Seven Years by Mary Beth

April 29, 2013

Shortly after midnight on Saturday my daughter and her friend gave me this beautiful card case to hold my business cards.

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Sunday was my seven year anniversary as a Breast Cancer Survivor. On Friday, I ordered a cake for myself to celebrate this day.  I don’t really drink, I don’t do drugs and I have never smoked and I still got cancer… so yes I eat sugar.

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I asked my closest friend in California, (who was literally the first person to hear the news as the Doctor called me at work) to come over and celebrate with me.

The day started out a little later than I had planned, I was running late for church and the chapel that I attend is very small and difficult to sneak in late. I decided to go to the church that we belonged to when we first moved here (and during my treatment) as their mass starts 15 minutes later. This parish had been talking and planning and raising money to build a new church when we became members. I do believe things happen for a reason and as I sat in the church I became very reflective on the past 7 years. I sat in the old church and prayed to heal and survive when I was sick. Now 7 years later I sat in this new church and so thankful that I am still here.
Cancer changed my life forever, not all bad, but changed nonetheless. I am healed on the outside, but sometimes the emotional side still creeps up on me. A few months back I had a “touch-up” procedure done. Before I left work for the appointment I looked at myself in the mirror and thought outwardly, most people that I meet now, have no idea that I am a cancer survivor. My hair has grown in and they can’t tell that it is much thinner than before. My eyebrows and my eyelashes have grown back and my eyelashes hold mascara again. My scars are not visible when I am dressed. People cannot see the effects of the aromatase inhibitors. But as I lay on the table with the greatest leopard hospital gown on… the tears started streaming down my face. I was back 7 years ago as they wheeled me into the operating room to remove a part of my body. I have learned we must allow ourselves to honor these moments as part of the healing process too.

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Today the tears streamed down my face again, so many emotions. Happiness that I am still here, gratefulness for all of the people that supported, prayed and helped me. Sadness for many of the people that I met because of the cancer that are not here anymore. I wrote and delivered a note to another close friend at that time, who had helped me with the kids. Our lives have now taken us in different directions. I sent a thank you text to Lou for supporting me during my treatment. We were close to divorcing in 2006 and then I was diagnosed. We decided to stay together. We tried for another 5 years, but it just was not meant to be.
After honoring those few moments of tears and emotions I was off to enjoy my day. I walked my favorite island and visited my friend who is still recovering from a freak illness. He congratulated me and then asked “did you think you would be sitting here 7 years later?” “Honestly, I was not sure, but my Doctors were.” was my response. They told me it would be 12-18 months of hell and then I would have a greater risk driving on the freeways.

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I treated myself to one of my favorite childhood candies while relaxing for a pedicure.

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My friend and her daughter came over and we celebrated our friendship… and the girls ate CAKE!

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The only part missing in the day was seeing my Dante. This was his weekend with his Dad and his future Step-Mother. Other than that…
I am a survivor.
I am alive.
I have so many amazing people in my life that care about me.
It was a great day.

cross-posted at marybethvolpini


Too Moody For This

June 4, 2011

Last night my 12-year-old daughter got in trouble with her father and he just barely raised his voice at her.  Her response to this was to look at him and say, do not yell at me.  I wasn’t sure if my husband’s head was going to explode or not…it was touch and go there for a while.  My reaction, on the other hand, was to cry.  This has been happening more and more often lately.  I went to the grocery store and my husband told me I bought the wrong kind of cheese – I could feel my chin quivering and the tears forming in my eyes.

I’m turning 42 this month.  I know what menopause feels like, because I had the honor of going through it when I went through chemo.  Not only is it my birthday this month, but it’s also my 2 year cancer free anniversary – which means it’s been two years since I’ve had a hot flash or a major mood swing.  So, ok, I’m going through menopause, right?  Am I just starting menopause at the ripe old age of 42?  Is this a carry over from chemo?  Is it cancer?  Is it cancer? Is it cancer?  I get so tired of thinking that. 

