Livin’ It Up “Cancer-Free”

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY:

It’s been a whirlwind week in the land of the “cancer-free”. I have celebrated grand new beginnings and bittersweet endings. I’ve been wined and dined and entertained. I’ve put up a tree with twinkling colored lights and adorned the house with the festive colors and scents of Christmas. Here’s a peek at what transpired…

First, I finished radiation last Wednesday. After 28 sessions of daily nuclear warfare, I got a Certificate of Completion signed by all the staff at the radiation center, and Dr. Rad came out of an appointment with another patient to give me a hug. This was in stark contrast to the complete lack of acknowledgement I received at the oncology office for finishing chemo. Not a word. I will really miss these wonderful, caring people.

I actually had very mixed emotions when I left my final appointment. Don’t get me wrong, I was thrilled to be done with treatment. Yet, a kind of sadness washed over me. I felt as though I’ve been treading water non-stop for 9 months, and the entire focus of my life has been staying strong and surviving. That final appointment was like I had finally been rescued and could collapse and let it all go. And let it all sink in. I tend to downplay the effect all this has had on me, but it has been a lot to endure. And, in that moment, I had to pause to grieve for what I’ve lost.

Here is a picture of my skin post-radiation. It looks a lot worse than it is; I’ve really only had some minor tenderness and itching as it heals. The new skin is coming through as the top layer sloughs off. I’ve put lotion on religiously, and I think it has paid off. My skin feels soft and smooth. I also want to stress the importance of stretching the irradiated area as much as possible to keep the scar tissue from taking hold underneath. It can get quite tight if it isn’t exercised.

Photo Dec 08, 10 10 10 AM

 

On Thursday, I went to the very posh and eclectic Red Stag Grill at the Bohemian Hotel in downtown Asheville with two friends, one of whom just had major surgery. I thought I was just tagging along to visit her and catch up, but she surprised me by turning it into a celebration lunch for the end of treatment. It was a wonderful treat. The restaurant has the feel of a formal hunting lodge, with dark woods and rich leather seats. The chandeliers appear to be made of antlers, which you’ll see in the picture below. I half expected to see Teddy Roosevelt come through the door and belly up to the bar.

Photo Dec 08, 8 48 44 PM

 

Friday brought a new beginning. I took the plunge and signed a lease for my chiropractic office space! Ironically, that is the name of my practice, New Beginnings Family Chiropractic. I chose that name years ago, having no idea what it would come to mean in my future. I’m very nervous and very excited. I want to offer holistic health care focusing on nutrition and supplementation in addition to chiropractic. I would really love to help people through the cancer journey and beyond.  I might fall flat on my face, but I owe it to myself to give it a shot. I now have a shiny set of gold office keys on my keychain.

Saturday night was spent at a large Christmas party at the home of a new friend. There was every kind of chip, dip, fruit, carved meat and appetizer you can imagine, and an open bar. The house was beautifully decorated for the holidays and had a very warm, inviting feel. There were several local bands who took turns playing informal gigs in the living room. The music ranged from Bluegrass to the Beatles to Christmas carols. What a perfect evening, sitting in a comfy chair with a glass of wine while being serenaded by candlelight.

Finally, today we took the kids to our local Farmer’s Market to pick out a Christmas tree. We’ve been getting our tree from the same family for almost 20 years, and they recognize us when we pull up. The patriarch of the family has aged quite a bit and has mostly turned the hard labor of the tree farming over to his sons now. He was in very poor health a couple of seasons ago, so we always breathe a sigh of relief when we see that he’s still around. Below is a shot of us together about four years ago.

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Tomorrow, it’s back to the grind at work. I’m looking forward to that like an impacted wisdom tooth. I have thoroughly enjoyed the last 5 days, more so than I have in a long time. I stopped to smell those roses, and I felt content, and at peace.

I put “cancer-free” in quotation marks because that is an illusion. None of us is ever truly “free” of cancer. There are always micro-clusters of cancerous cell floating around in us, waiting for our immune systems to fall asleep at the wheel. Now that I’m “cancer-free”, the real work begins. I have to figure out why cancer set up shop in my body and how to keep that from happening again. All of these treatments have slowed the cancer down enough for me to have a fighting chance, now let’s get busy fighting!

