have a zero chance of breast cancer recurrence.

My doctor says she knows this because of my type of disease — my tumor was ER/PR negative and HER2 positive, which happens to be aggressive, but only for the first 5 years. After 5 years (I’m at almost 8 years), there’s pretty much no risk of recurrence either locally or to distant organs. That’s not to say another cancer won’t ever pop up, but the one I had should not ever, ever, ever return. I will not, therefore, be a woman who says 20 years down the road that her cancer came back.

I should find great peace and comfort in this news, said my doctor. I do, I assured her. I really, really, really do, and while I kept my composure in her office as this gift of information swirled in my brain, tears fill eyes as I adjust to my newfound relief.

More good news — no more annual MRI. It’s not the standard of care for someone with my risk, and that makes it just not necessary. No more annual blood draw, either. It’s also not the standard of care, and the results tell my doctor nothing about my cancer-related health. My future line-up, then, is one annual follow-up with this doctor (she’s my medical oncologist), one annual follow-up with my radiation oncologist, and one annual mammogram.

Sounds good to me.

All of it.

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