October. Over.

October is almost over, which means (a) my house is filled with candy, and the ultimate challenge is upon me: to eat or not to eat, (b) the time will soon change, and I will begin hating how it gets dark so early, (c) the onslaught of pink that has probably been gagging you for 31 days will slow to a medium roar, and (d) it will soon be seven years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Survivor’s Guilt

Sometimes, I feel guilty for surviving cancer because some people are not so lucky. Why did I get a break when so many, like Amy, did not?

There’s nothing fair about the way it happened, the way Amy died just 15 months after a breast cancer diagnosis seemingly similar to mine. She heard the same string of chilling words—you have cancer—as I did, just months after a doctor hurled them at me, over the phone, a day before Thanksgiving. Both in our early 30s with husbands and small children, Amy and I felt like two peas in a pod, situated in what we believed were almost identical positions. We were both young, both with early stage breast cancer. We both knew our cancers, while caught early, were considered aggressive because of our age—young women tend to have aggressive forms of the disease—but we also knew we had a high likelihood of survival, about 93% for at least five years.

Amy and I had common hopes, fears, and worries, and, on several occasions, we cried tears we were sure flowed from the same well. We also shared an instant urge to reach others with our breast cancer stories. Amy welcomed local newspaper reporters into her world and allowed them to capture through words and photographs her most intimate cancer moments. I began authoring my own breast cancer blog and then ventured into the world of freelance writing. We both wanted to make our experiences matter. And judging by the flood of reaction we received from our combined efforts, it’s clear we did.

Amy and I shared victories—we both managed to escape the threat of lymph node involvement—and we shared cards and e-mails. Thank you for holding my hand through this journey—it would have been pretty lonely without you, Amy wrote in one e-mail.

Amy and I also shared care packages, family photos, even hats. If misery loves company, then Amy and I were in love. And in celebration of our love, we basked in the glory of our most important similarity—our cancers had not spread. This was key to our survival. Or so we thought.

A mutual friend—her high school buddy and my college roommate—matched Amy and me. Ericha was one of a few close friends who after my diagnosis offered to hop on a plane and come to my rescue in Florida. I never accepted her offer—I was sure I could handle cancer all on my own—and so she stayed in Ohio where Amy, also an Ohio girl, welcomed her assistance. It worked out well this way.

Ericha helped Amy as she recovered from surgery, reconstruction, chemotherapy, and countless physical and emotional twists. She watched Amy’s kids—ages 4 and 1 at the time—and cleaned her house and drove her to appointments and selflessly assumed some of the burden drowning this young wife and mother who continued working as a nurse while managing a life with cancer.

“I quit my job,” Amy told me just after she announced her cancer had returned. She said she should have quit after her first diagnosis. She should have taken better care of herself. She should have played with her children, spent time with her husband, given up the chore of work. She would do it right this time, she said. She would crush cancer. She was sure of it.

I wrote and published a post about Amy on The Cancer Blog just after she told me how cancer had shown up in her brain and lungs, just five months after her chemotherapy for breast cancer ended. I wrote about my shattered hope, my fear this would happen to me, my complete and total sadness. And then Amy left a comment on my post. She wrote:

Jacki, I am not giving up. I will beat this again. Don’t you give up yet. I have Luke and Ella and they alone are worth fighting for. Just everyone send me your prayers and positive vibes. Quoting the cancer crusade couple, “Setbacks are a chance to pause and review the lesson of life.”

Amy, the one staring down death—doctors said she had two to 12 months to live—was comforting me. Amy, with her spunk and spirit, convinced me she would annihilate this evil disease. I believed her.

Amy lived for only five weeks after she wrote these words. Ericha called me with the news of her death just as I was leaving my house one Saturday morning to run in a race. I stopped in my tracks when Ericha told me—Amy passed yesterday—and I felt nothing but shock and sorrow for the duration of the run I struggled to finish. I finished for Amy, though. If she could fight cancer—twice—then I could surely pound out a few miles in honor of a friend whose face I never did see.

Amy and I talked about meeting at the beach with our families one day after we’d survived cancer for a few years. We dreamed of going on the Oprah show and proudly announcing our survivorship. We talked about a lot in our short 15-month friendship. What we didn’t talk about was that our situations really were very different. Perhaps we weren’t aware of it at the time. Perhaps we subconsciously chose to find common ground in the midst of our harrowing journeys, to ignore the fact that we were not traveling the same path at all.

