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

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Same Chapter…

February 16, 2013

The Same Chapter…Different Take

Crossposted at Jenster’s Musings

This past Wednesday was just another routine oncology appointment. Into the exam room walked a very dapper White Russian. I’ve only ever seen him in his white coat, but the other day he sported a yellow v-neck sweater, a navy and white checked shirt and a yellow tie with stripes in various shades of blue, all wrapped up in a natty tweed blazer. I commented on his Soviet swag, to which he replied he had lost weight and his coats were too big. He was waiting for his order of new coats to come in, but had gotten so many compliments that he was thinking of cancelling the order.

Once the fashion discussion was over we got down to business. And he started the real conversation with, “There was a study…

I really hate those words. They usually don’t bode well for me. Which is ridiculous because the reason I and my mother and countless other cancer survivors are healthy and/or alive is because there was a study. But the last few times I was told there was a study it meant something I had been working for, something that was at my fingertips, something I was happily looking forward to was yanked from my grasp.

Here is the opening paragraph of a press release regarding this study from the San Antonio Symposium held in December:

SAN ANTONIO — Ten years of adjuvant treatment with Tamoxifen provided women with estrogen receptor-positive breast cancer greater protection against late recurrence and death from breast cancer compared with the current standard of five years of Tamoxifen, according to the international ATLAS (Adjuvant Tamoxifen — Longer Against Shorter) study.

You can read the whole press release HERE.

Basically it says that there was a decrease in recurrence and/or death rates in the second decade (10 to 14 years) after diagnosis for women with estrogen receptor positive cancer who remained on Tamoxifen for ten years instead of five years.

The White Russian went on to tell me that his daughter is a fellow at Sloan Kettering in New York and their team determined (as is also mentioned in the press release) that this practice should extend to all adjuvant hormone therapies, i.e., Arimidex.

I’m not sure if it was my expression (I am happy to report I was not about to burst into tears, however I bet there was a “you can’t make me” look on my face) or if he really wasn’t sure this was the right course for me, but we talked about it at length. When I told him I often wondered if my issues were side effects or just a matter of my age he told me that I’m too young to have these issues. He also said that quality of life is sometimes more important than reducing a recurrence by a couple of percentage points.

This is a great example of why I am so fond of this doctor. Where I tend to downplay my discomfort and fatigue and myriad other annoyances, he justified them as real and life-altering problems that I shouldn’t be forced to deal with if I don’t have to. Well, that and when he said I was “too young”. I liked that part, too.

So we came up with a plan. I am no longer on the Arimidex and we’ll revisit this in six months. I wasn’t even disappointed that I have to go back in six months again, even though this was supposed to be my last six month appointment. It takes about three months for the Arimidex to be completely removed from the body. Hopefully I will notice a difference in the second half of these six months. If so then I will not go back on the medication. If there is no change I will resume the Arimidex for another three years.

Not entirely what I was hoping for, but I’ll take it. Now I’m just praying there will be a change. Not because I don’t want to go back on the drug – if these problems aren’t drug related then it doesn’t really matter – but because I don’t want these problems.

Once we satisfactorily concluded that whole discussion we went on with the rest of the exam. Which consisted mostly of us talking about our children and college and degrees and the like. He was very exuberant about Katie’s choice of Music Therapy for a degree and field, which I found interesting. This medical doctor – a hard science, bio-chemical type medical doctor – is all atwitter about this up and coming field. To quote him, “It’s been around for a while, but just in the past few years there has been so much literature about its benefits. It’s a really great field.”

The rest of the appointment was pretty routine, including the run through Starbucks for the obligatory White Chocolate Mocha for the ride home in rush hour traffic. I didn’t really want the drink, but there was no choice. The car automatically turns out of the cancer center’s parking lot and drives straight to the ‘bux without any concern for my own will. Really. I was glad for it, too, because it took me forever to get home. Never, ever drive from the general direction of Philadelphia at 4:00pm during the work week. Ever.

***

The second unexpected twist in this chapter came the following day when I spoke to a genetic counselor on the phone to get Katie set up for genetic testing. After a fairly lengthy conversation she told me that I was the one who needed the testing since I was the one who had the cancer. This seemed so contradictory to everything I thought I had been told, but her explanation made perfect sense. If I test negative for the BRCA gene we will know my cancer was not genetic, which means there is no reason to test anybody else. If I test positive, however, then others in my family may wish to be tested as well, i.e., Katie, Taylor, my sisters, etc.

My thought (though obviously my thoughts are not to be trusted) is that this is not a genetic cancer. My mother’s breast cancer was protein positive/ hormone negative and mine was the exact opposite. Most likely if it was a genetic thing we would have had the same tumor make up. The counselor confirmed my thought process, though it’s still not a sure thing.

