A million years

img_1426.jpgYesterday, Joey asked me: "When I'm daddy's age, will daddy still be alive?" I gave it some thought. John was 33 when Joey was born so when our 7-year-old is 40, like his daddy, John will be 73.

I don't really know if he'll be alive then—who can tell what might happen in a span of so many years—but I sure am counting on John being around, so I said: "Yep, he'll still be alive."

"So, I've got like a million years to spend with him then, right?" replied Joey.

"You've got lots of time," I assured him. And then he told me about his grand dream.

"I wish I could do magic and make everyone I know who is dead come back to life," Joey told me. "Then they would never die again, and I would get to see them. But if they wanted to go back to being dead, I'd let them go back. You know who would definitely want to go back?"

"Who?" I asked.

"Riley, because Riley never really liked kids." Riley was my mom's dog. He died several years ago. Joey is right—Riley didn’t seem to like kids.

I like Joey's dream. I like that he'd get to see his great grandma again—he only knew her for a short two and a half years. He'd get to meet John's dad too, his grandfather who died two years before he was born. And yes, he could see Riley again. Maybe Riley would like Joey better, now that he's a bigger guy.

Such a simple idea—just bring back the people we miss and keep them alive forever, unless they want to go back—from a simple little boy who has no idea just how complicated life can be, a little boy who just wants to spend time with the people who belong to him, forever. I like how he thinks.

Photo: Joey, a million years ago.

Read More

The End

the_last_lecture_2.jpgI am so sad that The Last Lecture guy, Randy Pausch, has died. I am sad because of all that his death means. It means he lost his life to cancer, the same disease I've had. It means he wasn't so lucky to survive for almost four years, like I have, because his cancer was worse than mine—his was pancreatic, mine was breast. It means he's left a wife and three small children behind. It means he left this world when he wasn't ready—he was only 47 years old. It means we all are vulnerable—to death, disease, unfortunate tragedies—and that, my friends, is scary.

Not all of me is sad. Because let's face it, Pausch was one heck of a guy, and the life he did live was nothing short of inspirational. Nancy Gibbs puts it perfectly in this TIME magazine article. Give it a read. And then be happy with me that this Carnegie Mellon professor with a knack for courageous living has taught the world so much, even though his untimely death is so very sad.

To watch Pausch’s now-famous last lecture, click here.

To check out his book, The Last Lecture, click here.

To reach his personal website, hop on over here.

Read More

Pink on my doorstep

img_1645.JPGThis pink gear arrived on my doorstep today. It was neatly packaged in a box, mailed all the way from Nevada by my aunt who each year runs the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure and each year sends me the goodies she collects. This year: A pink hat, a pink survivor t-shirt, a pink tote bag, the cutest pink rubber gloves, and the pink sign she wore as she raced against breast cancer. The best part: Her handwritten note, with these words:

I ran the Race for the Cure this past weekend in Aspen. When I picked up my race packet, I asked if I could buy an extra shirt for you and explained you were a breast cancer survivor. They told me NO, I couldn’t buy one but they would give me a shirt, a hat and bag for you. Wasn’t that nice?

That is nice. I am so touched.

I am touched by the generosity of the race people.

I am even more touched by the kindness of my aunt.

Thank you, Sue.

Read More

Helping

img_1608.JPGHelping others helps me. Knee-deep in breast cancer treatment a few years ago—yes, it's been years—I found it soothing to my distressed soul to reach out to people in need, mostly cancer folks who needed guidance, sometimes others in tough life positions. Helping always puts my personal scenarios in perspective, teaches me there are bigger issues than my own, makes me feel warm and fuzzy inside. I think my little boys know how I feel.

"Aren't you so happy Froto got to go outside for a walk?" Joey asked about the big black dog we'd walked at the Humane Society the other day. "Yes, I am," I told him. I meant it. It does make me happy to know we're helping abandoned and neglected animals. What makes me the happiest is the fact that Joey is the one managing this volunteer project of ours.

Spurred on by his passionate pursuit of a pet—and his parents' definite rejection of such an endeavor—I spearheaded this animal venture. I made a phone call and took the three of us to an orientation session. Joey has done the rest. He determines when we visit the run-down location that cares so lovingly for its rescued dogs, cats, and kittens. He plots our course while there—we always hold kittens first, then visit with and brush the big cats, then walk a few dogs, then head back to the kittens—and he determines how long we stay. We've been there for as long as three hours. Some days, an hour, tops. Danny goes along with the whole plan, never complains, and just today asked if we could go back. We'd already chosen a movie for this afternoon—Journey to the Center of the Earth, the 3D version—so I told him we'll go another day. He can't wait. He's in the process of picking his new favorite kitten—the scrawny little one he chose first was just recently adopted.