Amy had a family history of breast cancer. I did not. Just after Amy completed her chemotherapy, her mother was diagnosed with the same disease that now has affected four generations in her family. Additionally, Amy’s tumor was slightly larger than mine, she received a different chemotherapy protocol than I received, she was not eligible for a year-long drug treatment I accepted to keep cancer at bay and because she had chosen the radical route of removing both of her breasts—I had a lumpectomy—Amy was not a top candidate for the radiation therapy that zapped me five days per week for seven weeks. She wondered if she should have demanded this treatment. She wondered if it would have made a difference in her survival.

The final and perhaps most significant difference in our diseases is that while Amy’s cancer, like mine, had not spread to her lymph nodes, it had found a way to penetrate her bloodstream and was spreading in a secret, silent, and deadly fashion. My oncologist, who dried my tears when I sobbed about the unfairness of Amy’s death, said some young women have a very aggressive disease right away. Amy was one of these women. I, apparently, am not.

There’s nothing fair about the way it happened, how Amy died just 15 months after a breast cancer diagnosis I have now survived for almost four years, how Amy died so quickly and I didn’t, how there is no cure for this mysterious disease that strikes far too many women and some men too.

Amy’s husband sent me an e-mail just after she died. He wrote:

You were a great inspiration to Amy. Your quote ” Fight the Good Fight” was front and center on our fridge. Please don’t let this news get you down, Amy would want your chin up, would want you to keep fighting. Thanks for all your support.

My chin is up. I am fighting. And Amy—thank you for your support.

1 in 8 Is Not Every Woman’s Risk

I’m not sure why I didn’t fully understand the whole 1 in 8 thing before this week, but, clearly, I did not. Because when my friend who happens to spend his days hunting down a cure for cancer told me that the 1 in 8 chance of getting breast cancer is a lifetime risk and not a risk for every woman at every age, I was sorta shocked. And way relieved.

My friend directed me to the National Cancer Institute, where I located some facts about the often-thrown-around statistic, and here is what I learned:


If you are 30 years old, you have a 1 in 233 chance of developing breast cancer in the next 10 years, a 1 in 54 chance in the next 20 years, a 1 in 24 chance in the next 30 years, and a 1 in 8 chance in your lifetime.

Did I have a 1 in 8 chance at age 34? Nope. I still got the disease, yes (which means I’m pretty unlucky, I guess), but my chances were not as great as one might believe.

Now, your risk does increase as you age (because, as my friend told me, cancer is mostly a disease of older people), but, still, even a 70-year-old woman has a 1 in 27 chance of getting breast cancer in the next 10 years. Not 1 in 8.

I am not here to minimize in any way the fact that breast cancer strikes far too many women of all ages, and I realize there are risk factors that change the odds listed above, but, I do appreciate a little perspective.

And now, I have some.

The First Two Months

This is pretty much what happens in the two months following a breast cancer diagnosis:

  • Mammogram.
  • Ultrasound.
  • Needle-guided biopsy.
  • Echo heart scan.
  • Full-body PET scan.
  • MRI.
  • Muga heart scan.
  • BRCA genetic testing.
  • Numerous blood tests.
  • Portacath inserted in my chest.
  • 3 rounds of chemo.
  • 2 bone marrow generating Neulasta injections.
  • Hair loss.
  • Insomnia.
  • Exhaustion.
  • Nausea/vomiting.
  • Bloating/weight gain.
  • Migraines.
  • Appointments with cardiologists, oncologists, oncology surgeons for my future mastectomy, plastic surgeons for future reconstruction.
  • Too many prescriptions to name.
  • Menopause … fun times.

That could so be my list (except for the PET scan and the mastectomy and plastic surgeon appointments).

But, it’s not.

It belongs to Angela over at It Is What It Is. (That’s her in the pic.)

Angela, 31 years old and mom to a daughter and twin boys, is in the midst of treatment right now, and if you are, too, or you are about to be, or you just want to follow someone amazing who is tackling life despite its hurdles, you really should go visit this spunky gal (who also happens to be giving away a Bondi Band headband).

I think you won’t regret getting to know Angela.

I know I don’t.

The Dad

When my hair was growing back after cancer treatment and I had just teeny tiny little bits of fuzz covering my head, 4-year-old Joey said, “People might think you’re the dad!” Same guy who told me while I was hospitalized for chemo complications and was wearing a mask and a hat, “You look like an alien.”

