Thursday, October 19, 2017

Finding My "New Normal"

I know the way by heart now. Approximately 40 minutes door to door. Most of the traffic will be from the house to the Pentagon, where it will ease up across the Key Bridge and then pick up volume thru Georgetown and then north through the toney Foxhall neighborhood.
I was on my way to Sibley hospital, on a much too familiar route to a much too familiar place. A place where my life has been saved multiple times already in my 53 years on Earth. Let’s hope that string of “wins” continues.

After surgery, there was discussion with my oncologist about “next steps”. For Triple Negative Breast Cancer, those next steps are pretty limited. Radiology is one of those options. Doing nothing is an option. And, thankfully, due to recent clinical trial results taking more chemo is now an option.

Today was a follow-up ultrasound. A follow-up needed because a small, but strong-handed Director of Radiology felt a lump in my chest three weeks post mastectomy.

So there I am, I’m in my gown and laying on a table in a dark room with a bunch of medical equipment surrounding me. Oddly I’m familiar with the surroundings. Maybe too familiar. I can feel the hardness of the table and feel my back give way as I try and relax. I’m feeling the fatigue of my chemo rush over me. I almost fall asleep. In the background I hear the comforting sounds of the radio station playing soft, classical music.

I really did not give much thought to today. I did not ask Liz to go with me. I had had multiple ultrasounds, MRIs, sonograms, etc. Pretty routine. Painless. Arriving on time and checking in, I overhear a conversation between another woman checking in and the assistant behind the desk. I hear the woman mention my cancer surgeon’s name and wondering if she’ll like her. Apparently, her initial surgeon was not available and so she was being referred to Dr Garrett. MY Dr Garrett. The quirky ex-Army surgeon with a Southern twang who was the first person to tell me she could and would rid me of cancer. I try and put her worries aside by expressing my support for Dr Garrett and give her a bit of my history with her. She smiled in appreciation and relief.
My initial 19 weeks of hard, gut-wrenching, hair-falls-out, chemotherapy did not result in a 100% success. In only about 25-35% of the time it does. So, we talked about radiation therapy as a possible next step for me. Five weeks, every day. Having had a complete mastectomy verses a lumpectomy (whereby just the tumor and the area surrounding it are removed but the breast is conserved for the most part), radiation is not always a recommended treatment. However, most lumpectomy patients do have radiation because most of the breast tissue remains and radiation can help kill any cancer cells that may still be lurking about in the breast tissue. But because I had my entire breast removed (both of them actually), there’s conflicting thought among the medical profession if it’s worth any positive results verses the potential physical damage that radiation can cause. So, after the before mentioned exam, the Radiation gal called the Oncology gal to discuss my next steps. As it turned out, both gals agreed that for me and my triple negative status, the best course of treatment is more chemo - 18 more weeks of chemo - if I was willing. And I am willing. But before the Radiologist let me go, she sent me over to Sibley’s Imagining Center for an ultrasound, where they could see the area in question -the area she could feel. The images looked benign. But she wanted me to return in a couple of months for a follow up just to be sure.

The radiology tech enters the darkened room and squeezes the warm jelly on my chest. She turns the screen towards me, sensing my interest. She rolls the ultrasound-thingy on my chest through the jelly. Now, I can see her hand move and I see images change on the screen, but I can’t feel anything. My chest remains numb since surgery and may stay that way, or so I’m told. In any case, it’s a weird sensation. She finds the “12 o’clock position of the area in question and takes a picture, then the 1 o’clock position takes a picture, working her way around the area taking a picture at all twelve clock positions. I watch on the screen, looking for what I’m not sure. But hoping it’s nothing.

Still feeling ok and “in control of a familiar situation”, the tech finishes and tells me she’s going to send the images to the radiologist and I need to try and relax as it may take some time for her to review. Well, now I’m not feeling so ok. Why couldn’t the tech just tell me it’s all fine, herself? Did she see something she could not identify? Ugg.

After what seems an eternity, the original tech returns and tells me that the doctor will be in shortly to talk to me. Well, that’s it. The already dark room gets even darker. The radio chatter is drowned out by the ugly demonic cancer chatter that so easily fills my head. Jesus, it’s only been three months since my surgery. Could it really return that fast?  I lay on that hard table because sitting up would mean throwing up. I try to focus on my breathing only to find I’m hyperventilating. I try and listen to the sound of my heart only to feel it pounding. After what seems to be perpetuity, the doctor enters the room.  She smiles politely and introduces herself. Didn’t matter, I couldn’t hear anything she said over the pounding and heaving. She asked me “how are you” and I respond with a very honest “that will depend on what you have to tell me” and somehow conjure up a smile.

She walks me through the images and we talk about why I’m back on that table. She takes images of her own and then gently tells me everything looks fine. It was – as everyone thought – swelling from surgery that has now gone away.

