Thursday, February 12, 2015

Episode 26: Epilogue

If a book has a conclusion does it get to have an epilogue as well? I'm not sure. When I wrote Episode 25 as the Conclusion, I was done. Everything. I was done treatments. I was done living away from home. I was done thinking about cancer. I was ready to forget and move on. I was also wrong. I'm not done. Not by a long shot.

Every morning, I wake up and my first action of the day (literally, while I'm still in bed) is to swallow a handful of pills (two Vitamin D, two low-dose anti-anxiety pills, and one Tamoxifen). With a wake-up call like that, how can I forget? Sometimes I lie back down for some more rest. Sometimes I get up ready to take on the day. (It's a real blessing that I have two teenagers at home to keep me busy.) When I get up, I brush my teeth and, yep, you guessed it, I look in the mirror. As lovely as my hair is right now compared to six months ago, the darker colour, the softer texture, and the short length is another reminder. I constantly run my fingers through my hair to see if it has grown in the past five minutes. No, I'm not forgetting. A bath or a shower? Just another visual reminder that I'm not who I used to be. And often, I run out of breath. Can't forget why I'm short on breath. Oh, yes, and let's not forget chemo-brain (also known as fog brain). It is a thing. This week alone, I missed three appointments in three days. Keeping the house clean? Not even close. My kids don't understand why I've changed and what's different about me. They're frustrated. I just keep telling them to be patient but I know I've been doing some dumb things.

And get this, I'm one of the lucky ones. I'm alive. I live and move on my own steam. I can do things. I can care for my family. I can expect a lot more years out of this 1964 model. I am grateful. In so many ways, I feel that 2015 is a new beginning. I will elaborate on that in a future post. To that end then, I extend an invitation to you to continue the journey with me. I have started a new blog called Dawn's World. It won't be exclusively about my cancer story. There will be other events as well which, I hope, will be fairly mundane but, I also hope, will make for interesting reading. I have also created a Facebook group called Breast Cancer Warriors . It is a closed group designed to be a resource for breast cancer patients, survivors and their caregivers. If you have a story to tell that you think will encourage someone or if you need encouragement yourself, click on Join Group and we'll get you in. With that, I bring this blog, My Experience with Cancer, to a close (maybe) and look forward to seeing you all again in Dawn's World.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Episode 25: Conclusion

"It's happy, scary, and weird all at the same time." - Roxanne

Yes, it is.

Happy Part  Last Thursday, Neil and I met with the oncologist for the second time since January.* We were curious as to whether or not there would be any new information. There was one bit of news. A recent CT scan looking for blood clots in my heart and lungs showed that the cancer had not moved to my heart or lungs. And, thankfully, there are no blood clots anywhere including arms and legs. The really good news, however, was that the doctor stressed the past-tense nature of my condition. She emphasized, "You had cancer." It is in the past. And "You are cancer free. It is highly likely that the surgery got everything." This is what I have been telling people all along but it's nice to hear it from a doctor. I texted my parents and daughters immediately so they could enjoy the good news as well. I knew that they really needed a break from all the worry. A lady (my age) here at the hotel told me that she was 18 when her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and that it was the scariest thing she'd ever known. My own daughters are 15 & 17 and I know this has been horrible for them. I've always taken my mother for granted (a fault that I can only attribute to her incredible patience) but the thought that a person could lose a mother in their young years brings tears to the eyes. (Oh, stink, where's the tissue?) ...  Quick, back to Happy. Thanks, Pharrell!  I also thought you might find the following link interesting: Due to research, breast cancer survival rates have improved drastically. Now almost 90% of those who experience ‪#‎BreastCancer‬ will survive!