 I see my oncologist every 4 months now.  It’s been 5 months since my last appointment.  Putting off going to the doctor doesn’t change what the outcome is going to be.  Intellectually I know this.  When they found the lump in my breast, they told me to trust them, because it was probably nothing.  Boy, were they wrong that time.  If I hear that again this time, I think my head will explode.


Hot and Bothered?

March 6, 2010

(by Susan) Menopause is not something I’d ever given thought to. After all, I’m 36 years old! Isn’t menopause an older woman’s concern?

But it turns out that we breast cancer survivors are often lucky enough to be blessed with early menopause, brought on by the high doses of chemotherapy drugs, tamoxifen (hormone suppressant), oopherectomies (removal of the ovaries), hysterectomies (removal of the uterus and often the ovaries), or a combination of all of these. And, as it turns out, managing menopause is even more difficult when you’re the only one in your crowd dealing with hot flashes, dryness, weight gain that just won’t go away, hormone-driven mood changes (they’re real!) and the other lovely parting gifts left by the departure of your monthly period and the estrogen that went with it.

Living Beyond Breast Cancer knows that this is something that a woman needs to know about, and they are bringing it to us cancer survivors in the comfort of our own homes and workplaces. Their next educational teleconference is Wednesday, March 10, and the topic is:

Hot and Bothered: Managing Treatment-Related Menopausal Symptoms.

Right on. To join the conference call, and to find out about future education programs, register online at lbbc.org and follow the instructions.

Susan also writes about the joy of life after cancer at Toddler Planet.


Chemotherapy Induced Time Travel

March 29, 2009

(crossposted from Coffee and Chemo)

My son and I were sitting down for an afternoon snack together.

Suddenly, I had a major hot flash!

I explained that my drug induced menopause caused it. I then elaborated that women usually go through menopause around age 50.

“You mean,” my son asked, with a twinkle in his eye, “you went forward in time?!”


The Heat Is On

December 12, 2008

And now that I have that song stuck in your head…

I was driving on the highway the other day and realized I couldn’t see the road.

A hot flash had fogged up my sunglasses.

Thanks again, Mr. Tamoxifen.


Who Knew?

October 29, 2008

My church has recently launched a Women’s Website and Blog and I’ve been thrilled to be a part of it.  I’ve written a few posts specifically for Breast Cancer Awareness month and this one seemed appropriate for repeating.  It’s not all specific to breast cancer, however.  A lot of the issues I talk about deal with chemotherapy in general.  I’m interested to know what things the rest of you “learned” about cancer and treatment.

Before I had kids I knew the proper way to raise perfect children.  I would do this and wouldn’t do that — it was so simple.  Then I became a parent and found out just how much I didn’t know.  It was the same way with cancer.  I thought I would have the surgery, go through chemo, grow my hair back, have reconstruction and then my life would be the same as it had been before.  How wrong I was.

My misconceptions about chemotherapy was my first schooling.  The comments I made to Todd about the silver lining to the diagnosis were nearly all blown to bits.

Chemotherapy as a weight loss aid:  I didn’t lose any weight.  In fact I gained 30 pounds over the six months of treatment.  I blame my oncologist and the chemo nurses for telling me to eat an ice cream sundae every day.  Oh, all right.  What they said was if the only thing I felt I could eat and keep down was an ice cream sundae then eat an ice cream sundae every day because it was better than not eating anything at all.

Chemo didn’t make me sick.  I had a few days of feeling icky after treatment, like I’d eaten something to sour my stomach; however, I wasn’t actually nauseous.  My food consumption didn’t change much, but I was suddenly living a sedentary life.  Another factor was the large amounts of steroids which accompanied each infusion and caused water retention and munchies for a couple days every three weeks. 

Loss of unwanted body hair:  This one was pretty weird.  I lost all the hair from the most personal of my parts to the top of my head.  My legs, however, didn’t cooperate.   They were as furry as ever.  To add insult to injury I wasn’t even allowed to shave.  A simple little nick could turn into a horrible infection due to my low white blood cell counts.  Thank the Lord above for the invention of Veet!