So in a week and a half I will be meeting with her at 8:00 in the morning -I should have asked if I could bring coffee because, well, you know. It’s me we’re talking about and 8:00 in the morning is early when you have to be clean and presentable. – to go over an in-depth family history and all the fine details about my cancer, my mom’s cancer, etc.

***

To close out this post I want to tell you about an event I went to the night after I wrote The Next Chapter. It was a community night of prayer for some of our local families. One family in particular is a preschool and church family and they were given a devastating blow this past September. Their third child, Eli, was diagnosed with Metachromatic Leukodystrophy (MLD) – a horrific degenerative disease with no cure. MLD is genetic and it was passed on to him by his unsuspecting parents. They then had the other three children tested and while the two older boys are carriers and don’t have the disease, their preschooler, Ella, does have the disease.

As I sat there listening to their mother, Becky, I thought how petty my gripes of the previous day had been. I would take Arimidex, or chemotherapy, or anything every day of my life if it meant my children wouldn’t have to suffer. The heartaches I have been through have no comparison to what this family has been through and will continue to endure. But what faith and strength Becky has. You can read about it at her blog, Fear Not.

***

As for this chapter, maybe I should stop trying to figure it out before I’ve finished reading it and just let God do his thing.


The Next Chapter

February 7, 2013
Crossposted at Jenster's Musings

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I am staring at a new chapter of the cancer chronicles. It’s not a bad chapter, precisely, but it has me feeling a little uncomfortable. Or maybe restless. Or maybe I just don’t know what it is I’m feeling.

Next week I see my oncologist for my last biannual appointment. That is a great thing. I am nearly 8 years out from diagnosis and over 7 years since my first No Evidence of Disease report. That is a survivor’s dream.

There are only a few days left of my Arimidex and I won’t be refilling the prescription. Two years of Tamoxifen followed by five years of Arimidex and I’m finally done. The original plan was to be on post-chemo drugs for a total of five years, but somewhere around year four a study indicated that it was best to stay on the Arimidex for five years regardless of how long Tamoxifen had been taken. That was a huge disappointment at the time (worthy of a few tears), but the extra two years are done and I can finally stop the Arimidex.

Earlier this evening I was reading stories from women who had gotten off the Arimidex and how their lives were improved. More energy, weight loss, decreased stiffness and pain, slight reversal of some menopausal symptoms… all things that I deal with to some extent. I want to be excited about the prospect of a better quality of life, but I’m afraid to. I am 47, after all. I’m not supposed to have as much energy, weight loss is supposed to be more difficult, stiffness and pain are just a part of growing older and menopausal symptoms are what you get when you’ve had your ovaries removed, right?

So what if I don’t notice any difference in any of those areas after I stop the medication? What if all my “symptoms” are just a result of my age? I can tell you right now that if there is no improvement I will be just short of devastated. And incredibly furious. Again. The injustice of cancer has a way of causing righteous anger even still.

I was talking with two of my co-workers today and I told them that I don’t want to be a “new” me. I just want to be the old me. The me that I was at 39. Or more specifically, the me that I would be today if I hadn’t been derailed by the monster. Of course, I have no idea what that me would be. I just know it wouldn’t be the me I am. But maybe I’ll be much closer to that me after I stop the Arimidex. I guess time will tell.

There’s more to this chapter than this, though, and it goes beyond my own personal battle. This afternoon I started the process to get Katie genetically tested. When she was about 13 my oncologist told me that I would want her to be screened when she was 18 because some of her life choices would depend on whether or not she was genetically disposed to breast cancer. At the time 18 seemed so far away.

It hurts my heart that I’ve done this to her and Taylor. We don’t even know if this is genetic, but just the fact that Katie (and possibly Taylor) has to go through the testing is more than I think either of them should have to go through. I feel responsible and guilty and I’ve never been one to feel guilt over much of anything. But this? I want to heap burning coals upon my head. Even though I know it’s not my fault. And yet…

I know I’ve said this time and time again over the past 7 years, but I really thought once I was through with treatment and reconstruction everything would be normal again. What I have found is that cancer has a ripple effect and I will never be completely free from it. And sometimes that’s exhausting.

But then I remind myself that I don’t have cancer and I am healthy, quirky aging and/or side-effects aside. Even more important is that my children don’t have cancer and they are healthy. I have a husband who adores me, kids who love me, great family and friends and I am happy.

So next week I’ll go see the White Russian and he’ll say how great I’m doing and he’ll send me for a dexascan to see where my osteopenia is (that will hopefully eventually be reversed since I’m stopping the Arimidex) and then he’ll tell me that I don’t need to come back for another year (which will make me happy and sad all at the same time). And sometime soon Katie will go get tested to see if she has the BRCA gene (which I don’t think she does) and she can then make the educated choices that a young woman needs to make.