Scary Part  Now that I've had a week to digest the following information it's not that scary anymore but I was asked, "If the above is true then why the need for on-going treatment?" That's the wildness of breast cancer. Breast cancer doesn't play by rules. I was diagnosed with two cancers, one of which was aggressive and spreading into my lymph nodes. A modified radical mastectomy removed my left breast which removed the two lumps and the spreading cancer from my left breast. Also, 20 lymph nodes were removed from under my left arm, eight of which were cancerous (don't worry, we have hundreds Number of Lymph Nodes).** We can be fairly certain that everything was caught. But, ultra-sounds and CT scans don't see everything. It is possible for cancer cells to remain very small and escape detection. So at this point, post-surgery, everything becomes a game of statistics. Women in this situation who do not follow through with treatment have a fairly high chance of recurrence: that is the cancer comes back. Women who go through the whole process of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation substantially drop the risk of recurrence.*** So even though I've been told to claim the status of being Cancer-free, I still do every preventive measure possible. (Perhaps a good comparison would be that even though I've never been hit by a car, I'll still walk on the sidewalk just so I can lower the odds.)

Further, my cancer was identified as Estrogen Receptor positive. This means that my little critters like estrogen. It helps them grow. Everyone produces estrogen until they die and if there are any cancer cells in me escaping detection at this point, they could grow with the help of my own estrogen. However, there is a treatment for that. It's called Tamoxifen and comes in the form of a little pill. Tamoxifen acts like estrogen and leads cancer cells to believe that they are getting an estrogen treat but, instead of helping the cancer cells to grow, the tamoxifen wraps itself around the cell and blocks it from receiving any real estrogen. I will be taking a Tamoxifen pill every day for the next five years. At that time, I will be re-evaluated and likely given another five year term of Tamoxifen. After ten years of Tamoxifen, I might be switched to an aromatase inhibitor but I'll look that up later. Right now, my head is full.

Weird Part It's been almost one year since this adventure started and I have yet to stop and catch my breath. I never ever would have dreamed that I could be in this situation and it's still a bit un-nerving to think about. It's been a whirlwind of learning, thinking, crying, withdrawing, and reaching out (to give and to receive). It's a weird feeling because I have to adjust. I'm not the same person I used to be. That is humbling because I thought I was pretty cool before but I had a lot to learn about myself and being a better person. On the one hand, I'm not as patient as I used to be over lifes minor aches and pains. "You stubbed your toe. Oh, what a shame. i.e. Get over it." But, on the other hand, I have a lot more empathy for the big stuff. For example, the other day I was too weak to walk from my radiation appointment to the pharmacy (both in the hospital) so I asked for a wheelchair and a porter to deliver me. It was kind of fun but also an eye opener. Now, when I see someone in a wheelchair I don't see someone who is weak. I see someone who has a story and probably a humdinger of a story at that. I also have a lot more empathy for old people (oops, the elderly) now. I am definitely younger than almost everybody here by quite a bit but, even still, I understand better the frailty that comes with age. We didn't start out looking like this. It's also weird because I have become an "expert" on an experience that I never asked for. People are asking me if there's "life after chemotherapy". It's a weird but nice feeling to be able to say, "Yes, there is. Don't give up. It does get better. It gets pretty low but you will come back up again."

Dear Reader,

My adventure and this blog have completed their course. I want to sincerely thank you for the time that you have given me. Your support has been such an encouragement through a dark year. Being able to put my thoughts and feelings into read-able explanations has helped me to process this experience. And knowing that my words have been a help or a pleasure for you is extremely gratifying. Thank you.

Bless you,

* For the sake of accuracy, I feel that I must explain that it wasn't actually the oncologist I met but rather his representative, another doctor. Also, it might seem that having only two meetings from January to September isn't good but, in fact, there was a whole team of doctors and nurses looking after me regularly so I feel very well cared for.

** In case you're curious, I do still have pain and discomfort from the surgery, especially under my arm. Sometimes people ask so yes, it's there.

*** I am deliberately leaving out percentages and time frames rather than risk making a mistake. For real figures, please consult a Physician or reputable web-site.

