Knowing better

The doctor I saw today for my persistent cough asked me why I’d waited so long to come in—it’s been more than three weeks now that I’ve been hacking away. I told him I thought the cough would go away and that I’d detected some improvement. I’m no longer coughing all night long, after all. That’s got to be progress.

Last night, though, my cough took a turn for the worse and began sounding more like it did weeks ago, during the worst of my sick days. Over the past few days, it’s also been producing some yucky stuff in my throat. And for some reason, it was a bit difficult for me to breathe while watching The Bachelorette last night. Maybe it was the anxiety about failing to see a doctor sooner that caused my breathlessness, I don’t know. But this I did know as I watched Deanna choose Jesse as her soon-to-be-husband: I had to see a doctor. Today. And so I did.

The doctor heard lots of crackling when he listened to me breathe. A chest X-ray turned up nothing significant but it’s likely I’ve had bronchitis for all this time. Armed with an antibiotic and a new cough suppressant, I’m primed for getting better—and for knowing better too. Next time a cough strikes, I won’t wait to so long. Next time, I’ll know better.

Photo courtesy of trp0 on flickr

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18

Of all the numbers in the world, 18 is Joey’s favorite. About a Lego boat he built today, my 7-year-old told me: “I needed one of these white pieces and when I looked for one, I found 18.” The other day when we disappointed him with the news that we could not go out to dinner for the third time in one week, he said: “We haven’t gone out to eat for 18 years.” Joey went to summer school for 18 days. He had 18 swim lessons. Danny has broken 18 of his toys. He is sure he’s read 18 books since school’s been out. And I’ve made him do 18 things he hasn’t wanted to do—summer school and swim lessons included.

Eighteen is a big number for Joey. It denotes large quantities—lots of Lego pieces, lots of school days, lots of books read—and I can hardly wait for the kid to announce that his mom has survived breast cancer for 18 years. When that time comes, though, he’ll be almost 22 years old. I bet 18 won’t be such an important number for him then. But it will be for me.

Photo courtesy of Claudecf on flickr

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Could it be something more?

I’ve had a cough for two weeks now. It’s so bad I’d hack all night if it weren’t for a narcotic-strength suppressant I’m taking. It’s so bad it’s making me vomit, it’s irritating my family members, and along with some lingering tummy tuck swelling that’s consuming my mind, it’s preventing me from exercising. I hate that.

Along with my cough, I get chills now and then and on occasion, I have a low-grade fever. It all makes sense, all these symptoms, because Joey had the very same illness just before me. The very same—the annoying cough, the throwing up, the chills, the fever. Clearly, he passed his germs on to me, and I’m probably passing them on to someone else right now. But I must admit that the thought has crossed my mind: Could it be something more? Like cancer.

Sure, it could be. A persistent cough can sometimes signal a problem in the lungs. It’s just not very likely. And really, I don’t believe anything serious is wrong with me. It’s simply my head. You see, it’s wired now with this very sensitive alarm system. If ever cancer comes back, I plan to fight like mad, so my brain alerts me when something, however small it may be, goes amiss. It could be a funny something I feel in my breast, a headache that won’t go away, or an ache in my belly.

This time it’s a cough, which will probably go away and take up residence in John’s body, causing him to hack, spit up, and get all cold and hot and bothered. And I won’t worry at all. Because he’s never had cancer. I have.

Photo courtesy of whiskeyandtears on flickr

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Six weeks

img_1446.JPGSix weeks, my plastic surgeon told me. Six weeks to fully recover from my tummy tuck surgery.

Sure enough.

It's been six weeks—seven now, actually—and I am back to doing everything I want to do. Some tasks came earlier than others, like driving—did that after nine days—and walking upright, and sleeping in my bed instead of a recliner, and lifting increasingly heavier objects. But my compression garment didn't come off until the six-week mark and the biggie—exercise—was off limits for the entire six weeks. But now, I'm back at it.