Perhaps this is now a “routine” medical visit. Freaking out. Just this close to being in tears. Over nothing. Nothing at all. Everything is fine. I am fine. Keep rooting for me. #Onward

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Searching For Peace With Cancer

Ok, so October - or “Pink-tober” as its known to be called has been overwhelming so far to say the least. “Be aware of this”, “did you know about that”, “check this”, “squeeze that” ..... you get the idea. EVERYTHING is about my disease this month.
I am honored to be invited to two NFL Cancer Awareness games this month and I am humbled by the generosity of my “village” in the success of raising money for cancer support and research. This being my first Breast Cancer Awareness Month, with some would say why-too-much-intimate knowledge of the disease is, well ... a lot.

However, having gone thru hell and back, I feel the responsibility to share what I’ve learned about breast cancer to everyone and anyone who will listen. And as painful as it is to re-live and to focus so intently on this disease, if it saves one life, if it reminds one woman to get her mammogram, if it helps one other cancer patient to know she’s not alone, it will have been worth it.

The sharing of information and building of camaraderie with others going thru or having gone thru cancer is vital to truly “surviving”. Just knowing you aren’t the only one struggling with “tomorrow” is immensely powerful. And “surviving” means so much more than just getting through treatment. Now that I have basically completed my “active treatment” phase, I’m entering the phase of “survivorship” with anxiety and apprehension. What does it mean to have had cancer? Will it come back? How would I know?

To this end, I begin the third round of six of the chemo drug, Xeloda as a preventative measure. And I have entered counseling. Both group counseling and individual counseling in the hopes to seek out others who have walked my path and understand my fears. And to speak my truth and hopefully find peace with my “new normal”. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Keep rooting for me. #FuckCancer #Onward

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Going beyond PINK for Breast Cancer

October is International Breast Cancer Awareness Month. Most folks are aware of the “pink ribbon” as a result of the tremendous marketing and visibility campaigns over the years. Now, I’m not what you’d consider a “pink kinda gal”. Being a red head by birth, the hue never went with my natural coloring, thus I never owned anything in pink. Never thought I would. But when you have breast cancer, everything associated with it is pink, and so I now have a plethora of pink: pink shirts, ink buttons, pink flags, pink pins, pink blankets, pink hats (you get the picture). And I must say, with my cancer-given hair which is now grey, pink works!

On one hand, the pink ribbon has become an internationally-recognized, visible symbol of my cancer. Possibly the most recognized symbol in the world. It is honestly a comforting feeling to see the pink ribbon everywhere, to see folks participating in walks, runs, on motorcycles, bicycles, doing CrossFit (“barbells for boobs” is a fav), having bake sales, etc.  all in their own way raising awareness and much-needed funds to support cancer research and to provide hope to those of us who desperately cling to the word. Makes me feel as if I’m not alone. That complete strangers are in my corner. Alongside me in the fight against cancer. In truth, it feels good.

On the other hand, October is just 31 days. For me, and others like me, breast cancer month is January, February, March, April….you get the point. I fear the color – and the month – allows some folks to escape the hard work of preventing and finding a cure for cancer. For working (and voting) to ensure cancer patients have access to affordable and good healthcare. What happens when November-December rolls around and Congress is back at attempting to slash medical research dollars at NIH, and arguing that letting states decide who should receive healthcare and who should be thrown into a “high-risk pool” is a good idea. I need folks to stay “woke” 12 months of the year, 365 days of the year. Let’s be real: my hope for a long life lies in the hands of cutting-edge cancer research, so funding for this work is critical, and to access to affordable and good healthcare. No doubt about it. 

Women – and men – need to be active in their own healthcare 365 days a year: learn about early detection, to get your annual mammogram, and to push your medical team for further exploration if something isn’t settling with you. We all need to be giving to and supporting the work of cancer research and organizations that provide comfort, care, and counseling to folks battling cancer, survivors and their families. And participating politically - and voting - for those who are working to uphold and better our country’s healthcare system so that everyone has access to affordable and effective healthcare. Getting cancer will forever terrify me about this issue. I need folks to pay attention and to be educated in the healthcare debate. It’s complicated to be sure, but please pay attention.  Ok, enough of the soapbox. You get the picture I hope.

So what will this breast cancer survivor be doing for Breast Cancer Awareness month you ask? I’ll be spending the month of pink raising awareness of breast cancer and the importance of early detection, attending a couple cancer awareness NFL games (!), and raising money for caring organizations who have been and will be there for me and others like me fighting for our lives.

So many of you have already joined me in these efforts. Words cannot describe how it makes me feel. Just know I cry every time I receive notice of another contribution. I really do. Liz and I are walking in the American Cancer Society’s “Making Strides” 5k at the end of October. If you would like to join me, there is still time. Give and/or come out and walk with me. Here’s the link to my page: .  

Oh,and I'll be wearing pink....Thanks for rooting for me!!!  #Onward