I Have A Stripper’s Tan

 

stripper

 

…well, let’s just say I have a stripper’s tan if she’s ashamed of one boob and keeps that side of her chest covered at all times. I am officially half way through radiation. 16 down, 17 to go, maybe… You know I’m a difficult patient. The last 3 treatments are supposed to be what are known as “radiation boosts” to the mastectomy scar. Apparently, breast cancer likes to recur in that region.

 

The term “radiation boost” does not inspire joy in my heart. I think the amount I’m getting right now is quite sufficient. Not really seeing a need for a bonus round. Of course, I’ll be reading all about it and asking lots of questions after which my poor radiation oncologist will run screaming for the local bar. And to think he didn’t drink before he met me!

 

Seriously, though, my skin has held up pretty well so far. At my appointment on Monday, the doctor called it a “mild reaction”. He asked what kind of lotion I was using. I told him that I had created a special concoction based on some reading I’d done. Specifically, I have been mixing Arnica gel, Bach’s Rescue Remedy cream and Traumeel gel in equal parts in a cold cream jar. I apply this liberally 4 times per day. I follow this with Miaderm except at bedtime, when I use cocoa butter.

 

It’s a little like learning the play book for a new NFL gig, I know, but it has gotten me to this point fairly intact. And one thing I love about Dr. Rad is that he listens without arrogance. His comment was “Well, we can’t argue with success. Keep doing whatever you’re doing.”

 

 

mjc-100321-1391

A Very Bad Day at the Beach

I feel pretty lucky so far. The lady who comes to treatment right before me every day has had a terrible time with her skin. She said that after about the tenth round she was so red that her skin blistered and started weeping. She’s burnt front and back and feels like she’s on fire constantly. And…as a special treat…she gets to do chemo at the same time! What torture will they come up with next?

 

Over the past few days, one area on my upper chest has been getting more irritated and red, but this is skin that was frequently exposed to the sun over the summer months and had developed a nice tan. I read that the epidermis cells take longer to recuperate in these spots. So, I’ve added some comfrey salve for healing and some hydrocortisone cream for itching.

 

In these next few weeks I’ll be busy deciding whether or not to get on the Tamoxifen train. Decisions, decisions. I’m so tired of having to make them. I wish my biggest decision this month would be whether to have the pumpkin pie or the apple

 

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I’m Positively Glowing

GUEST CANCER JAM OF THE DAY: (the other decades were jealous, what could I do?)

 

 

Well, I’m on day 5 of the radiation train. I’m not really sure where the train is going, perhaps Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, where I hear it’s lovely this time of year.  On the bright side, I am enjoying all the benefits of the sun without having to sit outside at all. Thank goodness! Too much sun can give you cancer.

 

radiation alien

 

 

Seriously, I haven’t noticed any side effects yet, but I know that I’m a mere babe in the radiation woods. They tell me that by the end of the second week I may start to see some pink skin and experience some fatigue. I can hardly wait! It’s like being a kid and having to eat all the cereal in the box before you get the toy.

project 365 #17: troll dolls

Good Luck Troll Boob Altar

 

Since I caved in elected to do radiation therapy..I am doing my best to protect my skin and keep the fallout to a minimum. I’ve even pulled out my lucky mastectomy troll dolls and built them an altar upon which I pray to the Goddess of good boobs nightly:)

 

Actually, I found another good book written by a female naturopathic doctor who has been through breast cancer herself. It’s called “A Survivor’s Guide To Kicking Cancer’s Ass” by Dena Mendes. I haven’t finished it yet, but I’m using one of her tips for preventing skin damage from radiation. I mix Arnica gel, Traumeel gel, and Bach’s Rescue Remedy cream in equal amounts in an old cold cream jar and apply liberally 2 times per day. On top of that, I use Palmer’s Cocoa Butter for extra moisturizing. It’s too soon to tell how well it will work, but I’ll let you know. When the nurse says, “Now don’t use any creams unless we give them to you”, I just smile and nod.