This morning, I walked up and down the seven steep hills in my neighborhood with my niece Tori in her jog stroller. Yesterday, I did a pretty strenuous treadmill workout. A week ago, I took a long bike ride with my mom and Joey. I've also lifted a few weights, held myself in the plank position several times, and have been trying to tone my legs and butt—six weeks of sitting have not been kind to them. My tummy, though: I love it.

Here is my tummy, in all its glory, prettier than it's ever been. Finally, I am comfortable in my skin—well, my lack of skin.

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Babies, no more

mvc00149-9.jpgIn November 2004, I wanted another baby. I got breast cancer instead. Not a great trade, but what could I do—except fight the cancer and reassess my baby wishes later down the line. Which is what I did. I had surgery, then chemotherapy, then radiation, then more drug therapy. I lost my hair, re-grew my hair, went to counseling, and physical therapy, and doped myself up on an anti-depressant for a year. And then one day, I was free from cancer and free from treatment. Then the baby question came up.

Baby?

Or no baby?

I have decided on no baby. I use the word "I"—as if John is not a player in the baby game—because he would take the plunge and have one if it were up to him. But somehow, it comes down to me. I guess my having had cancer trumps his not having had it. And so I get to decide. Because for a while, my decision to no longer reproduce was all about cancer. I didn't want to get pregnant and have my cancer return during those nine—well, ten—months. I didn't want to have a baby and then die and leave John with three kids to rear. Two is more manageable. I didn't want pregnancy hormones raging through my body; fueling tumor after tumor, ensuring a life spent fighting a nasty disease. Cancer made me say no more to more babies. But now, it's not cancer at all that makes me stray from having another child. It's everything else.

I don't want a baby because in two weeks, I'll be 38. I don't want to be pregnant at an "advanced maternal age." I know loads of women have babies at this age—and older—but I don't want to be in this camp. Besides the health implications of later-in-life child bearing, I'm just plain tired. Which brings me to another reason I don't want a baby: I like to sleep. I don't want to wake every few hours to soothe and feed a fussy babe. I don't want to function like a zombie through my days for months and months—and sometimes even more months. I don't want the endless baby chores that would make me, well, more tired.

There's more.

I like my self-sufficient boys. They brush their teeth, get dressed, give themselves showers, tie their shoes, and buckle their seatbelts. Joey even vacuumed my entire mini-van this morning. It only cost me three bucks. I also like my job. I like devoting school-day mornings to my business of writing. I love my four free hours—the stillness, the quiet, the candle I burn in honor of all that is peaceful during my alone time.

When it comes down to it, I realize I'm really happy as a mom of two growing boys. I even think I'm a better mom for older boys than I was for baby boys. Babies are unpredictable. Big kids are easier for me. They communicate, respond to my questions, clearly express their needs. They can sit through dinners out, manage through long car rides, and tell me they love me. Who said parenting is thankless job?

Nope, no more babies for me. Not because of breast cancer. Because I couldn't be happier at this moment in time with the two blessings that have been bestowed on me, the two guys who simultaneously drive me crazy and make me giddy with love and laughter and hope.

Cheers to Joey and Danny. And our perfect family of four.

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Lucky

dsc_0534.JPGI'm one of the lucky ones—I'm surviving cancer, have been since November 2004. That makes me three and a half years invincible, and I must say it feels good to go to bed each night knowing I've survived for 1,277 days.

My neighbor is not so lucky. She was diagnosed with breast cancer—my same disease—a little more than six months ago. She had it removed—both the cancer and her breast—and already, the disease is back. It’s back in her breast tissue. It's made its way into both lungs too. Doctors are calling it stage IV. Hospice is calling on her already.

"She's no young girl," her husband told me last night when we passed each other in the neighborhood. But she is. She's 73. In my book, that's young. I don't want to die at 73. She shouldn’t need to either. But it's happening. And there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it.

1,277 days. I'm one of the lucky ones.

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Normal life

My oncologist told me today at my six-month follow-up that he couldn’t be happier with my progress. Ditto, I say. He told me it’s almost like I’m back to normal life. Ditto, again.