That boy just always knows what to say!

Snapfish PinkGives Gift Card Giveaway

Pink Hope Encouragement Card

Snapfish says you can create personalized gifts for your family and friends while you raise breast cancer awareness. It’s simple. Just visit www.snapfish.com/PinkGives, and for every PinkGives product you purchase, Snapfish will donate 30 percent of the proceeds (up to $25,000) to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

Also, Snapfish members can showcase their support by sending a note to pinkgives@snapfish.com about their involvement in the breast cancer cause – could be participation in a local Susan G. Komen race or organizing a fundraising campaign or related party – for a chance to receive Snapfish-funded support as an official photo sponsor for their event. Snapfish will select four winners and will donate up to $1,500 to each event.

That’s pretty cool.

So is this: Snapfish is giving away a $50 gift card to one of YOU through a giveaway HERE.

Also simple.

  • Leave a comment and tell us how you’ll spend your Snapfish bucks.
  • Leave your comment no later than 5PM ET on Tuesday, October 25, 2011.
  • You may enter only once.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, who are 18 and older.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing via random.org.
  • One winner will receive one gift card in the amount of $50.
  • Winners will be notified by email, so make sure to check next week to find out if you’ve won!


Bald Isn’t Bad Forever

If cancer ever forces you to lose your hair, you will probably be devastated, like I was.

But, in time, you might like the benefits of bald.

Like no shampoo; no hair drying, curling, flattening; and no time at all to get ready in the morning. (No shaving or eyebrow tweezing either.)

Not that you won’t love it when your hair returns, but bald isn’t the worst thing forever. Just in the beginning.

Radiation Follow-Up — Ready, Set, Wait

Today, I spent two hours in a radiation oncology clinic (staring at the same ‘ol boring exam room table) in order to spend maybe 15 minutes with the doctor. I’d write all about it here, but I sorta already did all my venting on Facebook. Here’s how it went:

Antsy. 42 minutes waiting to see doctor. Makes me mad every time.

Go say something. That’s SO RUDE! Imagine if I left my clients waiting that long? RUDE RUDE RUDE!

Exactly! Basically shouts that my time is not valuable, and it is!

I always take it as a big EFFF YOU! So rude.

Thinking of you….

Residents have been in. Now waiting on doc. It’s neverending.

They also obviously do not understand, or care, that the nervousness just gets worse the longer we have to sit there and dream up our own prognoses!! They can be such JERKS!!

Another doctor of mine
You must love coming to see me!

I KNOW it is annoying but PLEASE keep in mind there are times where a seriously ill pt comes into a office and needs immediate care or even needs to be transferred right away to the hospital. If it were your own mother who needed the care you may feel THANKFUL! Also, please let your M.D. know. There is also the event where he may have been double booked by office staff and not knowing it. Keep in mind Monday’s and Friday’s are your busiest days to have a appointment. I am sorry you are having to wait Jacki. I hope you get a clean bill of health. I am THANKFUL! Mine is the way he is! He takes such great care of his patients and his family! We are blessed!

I *do* love coming to see you, because you don’t make me wait … anymore! I wonder what you have written next to my name on the schedule — something like, “Don’t make this girl wait or she’ll freak out!” — ?? My appointment did end well, though — Doctor says I look perfect. Just took 2 hours to get that info.!

Oh, I do understand all of that, Jen, and I’m sure I’ve been the time-consuming patient at times. But over the course of almost seven years of cancer care, I’ve mostly waited and waited and waited — 4 hours was tops — and because I’ve been to places that have a slick system, it always bothers me. My husband gets his care at the VA Hospital, and he never waits! Of course, there are exceptions, but the norm should be that patients get in when they are scheduled. OK, moving on …

Radiation Follow-Up Coming Up

Four times a year, I report for some sort of cancer follow-up. Tomorrow, my radiation oncologist weighs in. (I had planned to post a photo of what radiation did to my skin, but I can’t do it. It’s too gross, and it sorta makes me cry.)

Bondi Band Pink Ribbon Headband Giveaway

One giveaway wraps up (Nicole won the Creative Memories goodies), and another begins. This time, the Bondi Band headband I so adore.

Check out the awesomeness over at bondiband.com, then imagine yourself wearing a slick, snazzy band around your head. Yours, if you win, will have a pink ribbon displayed front and center. Just like mine.