And then I can move on to the next chapter.


finding hope beyond the pink ribbons (by Laurie)

July 20, 2012

My friend Sean Moore, Orit’s husband, posted the following note on FB. I reprint it here with his permission:

An enormous number of people have asked about donations in Orit’s name over the past 2 weeks. As many of you know, Orit was very academically minded and spent considerable time reading the medical literature and evaluating charities. We found that most cancer research charities had very high administration fees and poor impact factors. We came across some specific research, which has very good promise in helping find a cure. The Ottawa Hospital Foundation has set up a fund, which will be used 100% to go directly to this work. The discovery is very novel and was published in the world’s most prestigious scientific journal in June of this year. I will include a link to their latest publication and an easy to understand explanation:

http://www.fbmc.fcen.uba.ar/materias/qbiia/seminarios-2012/seminario-6-28-y-30-de-mayo.-hipoxia-y-autofagia/A-Nature%2012%20AOP%20may6.pdf

Here is a link to an easy to understand summary of the research:

http://www.ottawacitizen.com/health/discovery+offers+hope+cancer+heart+disease+miracle+drugs+with+video/6574966/story.html

Donations in Orit’s name can be made online by using the following link:

https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/donate.aspx?TributeType=Memoriam&EventID=1819&LangPref=en-CA&Referrer=http%3A%2F%2Fohfoundation.ca%2F

The first page will capture the information regarding the person making the donation. Under “Donation Information”, please choose “Other” in the drop down menu and specify “As requested by family” in the space provided. Once the donation portion is completed, you’ll be directed to a page to indicate that the donation is being made in memory of Orit and to indicate if an acknowledgement should be sent. Tax receipts are immediately available after donation is done.

Donations can be sent by mail (indicate in memory of Orit Fruchtman) to
The Ottawa Hospital Foundation, 737 Parkdale Ave, 1st Floor, Ottawa, ON K1Y1J8.

Donations can also be taken by phone by calling (613) 761-4295.

1 in 8 women will get breast cancer. Research is the only path to finding better treatments and a cure to this disease, which has devastated our family and so many others across the world.

Love, Sean

“The true meaning of life is to plant trees, under whose shade you do not expect to sit.”  Nelson Henderson

This message had a very strong impact on me. Orit was a very smart woman. Sean is a doctor. I trust their judgement. And I agree with their priorities. 

Let’s do something great to honour a wonderful woman. Let’s help fund research that will effect real change. I donated. Will you?


for Orit (by Laurie)

July 14, 2012

photo: Andrea Ross/Mark Blevis

As of Saturday, June 30th, I have been in remission for five years. This is a huge milestone and I’m very fortunate to have the chance to mark it.


But I really didn’t feel like celebrating.


Just a couple of days before, my beautiful friend Orit passed away, leaving three young kids, a loving spouse and a large group of family and friends in deep mourning. I spoke to her husband Sean early on the day she died and afterwards posted on Facebook what was for me an unusually vague status update:

“Warning: This would not be a good day to tell me that everything happens for a reason. Sometimes wrong stuff just happens. And sometimes life is terribly unfair.”



So much about cancer is a crap shoot. Some get cancer, some don’t. Some walk away, others live with the illness forever. Some live for a long time and some die way before they are ready to go.


Orit had strength and determination and a great love for her family and community. She had access to the best health care and, prior to being diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer, was healthy and fit. She never stopped fighting to live and she most definitely did not lose a battle.


Despite the fact that we lived in the same neighbourhood, I met Orit less than a year ago, not long after her cancer diagnosis. Our illness brought us together but we soon found that we had so much more than than cancer in common. We both found humour in the world around us, sought to nurture our creative selves and wore our hearts on our sleeves when it came to those around us. I had the privilege of watching her face light up when her husband got home and the clear eyed love she had for each of her kids. We had the chance to talk about being in cross-cultural relationships and about the values we hoped to share with our kids. We talked about petty grievances and big ideas. And we shared our fears, hopes, sorrow and anger at facing the scourge that is cancer.


One evening, as we were yarn bombing our local community centre, Orit and I sat on the pavement sewing a 6 foot tube of yarn onto a bike rack. As we took turns holding the piece in place and passing the needle, she suddenly said. “I really wish that we had the chance to know each other before. We would have been such good friends.”


I felt my heart break as I struggled to find an appropriate and truthful answer. But I knew it would be wrong to say “We will get to be friends for a long time” or even “It’s going to be OK.” Instead, I said swallowing the lump in my throat, “I agree. I wish I’d met you sooner as well.”