A lot of time to read:  Before all this I averaged a few books a week, about twelve books a month.  But my purchases were not in direct proportion to my reading and the bookshelves were bulging.  If my family hadn’t expected certain things from me – dinner, clean clothes, attention, etc., – I would have read a lot more.  So the thought of six months of guilt-free reading was enough to make me slightly giddy.  But it turned out to be nothing more than a thought.  The chemo made focusing nearly impossible so I read only a few books the whole time.  What’s just as sad, if not more so, is that I still haven’t gotten up to speed and my bookshelves continue to bulge.

A set of new, improved, perky boobs:  This isn’t related to chemotherapy, but my comment was blurted out without any understanding of the process.  Many women choose not to have reconstruction, but the majority of mastectomy patients, especially among younger women, do decide on some form.  There are a lot of emotions that accompany the loss of a breast and reconstruction is a way for women to feel better about their bodies.  But the plain truth is, even if reconstruction makes a woman look normal, it doesn’t feel normal.  Whether it’s implants or some type of flap procedure, the breast tissue, including nerves, is removed.  There’s little to no sensitivity and sometimes it feels like a foreign appendage on your chest.  So the boobs are new, they’re not necessarily improved and because I had a flap procedure instead of implants they’re really not all that perky.  Frankly I’d rather have the old, small, slightly saggy boobs any day.

Then there’s all the weird stuff you never know about until you or someone close to you goes through treatment.

Chemopause:  Chemotherapy shuts down the ovaries in premenopausal women causing chemically-induced menopause.  While not all women experience hot flashes and night sweats during menopause, each chemopauser I’ve ever known suffered from spontaneous combustion on a regular basis.  My family always knew when I was about to incinerate by the way I would whip off my bandana and fan my bald head.  More often than not I’d end up with two kids blowing on my noggin in an effort to cool me off.

Chemo Brain:  For a very long time this was considered the imagination of chemotherapy patients.  There have been many studies done, however, and oncologists now take it seriously.  Lack of concentration and forgetfulness are the results and it lasts much longer than treatment.  Five years used to be the magic oncological number, but now they’re finding it lasts far beyond that for some patients.  I deal with it and as frustrating as it can be at times, I can cover a multitude of forgetful sins by claiming chemo brain.

Lymphedema:  In breast cancer patients this is the result of either 1) having lymph nodes removed during lumpectomy or mastectomy to check for the spread of cancer; and/or 2) damage to the lymph system from radiation.  It causes painful and sometimes debilitating swelling of the surgical arm and there is no cure for it, only physical therapy to help reduce it.  It can occur weeks, months or even years after surgery and there is no guarantee it won’t eventually happen.  I’m thankful not to have lymphedema at this time and pray I never do.  Not all oncologists agree with this, but my doctor advises against any trauma to my left arm including shaving.  Again, praises for the invention of Veet.

It’s for this very reason that I decided to see my tattoo artist for laser hair removal of my underarms.  If you’re thinking Miami Ink, think again.  My “tattoo artist” is the medical aesthetician at my plastic surgeon’s office who tattooed my nipples after reconstruction.  Calling her a tattoo artist is misleading because all she knows how to do is circles.  I asked about flowers or Celtic knots, but she doesn’t have either in her repertoire.  As it happens, she also does laser hair removal so I decided to have that done.  It was well worth the searing pain and the money, though I have to go back for a touch up.  (Note to self: Remember the leather strip and shot of whiskey.)

Osteoporosis:  If a premenopausal woman’s cancer is caused by estrogen then it’s in that woman’s best interest to shut off the production of the hormone.  Oftentimes chemotherapy is enough to shrivel the ovaries until they die, but sometimes an oophorectomy – the surgical removal of the ovaries and a fun word to say – is required.  In my case I had to have the surgery which threw me into instant menopause.  It was like winning the lottery because I went through the symptoms of menopause three times in two years.  Not every woman is so lucky.  But yanking those puppies and cutting off the major portion of estrogen causes the deterioration of bone.  As my oncologist put it, it’s not a matter of IF I’ll get osteoporosis; it’s a matter of WHEN.  Thankfully there is a lot in the way of nutrition and exercise that can put it off.