Gosh, I really don’t have much more to report on my personal cancer front, which is such very good news.

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Clearly great

jerrythesaint.jpgMammogram: Clear
Ultrasound: Clear
My mood: Great

It could have gone the other way. One of my imaging tests today could have turned up something suspicious which would have dictated a completely different outcome and a much worse mood. It happened three and a half years ago when the doctor who'd seen my tumor on ultrasound said, "I want this out and in a jar." That tumor that landed in a jar days later was cancer. And so every time I'm screened and every time I see my oncologist for a follow-up (coming this Monday), I'm never really sure how clear or how great things will be. I'm sure for now, though. My boobs show no sign of cancer. My mood shows no sign of worry. I couldn’t ask for anything more.

Sigh.

photo courtesy of JerrytheSaint on flickr

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Kicked to the curb

dsc_0127.JPG

Just three and a half short years ago, I was wondering if I'd live long enough to baby my babies. They were almost four years and 18 months old when I was diagnosed with breast cancer and more than anything in those early cancer days, I feared for my life—which made me fear for theirs. Who would hug and kiss them, snuggle and cuddle them? Who would make their favorite snacks, pick out the best-fitting shoes, cut their little finger and toe nails, and dry their little boy tears when skinned knees and scary dreams made them cry? Surely, I was the only one who could stay home with them all day, the only one who could help them become social beings, the only one who could help them manage the days leading up to their solo journeys into the world. OK, I admit: their dad would do a pretty good job in these areas if left on his own. But I was—still am—selfish. I want to be front and center in their lives. Thankfully, three and half years later, I am.

Breast cancer hasn't taken me away from my boys—but something else threatens our togetherness. That something: Joey. It's not his fault he's separating from me. It's his age—he's seven.

Today, while driving into his elementary school parking lot, Joey said, "Mom, can you just drop me off at the curb tomorrow?" Gasp! I always walk him into his classroom, talk with his teacher, wish him a great day, and kiss him goodbye. A few months ago, I wondered if the kiss was a bit much for a first-grade boy. I asked Joey if it made him uncomfortable, and he told me it did not. Now, however, he has apparently decided the kiss is too much and so is my presence in his personal school space.

“Yes,” I told Joey. “I can drop you at the curb tomorrow.”

I knew this day was coming. And here it is. My baby is no longer a baby. He's growing up, becoming independent, plotting his departure from my grasp. It makes me sad. And it makes me happy, happy because I am alive and present and I get to watch my first-born guy wiggle his way out of my care. How sweet it is.

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Forecast: sunny

img_1249.JPGimg_1247.JPGIt's been 16 days since my tummy was tucked.

And I'm back.

Back to standing upright, back to driving my kids to and from school, back to walking for exercise, back to my bed—so long, recliner.

Still no running, still no functioning without a compression garment wrapped around my middle, still a bit of swelling—which means still no blue jeans—but mostly, I'm back. It feels good.

John feels pretty good too, despite a small skin cancer surgery he had yesterday to remove a squamous cell carcinoma from his left hand. The procedure—called Mohs—went well. The doctor got the cancer by taking just one chunk of skin. Armed with a few stitches, John is on his way to a speedy recovery.

In honor of Skin Cancer Awareness Month—it's this month, May—take a peek at this site, home of The Skin Cancer Foundation. While there, find out how to best prevent, detect, and treat this all-too-common disease. By too common, I mean this: About one million people in the U.S. are diagnosed with basal cell carcinoma each year. About 250,000 get the squamous cell variety. And nearly 60,000 are stricken with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.

Before you're done investigating this disease, pay a visit to my friend Miss Melanoma. She'll surely convince you that skin cancer is nothing to mess with. Her nine toes are a constant reminder.

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Blue jean blues

If you find yourself in the market for a tummy tuck—translation: You’ve gained lots of weight, had great success at losing it, but find shockingly a good chunk of skin dripping from your mid-section—and you actually go through with this major abdominal procedure, like I just did, I have one solid piece of advice for you: Do not try on your jeans eight days after surgery, like I just did.