Wednesday, September 03, 2014

Episode 24: On Being Strong

Hello Dear One,

I'm writing to you from my hotel's computer in the activity room. There is a boisterous game of Euchre going on behind me. Yesterday, the gang showed me how to play. I am now living in London Monday-Friday while I receive daily radiation treatments. I don't know the exact number of treatments yet but it will likely be 33, so three down, thirty to go. The Cancer Clinic has a deal with the hotel so that out-of-town patients can stay here at no charge during the week. I'm just guessing but I would say that there are about 30 people who stay here through the Cancer Clinic program. We are very well treated, including three meals a day at a much-subsidized rate. As cancer patients, we are all at different stages and receiving different treatments so we are a very transient bunch but there is a lot of camaraderie as we all can relate to the trials of living this way and needing to look after each other.

I'm happy to report that the chemo part is over for me. My final treatment was July 28th, a little over a month ago. My hair is about 2" long, although very transparent and, although I'm still achy in the bones and easily winded, I can feel myself getting stronger every day. Yesterday, I used the stationary bicycle for five minutes and went a distance of 1 km burning ten calories. Today, I used the stairs several times from the lobby to the third floor and also back and forth to the second floor.

I want to write today regarding the topic of being called strong. Many times this year I have been complimented by people about how strong I am and that I can "do this". I don't want to offend well-meaning people who are genuinely trying to encourage me but, in truth, this is a compliment that does not sit well with me. It's taken me months of mulling to understand why but I think I have it now.

Just for fun, let's start with some definitions. Strong is:
- someone who comes off as confident; someone who is comfortable in there (sic) own skin; someone who can take on the world; someone who should be very proud of themselves (Urban Dictionary)

- Having passive physical power; having ability to bear or endure; firm; hale; sound; robust; as, a strong constitution; strong health; Solid; tough; not easily broken or injured; able to withstand violence; able to sustain attacks; not easily subdued or taken (

- not easy to break or damage (Merriam-Webster)

The only definition above that I'll accept for myself is having a strong constitution and being able to sustain attacks. I continue to endure. I think, though, real strength is like courage. It's the ability to do what needs to be done in spite of ones fears when given a choice. I did not have a choice. I had to go through the treatment and I don't deserve the label. Legally, yes it was me who signed the consent form but that's a moot point. There really was no choice or discussion. Knowingly leave my children orphaned: never. Leaving my husband widowed (widowered?), not good. Leaving my parents to bury their child, unthinkable. I will do everything I can to protect my family. You would do the same thing. Don't call me strong.  Also, you don't know how many times I cried on my husband's shoulder, "I can't do this anymore." or how many times Neil brought me meals in bed so I could rest or how many times my children have hugged me to hold me up physically and emotionally, "Mom, you'll be fine. You can do this. You're better than you were yesterday." or how many sleepless nights my parents have had worried about me. Don't call me strong. Watching and carrying on while someone you love suffers is where the real strength lies.

Let me tell you about a lady I spoke with today who could be called strong. Let's call her Betty (because that's her name). She's lovely. She's vivacious, energetic, entertaining, and plays a mean game of Euchre. She's also 75 (looks about 60). She tested positive for the HER2/neu hormone which means that her brand of chemotherapy is especially brutal. Because she's 75, her family of grown children was divided about whether or not she should take the treatment. Her case went before the London Cancer Clinic Review Board. The Board was also divided. The decision became exclusively hers. How do you decide something like that? Choosing or not choosing treatment meant agreeing with some people and disappointing others. That's strength. When she told her family doctor that her decision was to get treated he took her hand and said, "I'm so glad." He explained that when the Review Board looks at a case all they see is a number: 75. When he, as her family doctor, looks at her case he sees her with all her energy, drive and faith. When she told her family about her decision to receive treatment and add a number of years to her life she told them that those who agreed could support her decision and those who didn't agree, if they couldn't encourage her, they should at least not say anything. I was mesmerized by her story and just kept thinking, "Now, that's strength."