Arthritis/Joint Pain/Stiffness:  Some chemotherapies and post-chemotherapy drugs can cause arthritic changes, joint pain and stiffness.  It’s kind of a catch 22.  The best thing for these conditions is exercise, but exercise can be difficult when you’re suffering from these conditions.  I try to walk at least 30 minutes every day yet I still hobble and wince every time I get up after sitting for 10 minutes or more.  I’m hopeful this will go away after I finish my post-chemo drug in two years, two months and a week or so.

Sexual Dysfunction:  I hate to bring this one up.  It’s just so personal, but it’s a very real fact.  There are a lucky few who never deal with this issue.  Then there are the rest of us.  This subject alone could be a whole series of posts but I’ll try to condense it into one paragraph.  There is the emotional side – self-image, fear of the disease, depression, fear of rejection.  Then there is the physical side, especially when the estrogen has been staunched.  Loss of libido, vaginal dryness, pain or discomfort.  Not every woman deals with every aspect but they are each valid problems.  It’s a hard knock when you go from a healthy sex life to no sex life seemingly overnight.  Sadly marriages have failed due to this issue.

There are also things that have no explanation, but are most likely caused by the chemical changes from chemotherapy. 

For several months after my reconstruction I had inexplicable skin problems that never were diagnosed even though I had several biopsies and saw a specialist.  I still have small breakouts which resemble hives, but only a few at a time as opposed to nearly 100 at one point last year.  The only thing my oncologist, gynecologist, dermatologist and specialist agreed on – it was most likely a latent result of the chemotherapy.

With each treatment of my second chemotherapy round I had a terrible case of thrush brought on by my dangerously low white blood count.  I would take Diflucan – typically prescribed for yeast infections – and swish and swallow a horrible tasting liquid containing nystatin and lidocaine and all would be well until the next treatment.  Ever since then my tongue has been continually swollen and I’m very susceptible to thrush.  When I haven’t gotten enough rest or I let myself get stressed my tongue, gums and interior cheeks swell up even further.  There’s no known reason for it so I just have to deal with it and hope it will eventually go away.

I didn’t know any of this when I started this unwelcomed journey.  Of course everybody is different and while some may experience low white blood counts, which suppress the immune system, others experience low red counts, which cause extreme fatigue.  Some patients may be ill through chemotherapy and lose dangerous amounts of weight while others, such as me, never get sick and actually gain weight.  You never know until you go through treatment how you will react.

The not knowing to me was always the worst part.  Not knowing what stage or grade cancer I had, not knowing my prognosis, not knowing how I would handle treatment, not knowing if my head was lumpy or if I’d look okay bald – the list is nearly endless.  There was one thing I knew from the very beginning, though.  God was with me and He was going to take care of me.  He took my fears and gave me peace; He took my uncertainties and gave me hope; and He showed me that there is humor in just about everything if I’d only look for it.  I honestly can’t imagine going through something like cancer without Him and I’m so glad I didn’t have to.

 

 

 

 

 


Tamoxifen

October 22, 2008

I had my appointment with my oncologist yesterday and learned the next stage of The Plan.  I knew Tamoxifen was next in the line up, but I didn’t really know what it did.  It turns out, Tamoxifen (or the generic version which my insurance will pay for) allows me to be a 30ish year old for a while.  Apparently in the olden days, an estrogen positive cancer meant yanking pretty much anything that makes me female.  Tamoxifen creates a sort of force field around any existing cancer cells, making it so estrogen can’t make it grow.  It also allows my body to be in it’s 30s for a little bit longer.  At the end of 5 years, there will be some choices.  If my body has gone into menopause, I can choose to do nothing.  If it hasn’t (I’ll only be 39), I will have to make a choice.  I can get my ovaries removed, or again I can choose to do nothing.  Truthfully, the idea of doing nothing freaks me out.  My major coping mechanism through all this has been the attitude that I’m fighting something.  When I feel like I’m not fighting, the panic sets in. And that’s why there’s Ativan.  Heh.

Crossposted to ThrowsLikeAGirl


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