Why?

Because not only will you find that you are not several sizes smaller—a possible eventual result of the tummy tuck—you’ll discover that your pre-surgical jeans will have somehow shrunk in size during the short amount of time it took for you to go under the knife and then come out of your pain-medicated fog.

Yep. The jeans will be too tight. And if you’re like me, you’ll convince yourself that your hips and butt have grown in epic proportions in the mere week you’ve spent recovering from that belly-perfecting operation.

OK, so my body parts are likely the same size as they’ve been for some time now. I’m just swollen. Not above my incision that runs underneath my new belly button, from hip to hip—this looks amazingly flat and tight and well, perfect. But below the taped-up cut my doctor carved into my stomach is a bulging, newly-pregnant looking clump of skin that is pushing out so far my jeans can’t rise above. It’s solid. It’s jam-packed. It’s driving me crazy.

I’m an impatient patient. I don’t like that I must wait weeks—months even—to see my final result. I’m so impatient I told my doctor on post-op day number six that it seemed the problem he removed had moved down lower. “No,” he told me. In time, it will be flat. Flatter than it’s ever been, he said. And then he issued me this strict warning: Do not shop for new clothes for three months. Two days after he handed me this advice, I’m tugging at my favorite Lucky jeans, trying to inch them up over my swollen mound. Am I crazy? Perhaps. But I can also learn from my mistakes.

My jeans are back in the closet, and my stretchy athletic shorts are back in place—where they’ll stay until my body heals and rebounds from its trauma and I attempt once again to hoist those denim blues up over all my body parts.

In three months.

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Sitting

joey2.jpg"Sometimes having surgery is a good thing," seven-year-old Joey told me yesterday.

"Oh Yeah," I said. "Why?"

"Because you get to sit around and do nothing," he answered.

Wait. It gets better.

Joey went on to tell me: "You are always driving us around and doing things for us and now you get to sit and rest."

I love that guy.

Sitting is exactly what I've been doing ever since my tummy was tucked on Wednesday. I've been sitting in my living room recliner, sitting at the kitchen table, sitting in my mom's car traveling to and from post-op appointments, sitting in my back yard watching Joey and Danny splish and splash on their new Slip-n-Slide. I can't yet recline in a flat position, and I can't stand for extended periods of time. Sitting. That's what I've been doing. That, and taking pain medication. And emptying drains. And sleeping. And writing. And doing quite well, I think.

I'm not in horrible pain. I'm tight, and hunched over, and I feel a bit of pressure and pulling. But I'm not miserable. I predict, in fact, that before too long, I'll be back to my routine—the one that involves driving my boys around and doing things for them. For that, I can't wait.

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Tummy transformed

tummyafter.jpgMy tummy is tucked. It’s flat, tight, and oh how I love my new belly button. Amazing. Simply amazing how that loose and saggy skin that troubled me for so long is now gone. Completely gone.

My surgery yesterday went well. My excess belly skin was removed, my baby-stretched muscle was repaired, and my umbilical hernia was fixed. One day later, I’m walking in hunched-over style, spending a lot of time in my living room recliner, and staying on top of my pain medication so misery doesn’t set in. I have two drains dangling from my belly, one pain pump strapped to my side, and a compression garment holding me tight. I feel some pressure and some minor throbbing, but nothing serious is plaguing me at the moment. Could it get worse? Probably not, says my doctor who will remove my pain pump and one drain on Saturday. The second drain will come out on Tuesday. Then I’ll be on my own—well, maybe I’ll keep my pain meds on board just in case—to recover and heal.

tummybefore1.jpgJust after I had my second baby, I asked my OB/GYN about a tummy tuck. He wasn’t a fan of the procedure and suggested I give it five years. Five years to allow my body to bounce back from two whopper pregnancies and to achieve a healthy weight and fitness routine. The five-year mark would also put both of my boys in school so I’d have time to rebound from this serious surgery without tending to their every need all day long. Good advice.

Today, both of my boys are in school. Danny turns five in May.