Bless you all, my dear ones.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Episode 23: Let There Be Tears

A number of years ago, my mother told me about an incident that happened at home while I was away. Apparently, someone in the house was quite upset. My little sister who would have been about 7 years old at the time walked into the room and said, "Well, if there are going to be tears, then let there be tears." I have no idea what was going through her mind at the time but I've remembered that statement ever since and have always liked it because it confers permission. There will be tears and that's okay. We know that crying is good for us. It releases tension. It washes away bacteria from our eyes and tear ducts. It keeps our eyes lubricated. I personally think we'd all be healthier if we could just sit down and have a good cry. If more of the world's leaders were women, there would be no child soldiers; no sons or daughters on a battlefield; no retaliation. We would sit at the boardroom table, glare at each other for awhile, then break down, have a good cry, wipe our noses, and then serve tea, pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, and try again.

Let there be tears.

On January 13, 2014, life, as I knew it, fell apart in one easy stroke. Something died that day. From the look on the ultra-sound technician's face to less than two hours in biopsy, I knew. "They're worried."  Except for my meltdown that day, there have been very few tears. I wanted to see where tears fit into the seven stages of grief. I'm still in a muddle of the first four stages. /watch?v=56wYNGfeouM  Shock, being overwhelmed, needing to stay informed, following instructions, surgery, physical weakness, medication: all of it kept me too pre-occupied for tears. That has changed. Now, I'm beat. I'm exhausted and worn out. I have a lot of water retention so the tears flow easily (along with trips to the bathroom). I hurt all over. I don't want to do this any more. I know, in my head, that I'll get through this treatment plan but I'm oh so tired. And, after that, then what? Life as I knew it will never be the same again. I've changed. My circumstances have changed. There is no going back. Like my dear cousin said, "It's Unwritten."

Let there be tears.

The other night I was reading a story from Chicken Soup for the Soul. Mother Theresa had given a set of rosary beads to a gentleman on a plane. After that, a friend had to go through chemo-therapy so he gave the beads to her and she found great strength and comfort praying with the beads. After her treatment, she sent the beads back to him. Then when a sister was going through a crisis, he mailed them to her who likewise found peace with them. This routine of sending the beads out and then having them returned to send to someone else carried on many times. When I finished reading, I started to cry. I closed my eyes and said, "What am I holding on to?" As soon as I said the words, with my eyes still closed, I saw in my mind an image of Jesus standing before me: traditional,  Jewish, long hair, long beard, long robe Jesus. In my mind, I fell at his knees and cried, "I can't do this anymore." He crouched down so we were face to face, smiled gently, and said, "Yes, you can." I figured if anybody knows if I can or not, it would be He. I opened my eyes still with tears streaming down but through the tears I had this enormous grin on my face. "Blessed are they who mourn for they shall be comforted." - Jesus

Let there be tears.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Episode 22: How to Cure a Panic Attack

Warning: The following method may not be suitable for all readers. Consult your Health Care Professional.

Sometimes it's easy to identify the cause of a panic attack: the sight of a lab technician walking in with a cart full of blood vials or the casual quip from someone who jokes about your greatest fear. Other times, the cause of a panic attack is less easy to identify: perhaps a smell or a certain day of the week triggers an unpleasant memory. Cycle 4 was fraught with anxiety which occasionally turned to panic. However, I believe that I may have found the cure.

One night at approximately 11:20 PM, I was lying in bed and I could feel myself tensing up for no apparent reason. Then, my breathing became very rapid. I tried some deep breathing exercises but to little avail. Since I wanted to have a good sleep, I decided that this was a good time to let a pill help me relax so I took one of my anti-anxiety pills. They usually work quite quickly (i.e. 5-15 minutes). Instead of relaxing, though, my breathing got worse, my skin started to tingle all over, and my hands began to clench. I couldn't believe it. Another attack? Now? Why? All I wanted to do was sleep.