So, here’s the deal:

  • Leave a comment and tell us how your pink ribbon headband will come in handy.
  • Leave your comment no later than 5PM ET on Monday, October 17, 2011.
  • You may enter only once.
  • Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia, who are 18 and older.
  • One winner will be selected in a random drawing via random.org.
  • One winner will receive one pink ribbon headband (value: $8).
  • Winners will be notified by email, so make sure to check next week to find out if you’ve won!

Her First Mammogram

My friend Heather wrote a story about her first mammogram, and, in the name of breast cancer awareness, she is donating it to me so I can publish it for you. Her words follow, and see that photo to the right? That’s her — the girl I first met when we were something like 25 years old, and, now, we’re something like 40.

Oh, and the “cancer-surviving friend” in the story — that’s me!

My First Mammogram

Heather Dilatush

I just had my second mammogram. I really don’t mind going to the doctor or dentist – I like staying on top of my health, but I did skip last year’s mammogram and I think I know why.

Two years ago, I went for my first “mammo.” People will probably not believe this, but I wasn’t nervous or worried about the pain that sometimes accompanies getting “squished.” I figured that if it hurt, I would take some deep breaths and get through it. As my cancer-surviving friend said, getting squished may hurt, but cancer hurts more.

But first, let me put that time in a little context. I was getting my mammo at the start of a new school year. Although I was heading into my sixth year of teaching, I was thrown into teaching photography. I am a skilled artist, but I confess, I am not a photographer. I don’t even have a background in photography. Zippo, ziltch, nadda. So I was about to learn in front of 16-year-olds. I know, fun, right? It was one of the few times in my life when I felt like I didn’t know which end was up. Everybody kept telling me I was a great art teacher and I would be good. But like all teachers, I like to know my stuff really, super double extra well so that I can teach the hell out of it. Where do you start when you don’t know anything? And another confession: I have no passion for it. I appreciate it; my partner is a great photographer, my dad had a darkroom in our basement, but that particular artform does almost nothing for me. It makes no sense, I know.

So like a good 39-year-old, I went in for my mammogram and was greeted and fondled by a very nice woman. I got squished, and it was fine. She said that sometimes people have to come in a second time, but that 80% of the time it is just to get some better shots. I thought that made sense. And I remember thinking I could never do her job. I am scared to death of my new position, but I could never work as a technician. Sometimes you have to smile at the patient knowing that something is abnormal in those images.

I got the call that I needed to come in for some more images. This time, I was more nervous because I had been trying all week to plan lessons for something I had no clue about. When my students’ film doesn’t come out, why doesn’t it? And if you have ever shot photography, is it me or is learning aperture a little tricky? Oh, and darkroom chemicals, how do those work? I felt like a fraud. Also that week, when I went into our finance office to order some supplies, I looked at Cheryl’s desk full of purchase orders, mounds of paperwork-filled columns and numbers and stuff, and said, “I could never do your job.” She said chuckling, “well, I could never be a teacher, so we’re even.”

I was feeling so scattered that when I showed up for the second mammogram, I realized I had forgotten my wallet when I went to get my money for the co-pay. They took me anyway, and when I was in the room with the technician, she said, “I will let you know that this is not going to be very pleasant.” Ugh, okay. I thought to myself, just breath, it’s all you can do. She was right. It was not pleasant. But it still wasn’t really the worst pain I have ever experienced. I used it as a time to practice breathing.

But it still happened. I panicked. I realized that she was trying to get a particular shot. There was an area of my breast that she kept squeezing the heck out of. I closed my eyes and thought about my breathing. I assume she had no idea that I was concerned. I went back to the dressing room to get dressed and was on the verge of tears. Just as I finished pulling my shirt over my head, a woman with a beautiful, warm face and handshake said in a run-on sentence, “Hi Heather, I am Doctor Bryant we will see you next year everything is fine.” When she left, I thought, I could NEVER do HER job. I went out to my car and wept. I was both relieved and upset about the upcoming year. Somehow I would get through it. Maybe I would use it as a year to breath.

Port Support

My sister and Danny were with me the day I had my port removed. That surgery signified the end of cancer — the means by which all drugs entered my body was taken away. I worried I’d need one again at some point, and maybe I should just leave it there. But I have not required anything of the sort, and that boy in the photo is now 8 years old!