The last time I saw Orit, we had tea on her front porch while she knit. She had been in the hospital the night before because of unmanageable pain. That morning she seemed fine, if weak. She talked about convincing her oncologist to try one last course of treatment and her profound grief at the thought of leaving her children. We both cried.


And then I left for a yoga class, borrowing a t-shirt before I left. It didn’t occur to me that I would not see her again.


A few days later, she was hospitalized. And a few days after that, she died.


I wish I had told her how amazing I thought she was. That I thought she was a great mother, an interesting person and inspiring in a way that transcended her illness. I wish I’d said how beautiful she was.


I’ve struggled for two weeks to write this blog post. Orit’s family have been so kind, loving and generous to me but I can’t help thinking how grossly unfairly life has treated them.


Which is why I haven’t felt like celebrating.


I am very lucky to be alive and I hope to be around writing blog posts in another 5 years. None of us knows when our time will come. We need to live bravely, love fiercely and hold on to the things that matter. We need to tell those we care for how much they mean to us and to do those things we always wanted to do. No matter how long we have on this earth, we need to truly live.


I, for one, plan on doing a little more yarn bombing. I have Orit’s last piece of knitting so a little bit of her will be there as well.


Care to join us?

video: Mark Blevis


Seven Is A Perfect Number

May 3, 2012


Jewish tradition declares the number seven is perfect. So today I share seven thoughts.

1. Seven years ago today I woke up with butterflies in my belly because of what the day held for me.

2. Seven years ago today the surgical waiting room at Baptist Hospital in Little Rock was overrun with people praying for me, laughing and telling lies exaggerated stories about me and eating my peanut M&Ms.

3. Seven years ago today I sang “I Want To Be Sedated” as the attendant and nurse wheeled me into surgery.

4. Seven years ago today a cancerous mass, my left breast and several lymph nodes were removed from my body.

5. Seven years ago today somebody stole the breast cancer awareness car magnet from my van in the hospital parking lot.

6. Seven years ago today I began an unwelcomed journey, but one in which I learned a lot along the way.

7. Seven years ago today I decided I would not be bested by something as evil as cancer.

It may not be a perfect list, but I sure do love being able to say I’ve been cancer free for seven years.

Crossposted at Jenster’s Musings


Divorce vs. Cancer, by Mary Beth

January 20, 2012

I have not blogged on this site in quite some time. I just had my 5 year and 6 month check-up and I am good, a few minor problems but let me emphasize minor. The past year has been a very difficult and trying one. After 28 years of marriage I found the courage to ask for a divorce.

I have always been afraid of divorce. I am not sure if it was because I was so young when we met. If I was afraid of being alone… which is a funny concept because I have felt alone for much of my marriage. I was afraid of what others would think. I was afraid of the kid sharing. I was afraid that once I asked for a divorce he would not support us. I was worried about money, which is also a funny concept because I was worried about money with him too….probably more so. I was afraid because he was my first love. I was afraid to have to try to meet someone else to spend my life with and now even more so as a cancer survivor, with a double mastectomy. I was afraid because I love the idea of marriage and family and I desperately wanted to have a long-term marriage and a good family life for my kids.

We had talked about divorce many times and in fact were very close in 2006 and then the cancer diagnosis. We stayed together, but in hindsight I think that was the final nail in the marriage coffin… thank goodness in was not the final nail in my coffin. I learned so many lessons from my cancer, mostly what is truly important. It changed me in so many ways. I guess I thought it would change the others close to me too. I have learned that just because we learn lessons, it does not mean everyone else does. So many times after the cancer I felt like the glorified nanny and housekeeper. There were many issues that I could not talk about then, that I hope someday I can share in case other women experience the same with their marriages.

Over the past 5 years since my diagnosis, those that knew of my marital problems would say “you survived cancer, you can survive divorce”. I heard what they were saying, but I just could not find that courage. I felt cancer was different. I had a team of doctors that I trusted. They said “do this” and I knew I would do it and follow their directions to the letter. There is no trust in divorce… another funny thought because there was no trust in my marriage either. I was not blessed with being able to trust those who are supposed to love and protect you.

I was so afraid of asking for a divorce and then having my cancer come back, what would I do? I don’t know if my cancer will come back, but I know if I stayed it definitely would. I found the courage. Divorce is hard, but cancer is harder.

On the tough divorce issue days I think of the other Mothers on this site who are fighting their cancer daily, hourly and by the minute. I think of the women that we have lost and their valiant fight, they remind me everyday what is truly important and then I remind myself… “if I survived cancer… then I can survive divorce.”

Please say a prayer or lots of prayers and healing thoughts for one of our fearless and amazing leaders, Susan, she has been having some breathing and pain issues and was admitted to the ER on Tuesday.