 

 

I am also currently in the process of studying the effects of taking antioxidants during radiation. In general, I don’t think they are a great idea because the body needs some oxidative stress to perform certain functions. For example, did you know that exercise creates free radicals which are essential to improving muscle function and performance? No oxidative stress = no gain. However, since radiation is such an overwhelming, unnatural assault on the body, I may decide to take something to offset the nuclear bomb being detonated in my chest daily. I am already taking Vitamin E, Selenium and Quercetin. It’s the stronger antioxidant guys like N-Acetyl Cysteine I’m still researching. I want maximum protection without treatment compromise.

 

 

As for the pre-radiation/post-radiation tissue expander debate, I opted not to go ahead with expander insertion after my consult with Monsieur Monet, the third breast reconstruction artiste I  visited. I actually liked him the best. He made a lot of sense and he spoke with confidence about his recommendations. He said that if Dr. Rad would not allow the expanders to be inflated at all during radiation, there was no point in rushing to get them in. I would just be delaying treatment and opening myself up to an infection for no good reason. Kind of made me wonder what the hell Renoir was thinking when he suggested the surgery in the first place. Maybe he had his eye on a new Mercedes.

 

 

So that’s where I am. My skin is getting a little more sensitive after each treatment, the way it feels when you’ve come in from a long day at the beach and just know that the burn will show up in the morning. And oddly, I’ve been missing my son and feeling a little sad about him since I started radiation. I can’t imagine how the treatment could possibly affect my mood, but I guess anything’s possible.

 

 

In a way, the whole cancer debacle has been a huge distraction. I’ve had to focus so much on myself for the past year that I haven’t thought about James nearly as much as before I was diagnosed. So it’s weird to have these feelings resurface immediately after starting radiation. In Chinese medicine, grief dwells in the lungs. Maybe the daily bombardment of that region has stirred something up. I’m learning to pay attention to those things that I would have once dismissed as unscientific voodoo. Sometimes the universe speaks volumes if you listen with an open mind.

 

 

The Love I Never Expected

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY:

I know this is going to seem strange to some of you, but others will have an immediate spark of recognition, perhaps nodding your head or even shedding a tear as you see yourself in what I am about to write.

Breast cancer has certainly brought a lot of changes into my life. Most of them have been unwelcome and frightening, forcing me to find strength I never knew I had in the face of my own mortality. Yet, it hasn’t all been negative.

Being stripped of my comfortable outward identity has forced me to relate in a more raw, honest way with others, as I described in “Can Breast Cancer Make You More Beautiful?”. Having this disease has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with a host of Earth angels who have restored my faith in humanity. And now, the most unexpected thing has happened. Over the past couple of weeks I’ve been having what could almost be described as an out-of-body experience.

As I ran along a wooded path yesterday, I held back sobs. I felt an overwhelming sense of appreciation for my body as it chugged along for 3 miles, doing what I asked of it once again despite the suffering it has endured. I could almost hear a small voice begin to speak.

“I couldn’t help it that this happened, you know. I tried so hard to keep the cancer away. I fought so long and so hard, but I got too tired. It’s not my fault. I don’t understand why you keep letting them hurt me. Please let it be done. Don’t let them burn me. I’m feeling so much better and stronger now. Please protect me.”

It nearly took my breath as I listened. My heart ached. I felt the guilt of a mother who holds her child down while a wound is stitched. Tears stream down her face as her child’s eyes beg the question, “Why are you doing this to me?”

“It’s for your own good, to make you better” I thought. “What else can I do? It’s all so confusing and the choices are terrible. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

In that moment, I felt a fiercely protective love. For the first time in my life, I cherished myself like a toddler with bouncing golden curls and huge, trusting blue eyes. I vowed to spoil myself and show my tremendous appreciation for the body and soul that have bounced back with relentless courage and spirit after each insult.

As I finished my run, I said to that little voice, “I love you. You are my hero.”