I definitely had no intention of calling the fire department again (Episode 18) so I devised a plan. Quite often a burst of fresh cool air goes a long way so I figured that if I didn't calm down soon, I would ask my husband to take me to emergency. My car is my happy place. The combination of cool night air and peace and quiet would do wonders. If not, the 20 minute drive to the hospital might work and if that still wasn't enough the emergency department might have something.

By midnight, I was still no better so I said, "Would you please drive me to Emergency?" (Actually, it may have been more like: "Neil, Emergency Now!!") I stood up out of the bed and started to walk towards the stairs to go down. Wouldn't you know it but my left leg went numb? I couldn't walk. I was sure I could never make it down the stairs hopping. I'd tumble and break my neck. My sweetheart of a husband so lovingly said, "I'll carry you down." Hahahahahaha! Guess what? There is something worse than a panic attack. There's the terror of envisioning myself and my dear one doing somersaults down a full flight.

I crawled back into bed. I was fine.

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Episode 21: Mid-Cycle 4

In my last episode, I believe I had mentioned that Cycle 4 would be a different chemo-drug and that hopefully it would be easier to manage. Well, dash my hopes to bits. It was almost like Cycle 1 all over again. Blech, blech, blech, blech, blech. It's been almost two weeks and I'm still not quite perked up yet. Down can be really down and I have been warned that it only gets more exhausting until it's over. Oh, well, only two to go.

I'd like to address this episode especially to people who might be reading this, experiencing or contemplating chemo, and wondering if they can do it. PLEASE, follow the advice of your health-care team! Everyone is different and has different reactions. Cancers are different. Treatments are different. And, there are so many variables unique to each person that every situation is different. We are blessed here in Canada to have amazing services and care that I don't want anyone to think, "Oh, I can't do this. I have to stop." Don't stop. Don't give up. The nurses are great. They come to the house almost everyday. They talk me through the tough times on the telephone night or day. And they know how to say just the right things to lift my spirits. The other day one of my nurses was here and she told me that she has worked with patients who don't react much to chemo at all and have few side effects. That's not good. The fact that I'm going through all the tough stuff means that the chemo is working and that I'm receiving exactly the right treatment so "stay the course"! This is do-able!

Doctor: I have two pieces of bad news for you.
Patient: What's the first?
Doctor: You have cancer.
Patient: What's the second?
Doctor: You have Alzheimer's.
Patient: Thank goodness, I don't have cancer.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Episode 20: Mid-Cycle 3

Three down, three to go.


I really don't have much to report. I'm not blogging much because I am constantly tired except for the occasional high burst of energy. So, every now and then, I do something really amazing like paint the house for an hour (or plant some flowers) which is great if you don't mind a house exterior that's got about three different colours on it.

Next time I go in for a treatment is Monday, June 16th. We've postponed it from Thursday to Monday because I want to feel good on the weekend. My daughter is performing in a community theatre production and I am very excited to see it. She's Flute in Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream. That is a play I have enjoyed many times and am looking forward to this version. Cycle 4 will consist of a new chemo-drug. I am very, very curious to find out the new side effects. They say the nausea is much diminished (please, please, please!) but the trade is to water retention and muscle aches. And, of course, still the constant fatigue.

Thank you for the continued encouragement and prayers. You are so much appreciated. Oh, I remember what I was going to tell you! As I am sure you can imagine, I have heard numerous stories in the past few months of people going through similar circumstances but without the care for their feelings. I can't go into details because the stories have been told in confidence but I am shocked at how callous some people can be and constantly feel so blessed by my circle. For example, the other day I went to the mall with my two daughters. It was so hot that I decided to ditch the scarf and rock the bald look. I asked my daughter if that was okay. She said to me, "Are you comfortable?". "Yes." "Then it's the perfect look." Can you believe that? No wonder I love my kids.

Night all.