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Ax the alcohol

The connection between alcohol and breast cancer existed at the time of my diagnosis. Nothing conclusive, just a possibility, yet enough for me to forgo that occasional cold beer in a frosty mug at dinner and that sometimes social drink. I don’t want cancer. Once was enough.

I think I’ve made the right drinking decision. Just this past Monday, findings from a large U.S. study—the biggest of three major studies on the topic—revealed this: Alcohol consumption leads to an increased risk of the most common type of breast cancer in postmenopausal women.

OK, I’m not postmenopausal, and I didn’t have the most common type of breast cancer—the kind fueled by hormones—but I will go through menopause one day. And I could develop a hormone-sensitive tumor. These facts are enough to secure my choice to remain a non-drinker for all of time.

This new research found that women who consumed one or two small drinks per day were 32 percent more likely to develop a hormone-sensitive tumor. Three or more drinks per day: 51 percent.

Toss the trans-fats. Ax the alcohol. Neither is worth the risk.

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Toss the trans-fats

What causes breast cancer? Oh, I don’t know. Genetic mutations. Family history. Environmental factors. Poor diet. Lack of exercise. Alcohol consumption. Obesity. All are possibilities. Here’s one more: Trans-fats.

The link may not be strong at this point but preliminary research—published in the American Journal of Epidemiology—shows that women with high blood levels of trans-fats may have nearly twice the risk of developing breast cancer than women with the lowest levels. It’s enough to steer me way clear of these fats, found mostly in baked goods, snacks, and a variety of other processed foods.

I don’t want to steer clear of omega-3 fatty acids—the good stuff found in fish such as salmon, walnuts, and leafy green veggies—but interestingly, it seems women with high levels of these fats were not any less likely to have breast cancer.

More about the omega-3s another time. For now, let’s collectively ditch the trans-fats. We already know they’re artery cloggers. The fact that they may also up breast cancer risk is a deal sealer. For me, anyway.

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Better

I constantly work at being a better person. I work at criticizing less, gossiping less, whining less, and yelling at my kids less. I try to understand people instead of judging them. I try to keep my crabby moods from troubling others. And I try to admit when I’m wrong, even when it would feel so much better to be right.

Cancer helps me work on my shortcomings. Because I’ve conquered the disease—for now—I figure I have a second chance at becoming a really good person. So when I learn about a self-improvement technique that seems suited for me, I grab it and try to infuse it into my world. Here’s one I know will work wonders the next time I find myself in a disagreement with a loved one. It comes from Dan Shapiro, a 20-year Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor, husband of a breast cancer survivor, and psychologist who treats folks with cancer. This guy knows cancer. And he knows how to solve problems for people living with the disease.

Shapiro, who shares his three-step approach to good communication in the premiere issue of heal magazine, has this to say.

First, recognize that cancer shapes most of your interactions with most everyone.

Second, listen carefully and start your response to any attack by acknowledging the true parts of what your opponent has said—even if the true part is teeny tiny. Instinct will have you doing what you normally do—defending yourself, maintaining your rightness—but saying “you’re right” in the middle of a fight is a great way to defuse the emotion of the interaction.

Third, do little things that make your spouse, friend, family member feel loved. Shapiro’s wife likes a clean bathroom. If he cleans it for her, he knows she’ll feel loved.

I’m going to practice these three steps. For better or for worse. I’m banking on better.

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Blogging breast cancer

I just received a copy of MAMM magazine in the mail—the March/April 2008 issue—and I wish I could lead you to the online version of this publication but the issue is not yet available on MAMM.com. Bummer. Because if it were there, you could read this article titled “Blogging Breast Cancer.”

The article starts: Thousands of women are sharing their cancer stories and baring their souls to the world—without ever leaving their computers. Why are online diaries so popular?

It goes on to spotlight a handful of breast cancer survivors who author their own blogs. I am one of them. A snippet of one of my posts is published. Mention is made of my writing career and how it grew from my cancer misfortune. My photo appears too.