In Search Of A Real Boob Man

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY (DID ANYONE ELSE LOVE FAMILY TIES?):

 

 

I’m off today to meet a man. This man is 2 hours away, and the first thing he’ll probably want me to do is take off my shirt. I’m oddly reminded of some bad dates from days gone by. But today I won’t be offended or feel cheap..and there will be no alcohol involved. I’m traveling to see a reconstructive surgeon, and I’m hoping he is positively giddy at the thought of fabulous, perky c-cups.

 

breasts cartoon

 

I found my guy on the Internet. Wait a minute, this is starting to sound like some kinky new dating experience. No, actually, since I start radiation next week, I’ve been poring over pictures of reconstructed bionic boobs on the computer. (“We can make them better, stronger” Sorry, having a 6-Million Dollar Man flashback!) I keep looking over my shoulder, thinking that people are going to suspect that I’ve been keeping a big secret. Talk about your lesbian inner sanctum!

While perusing page after page of hooters, I’ve been getting this really odd commercial jingle stuck in my head from an ancient Armour hotdog spot. “Fat boobs, skinny boobs, boobs that climb on rocks….” I had to stop at “even boobs with chicken pox”. Eww!

 

 

Anyway, my boob man had a gallery of very nice before and after photos on his website. I’m sure he picked the best looking “girls” as models, but he specializes in breast cancer reconstruction, so I have high hopes. He uses a lot of implants but does TRAM flap and latissimus dorsi flap procedures also, using skin from the abdomen or other areas to create breast tissue. His site also shares videos of actual patients in various phases of reconstruction as well as stats about his failure rates, infection, etc.

 

This will be my first consult with a plastic surgeon. I wasn’t planning to start doctor shopping until after radiation, but my radiation guy said that the new school of thought is to start reconstruction as soon as 8 weeks after radiation. The old recommendation was to wait at least 6 months for things to heal and “settle”. Dr. Rad says that this has been shown to produce worse outcomes because more scar tissue forms in the interim, making the skin less pliable. This timetable is groovy with me since my insurance out-of-pocket starts over in April. The more I can get done before then, the better.

 

So, away I go on one of the most important blind dates I may ever have. It’s exhausting really, all this interviewing and questioning of doctors. I’ve decided that finding the right plastic surgeon will be a lot like bathing suit shopping. I’ll be exhausted and frustrated for a while, and then I’ll find the one that makes my boobs look fabulous!

 

I’ll let you know how my visit goes. In the meantime, please share with me all of your reconstruction stories. I want the good, the bad , the ugly and any advice you have, particularly if you had radiation first. Check out the surgeon of the day’s website at www.riouplasticsurgery.com and see what you think about his before and after photos.

 

Time For A Bitchin’ Suntan

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY:

It’s been a long September. A touch of sepsis, a 10-day course of an antibiotic with a black box warning, a decision to end chemo early…yada yada. In spite of it all, I have bounced back once again to take on whatever comes next. Isn’t the human body simply amazing? It’s like a puppy that is continually scolded and kicked but returns time after time to lick your face.

tan woman

 

It turns out that what comes next is the ultimate tan, otherwise known as radiation therapy. As I’ve shared before, I have some real concerns about becoming a human shish kebob, and yesterday was my day to annoy a new doctor, the radiation oncologist.

I first met him shortly after my diagnosis, and I remember being impressed with his unhurried, down-to-earth demeanor. Honestly, I don’t remember much else from that day; the shock was too great. So when he asked yesterday if I still had any “niggling concerns” from our first discussion, he didn’t know what he was getting himself into.

My concern is that I'll look like this in 6 weeks.

My concern is that I’ll look like this in 6 weeks.

Hey, I gave him fair warning. I told him that I’m “that patient”, the one who does tons of research and never accepts any treatment at face value unless it absolutely makes sense to me. He didn’t flinch; I liked that. “Shoot”, he told me. So I pulled the pad with all my questions from my pocket.

Me: “I’m very concerned about irradiating my heart since the cancer was on the left side. I want to be able to run, and I don’t want to die of heart failure down the line.”

