Time of Death: 0820

breast cancer cells

That’s when she took her last gasp, never to be seen by this world again. Now she sits on a dusty, forgotten shelf in the back of a lab somewhere, among a countless sea of others. “Unremarkable,” that’s how they labeled her. I know she had never been a star or even particularly fabulous in her own right, but “unremarkable”? Such an undignified ending.

I’m talking about my non-cancerous right breast, of course. I had a doctor’s appointment today to have the stitches removed from my tissue expander incisions. Before I left, the doctor asked if I could provide a copy of my surgical pathology report from my double mastectomy one year ago this month. He wanted to get an idea of the size of my  pre-cancer breasts to better gague how big my new implants should be.

“They were about a B-. I can tell you right now that we’re going bigger than that”, I offered with a grin. Although my 6 year-old insists that she wants my chest to look “just like it did before”, I explained delicately that after everything Mommy has been through, she was definitely going for better than “before”. There has to be a great prize at the bottom of this shitty cracker jack box. Worst cracker jacks I ever ate!

When I got home, I dug through my now “War and Peace” tome of medical records and located the “Surgical Pathology Report”. Of course I had to read it in detail before I faxed it. There it was, right in the second paragraph, “Right breast ischemic time 0820”, the beginning of the two and a half hour surgery.  It made me kind of sad to look at it. They took her off of life support, and something in both of us died that day.

The report went on to include all kinds of ugly words, “tumor mass”, “multifocal invasive carcinoma”, “extensive ductal carcinoma in situ”, METASTATIC carcinoma to eight of sixteen lymph nodes”. I had put all of this away so neatly in my denial box over the past year, it was unsettling to dig it up and revisit it. I’m sure I was protecting myself. Had I really let the weight of these words hit me last year, I might have crumbled. Instead, I put on my armor and geared up for the fight of my life.

Now that there is a lull in the battle, I’m allowing myself to come to terms with the seriousness of my diagnosis. It feels a little surreal, like I’m reading someone else’s medical records and shuddering at the words on the page. That can’t be me. But it is. So I stop for just a moment, feeling the tears in my eyes and the lump in my throat, and I honor what was lost. It was so much more than just a mane of blonde hair or a pair of breasts. It was a kind of innocence, a certainty that each morning I will wake up and my world will be ok. That’s what breast cancer steals from us.

 

 

 

Today Is B-Day

No, I won’t be landing on a beach in Normandy. Well, maybe, depending on how much morphine they give me. I hope it’s warmer there…

I’ll be hurrying over to the hospital in about an hour so I can wait for two hours with some other starved and dehydrated souls before surgery. Today will be the beginning of my bionic boob journey. “We can build them better, stronger…”

My tissue expanders will be inserted today and filled with 50-100 cc’s of saline. After I’ve healed for a couple weeks, I’ll go in weekly to get a “splash n go” until my mosquito bites become navel oranges.

I woke up at about 3:30 this morning with a combination of hot flashes (which I rarely get) and nerves. I think I’m more nervous about this surgery than the double mastectomy. I’ve been feeling really good lately, and I’m not looking forward to being in pain and having to take antibiotics. I have to keep telling myself that at least there’s a better consolation prize this time around.

Well, I’m off to get ready. I’ll keep you posted.

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.

img1276

 

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

 

pie_6

 

Lymphedema Self-Massage For Prevention and Relief

80’S CANCER JAM OF THE DAY:

When I had my double mastectomy, I had 16 lymph nodes removed on the left side and the sentinel node removed on the right. Since one of the major functions of the lymphatic system is to carry fluids from the tissues and cellular spaces back to the bloodstream, fluid accumulation can become a real problem after this surgery. This is mainly noticeable on the arm and fingers of the affected side and can be severe, sometimes requiring the use of a special compression sleeve along with physical therapy.

lymphedema

I was lucky enough to have an appointment shortly after surgery with a lymphedema specialist at the rehab center. I had no symptoms at the time, but she showed me some simple self-massage techniques I could use to prevent fluid accumulation and to manage it if it became an issue. I have used the self-massage regularly, and I haven’t had any significant problems.

Since the diagram she gave me was a bit cluttered and marked up, I found the video below which I think is pretty good, although very extensive. I would note that the lady in the video does not massage the armpit on the affected side. I do, and I think it helps.

As I’ve mentioned to some of the ladies I talk to, I feel that exercise has been the biggest factor in preventing lymphedema for me. I can tell a huge difference in the fluid pressure if I don’t get some aerobic activity in for a few days. I’m a runner, but I don’t think you have to go to this extreme, unless you want to:) Even brisk walking, while swinging the arms, will help to keep the lymph from stagnating. Lifting weights is also beneficial, and I try to do this at least once per week using some simple exercises with free weights.

I hope you find the video helpful.