Usually, I do the writing when it comes to breast cancer. Now someone has written about me. If you can track down a copy of MAMM, check me out. And check out these other featured blogs.

www.fighting-breast-cancer.com
www.jaynesbreastcancerblog.com
www.2hands.blogspot.com
www.the-cancer-grrrl.blogspot.com
www.krankipantzen.blogspot.com
www.blog.healthtalk.com/breast-cancer/life-with-breast-cancer

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Finishing Touch

I never thought I’d elect to have surgery after going under the knife for the removal of a cancerous tumor that somehow lodged itself in the tissue of my left breast. Surgery is bad enough when it’s medically necessary. It seems silly then to choose to submit to general anesthesia and all that follows, like the slicing and sewing of skin and muscle, the pain, the recovery, and the potential for complications. Yet I’m considering it. I’m more than considering it, actually. I have a surgery date—April 23—and one week from today, I am scheduled for a pre-op appointment that will seal the deal. I have 7 days then to determine whether I’ll keep or cancel this appointment. I’m leaning toward keeping it.

Seven years ago, I had a baby boy. He weighed 10 pounds, 9 ounces. Almost five years ago, I had another baby boy. He weighed 10 pounds, 2 ounces. I gained 50 pounds and then 42 pounds with these monster guys, and all these years later, I’m left with loose, sagging stomach skin and a separated muscle underneath. I’ve tried all I can to get rid of these battle scars. During the past year, I really kicked my efforts into high gear. Motivated by the urge to prevent a cancer recurrence, I overhauled my diet—no soda, no sweets, no red meat, plus low fats, calories, and sugars—and began exercising more vigorously than ever. My results have been grand. My heart is strong, my energy is high, and my weight is down 15 pounds. Still, my tummy skin remains. It’s worse really. The less fat I have, the more the skin hangs. I want it to go away.

No amount of diet or exercise will fix my problem. But a tummy tuck will. So that’s what I’m pursuing. Some think I’m crazy, selfish even—a few years ago, while in the throes of cancer treatment, I would have, too—and some think I deserve it. Here’s what I think: I want to feel comfortable in my skin and in my clothes. Right now, I don’t.

If all goes according to plan, a surgeon—a guy who happens to specialize in breast cancer reconstruction using tummy-tuck skin—will remove a football-shaped chuck of skin from my abdomen. He will repair and reshape my muscle, reposition my belly button, fix an umbilical hernia—yep, I’ve got one of those, too—and then sew me back up. This outpatient surgery will cost me a few hours in recovery, 10-12 days of difficulty at home, 6 weeks of healing, and a few thousand dollars—no insurance help for this cosmetic procedure. The more I think about it—the good, the bad, the unknown—the more I want this tummy tuck. Even after breast cancer. Maybe because of breast cancer. I want to feel the best I can possibly feel—on the inside and out. I’ve done all I can do on my own. I consider this my finishing touch.

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The power of storytelling

I was invited to join Trusera—a free online health community based on the power of storytelling—because the folks there want me to share my story. I accepted this invitation because Trusera prides itself on offering a safe and comfortable environment where people can locate credible, relevant health information. I like that. What I wanted most when I was diagnosed with breast cancer was someone—just one person—who’d already taken the steps I was about to take. I scoured the Internet in search of blogs, journals, and other resources that might help me. Eventually, I found them.

Trusera is a one-stop shop, a “been there, done that” kind of site the mad hunt for quality information unnecessary. Stop by and you’ll see. While there, you’ll find me—my picture, my profile, and journal entries I’ll be publishing several times per week. You’ll find other breast cancer survivors there too—and so many others with powerful health journeys.

Anyone can sign up with Trusera. And for those of you with your own breast cancer story to tell: Join before March 30 and Trusera will donate $10 to Gilda’s Club for the first 500 people. Click here to sign up—and be sure to note “Gilda’s Club” on the registration form.

See that Trusera link on the right hand side of my blog? Click on it and you’ll locate everything you need to know about this great place, where stories come to life and empower, inspire, and inform those who need them most.

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