Joey has a favorite too—a cute tabby kitten that seems to know him already. Joey is anticipating how sad he'll be when we arrive and find the kitten is no longer there. I told him it will be a good thing, it will mean the kitten has found a home. It's not sad, I told him. It's happy.

Helping makes me happy. I think it makes my boys happy too.

Read More

Connecting cell phones, cancer

Cell phones cause cancer.

No they don’t.

Yes, they do.

No, they don’t.

Like my little boys who are spending much of the summer disagreeing about almost everything, experts are battling about this very pressing question: Do cell phones cause cancer?

The latest in this ongoing uncertainty comes from the director of the University of Pittsburgh Cancer Institute who recently urged his faculty and staff to limit their mobile phone use because of the cancer risk. Dr. Ronald B. Herberman especially urges limited use for children. I guess it’s clear where this guy stands.

There’s a growing body of research, says this doctor, linking long-term cell phone use to health problems, including cancer. Although evidence is controversial—the overwhelming majority of studies find no link—he happens to be convinced. He bases his concerns on unpublished data that hopefully will one day be published, so we all can weigh the risks appropriately. In the meantime, I’ll have to determine what’s best for me, a girl with only a cell phone, no home phone, and a definite aversion to cancer.

What’s best for you?

Read More

Saving my life

I heard on one of the morning news programs today that breast self-examinations can be dangerous to your health.

What?

Yes, that’s how the message came across. But they are not so dangerous, really. They are more life-saving than life-threatening—a self-exam saved my life, if that counts—and I want you to know why.

Breast self-exams can be dangerous in this way, say the news sources—backed by doctors, of course: They can turn up suspicious stuff—that’s the point, after all—and they can cause women to worry. When women worry, they tend to visit their doctors. When doctors can’t figure things out, they tend to order biopsies. And biopsies tend to turn up nothing all that worrisome—nearly 80 percent of breast lumps are benign. Self-exams, then, lead to unnecessary biopsies. Not an ideal scenario, I know, but does that make self-exams dangerous? Not in my opinion. I’d rather be safe than sorry.

I suggest all women conduct self-exams once per month. Make it about one week after your menstrual cycle when hormonal changes are minimal and make note of how your breasts feel each time you examine them. You’re looking for a change from one exam to the next. I know it can cause anxiety. But I promise you that cancer causes a whole lot more. So why not err on the side of caution? You may not even need a biopsy. Mammogram and ultrasound often come first and rule out the need for needles of any sort.

I’m a fan of surviving breast cancer. Are you? If so, then check those breasts, starting this month.

Photo courtesy of Ruth on flickr

Read More

See my boobs

dsc_0195.JPGSee these boobs? Protruding outward in all their glory. Pushed up in a fancy bra, positioned under a tight pink shirt, pointing right at you as you read this post. These are the very boobs that threatened to take my life almost four years ago. Well, the cancer inside the boob—just the left one, to be exact—is what made the threat. The boob was simply the packaging for the tumor that presented itself underneath my fingertips on that horrible November day, in that hot, steamy shower where I thought I would merely wash my body, not find a cancerous mass.

A mass I did find—a mass a surgeon removed, an oncologist poisoned, another oncologist radiated, and the first oncologist targeted with the glorious drug Herceptin. Thanks to these two men and one woman, the mass I found is gone. So are all traces of cancer that could have started pouring through my system but for now, have not.

Yes, the mass is gone. My boobs, they are not. And this is such great news that I just have to share—my joy, my relief, my pride over having two very healthy and hearty boobs that will be featured in published form in September when they hit the newsstands inside Family Circle magazine.

Read More

I hate cancer

Today, former Press Secretary Tony Snow died after living with colon cancer for three years. Yesterday, Olympic swimmer Eric Shanteau announced that he’s been diagnosed with testicular cancer. Journalist Leroy Sievers has cancer. North Carolina State University Women’s basketball coach Kay Yow has cancer. Patrick Swayze has cancer. These are the well-known folks, those in the public spotlight. And the list goes on. Imagine how long the list gets when you take into account everyday people like you and me, like my neighbor and friend, who passed away just a few days ago after a short battle with metastatic breast cancer.

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 1,437,180 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in the United States in 2008, not counting non-invasive cancers or basal or squamous cell skin cancers. About 565,650 people will die of cancer in 2008—that’s about 1,500 people every day. Cancer is the second leading cause of death—heart disease is the first—and accounts for one in every four U.S. deaths.

I hate cancer.

Photo courtesy of cancerdotsc on flickr

Read More

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

Read More

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

Read More

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

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More

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.

Read More