Dr. Rad: Pulling up my pre-op CT scan on his laptop. “Actually, you have a very favorable anatomy for radiation. Your heart is on the smaller side, and it sits a good distance back from the chest wall. We can get the beam almost down to zero before it reaches your heart.”

Me: “So your saying I have a small, cold heart.” (Dr. Rad chuckled) “Ok. But what about lymphedema? I’ve managed to keep that in check pretty well so far in spite of having 16 lymph nodes removed. If you go blasting my underarm area with radiation, couldn’t that get much worse?”

Dr. Rad: Reading my pathology report on the laptop. “It looks like we may be able to skip irradiating the area under the arm where the lymph nodes were.” He proceeded to draw a diagram of the likely area of radiation on the white board. “If we target this area, your risk of lymphedema will be about 10% assuming you don’t already have it. If we treat under the arm, the risk goes up considerably. Of course, if we skip that, there is a chance of recurrence in the underarm area.”

Me: “I guess the bigger question is how much gain in overall survival I can expect from doing this.”

mary poppins

Dr. Rad: Back to the trusty laptop. I half expected him to start pulling ferns and lamps out of there, like Mary Poppins with her carpet bag. “Let’s take a look at this study from 2007. It looked at women with estrogen positive, Her2 Negative tumors just like you. Your risk of recurrence in the chest area would go down from 35% to less than 5% with radiation. And your cancer was pretty close to the chest wall. We do not want a recurrence on the chest wall. Your overall survival over 10 years will improve by 10-15% with radiation.”

Me: Ok, I’m impressed. I like numbers and doctors who care enough to show them to me. “I’m with you so far. I like all that, but let me ask you this. You can only ever have radiation in this area once, correct?”

Dr. Rad: “With any degree of safety, yes.”

Me: “Why can’t I save this option until I need it?  I may never have a recurrence. Just give me an MRI periodically to keep an eye on things, and we’ll pull out the electrons as soon as we see anything suspicious.”

Dr. Rad: “The problem with that is that we wouldn’t be able to see it early enough on MRI. You could probably feel it as soon as it would show up on imaging, and we don’t want it to get to that point. The bottom line is that I think we need to do a full court press here and do everything we can to keep it from recurring.”

Me: “Allright, I have one last question. I expect to get a fabulous new pair of boobs when all this is over, and I don’t want my skin to look like extra crispy KFC chicken.”

Dr. Rad: More chuckling. “Well, on the right side it doesn’t matter, but on the left side it may depend on how huge a boob we’re talking about. Everybody responds differently to radiation, so we won’t know how much the skin can stretch until it’s over. Start looking for a good plastic surgeon, and we’ll do everything we can to spare the skin. Now, do you have any more questions? Could there be any more?”

Me: “Oh, there can always be more. But I guess I’m good for now.”

Dr. Rad: “It’s no problem at all. You think, therefore you ask.”

So, we scheduled the planning session for next week, and the six weeks of daily radiation will commence on October 14. Am I thrilled with the idea? No. A voice in my head keeps telling me that a 35% chance of recurrence means a 65% chance of no recurrence. But I have to admit that the chest wall thing scares me. Since I had diffuse areas of cancer, with one type being only 1mm from the chest wall, it makes being a rebel somewhat dicier. 

On a funny note, the nurse interrupted us in the middle of our one hour meeting to let Dr. Rad know that my ex-oncologist needed to speak to him for a minute. When he left the room, my husband and I smiled at each other. We made up our own version of that conversation.

Ex-Oncologist: “Oh my God, I just found out that Lisa is there. I’m telling you, get out while you can! Run! She’ll ask you all kinds of questions and expect real answers! Not only that, she’ll demand that you show compassion, even when don’t feel like it! And worst of all, she’ll call you out when you’re giving crappy care! You’re welcome, buddy.”

Dr. Rad: “Wow. I’m so grateful that you called. I’ll tell her we’re closing the practice and I’m moving to Afghanistan to treat underprivileged kids who can’t afford radiation. Thanks!”

Luckily, Dr. Rad did return. I guess he’s willing to take his chances:)