Train Derailed- Next Stop: “Build-A-Bridge-And-Get-Over-It-Ville” #LifeAfterCancer #MyLeftBoob Chronicles

 

 

 

Last week I posted a very self-absorbed blog filled with glum thoughts swirling around in the pity party in which I was wallowing. After getting several concerned messages and emails from friends, I am happy to report I have drained the tub of tears I was drowning in, have built a bridge and am getting over it.

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How did I pull myself out of the depths of darkness and despair you ask? Signs. They are everywhere if your spirit is open to receive. Whether you want to say they are from “God” or “The Universe,” I know they are out there and I’m thankful for all that were sent my way today.

As you may or may not know, I work in a church, have worked and volunteered in several churches and have had many experiences (good and bad) that have shaped me into the person I am today. I am so grateful to my spiritual mentors for their teaching and the example they have set for me and know I have a long way to go. I have also learned a lot about those who judge in the church world and hope to never be like them.

The difference between the “Bible Thumper Christians” and the rest of us is that the Bible Thumpers shout at you in their tan skin, $3,000 designer suits and porcelain veneers from atop their gold-plated soap box telling you how horrible you are for your sins while they are busy embezzling money, having affairs or watching porn.

People like me, “The Mainstream Christians,” (I just made those two terms up) are fully aware that we are sinners and do not claim to be perfect, but we try our best. When we fall down we admit it, apologize and get back up again because we know there is a job to be done and people need us. We are not perfect leaders but we   know that we are called to do work in our community and world by helping others.

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Last night was rough— our 4-year-old lab mix rescue dog was whining and scratching all night which left us sleep deprived and worried. We believe she was stung by bees on her face and then got hives from the bee stings because she had big bumps all over her body. We brought her to the vet who gave her a steroid shot and then breathed a huge sigh of relief that she was going to be okay. Anyone who reads this blog knows how amazing our sweet little Sadie Lady has been not only for me during my breast cancer treatment, but for the whole family.

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Lack of sleep and extreme pain (in my back) can do a number on one’s emotions. If you crossed my path today and thought I was acting crazy and emotional, you were right. Research shows that sleep deprivation plays a significant role in regulating our emotional stability, according to Mathew Walker of Berkeley’s Sleep Laboratory, and author of the study.

“This is the first set of experiments that demonstrate that even healthy people’s brains mimic certain pathological psychiatric patterns when deprived of sleep…..deep emotional centers of the brain were approximately 60% more reactive when you’re sleep deprived.”

So yes, lack of sleep can make “even healthy people’s brains” act crazy.

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This morning, while scrolling through Facebook, instead of starting my day by working out, doing something positive, or reading, a smack of the pettiness of my self-sorrow hit me right in the gut— a Sandy Hook mom  who lost her beloved, beautiful butterfly posted about how painful the simple act so many take for granted— posting your child’s first day school photo— is for her and how her son is forever frozen in time… in first grade. I met her through the volunteer work I did in the aftermath of the horrific tragedy of 12/14 and am astounded and amazed that this remarkably strong woman can pry herself out of bed every day and fight for the legacy of her son so that no other parent has to endure the gut wrenching pain she lives with every single day.

Another sign that showed me I needed to be shaken from the self-centered mentality I had been wearing as of late was evidenced at the doctor’s office. My appointment was for 5:30 p.m., but was changed to 3:30 p.m. because I was in so much pain. Good thing, because this was just what I needed.

I ran into an incredible church leader who, when I asked how he was, said their congregation was busy getting ready for their response to the Texas flooding. Busy getting ready to help others…and what was I doing? Nothing but thinking of myself instead of others. Rather than feel bad about this and fall into a deeper hole, he inspired me to think about what I can do rather than what I can’t…. about how I can spend my time instead of letting the hours waste away…. about what I was going to do to help out as soon as I possibly could.

So thank you Pastor for always being such a steadfast and faithful leader. I have so much to learn from you and I’m so glad to be able to have you as a great example of someone who walks the walk and talks the talk.

Also today, another wise and caring person said this to me after I tried to explain (and justify) my foolish behavior— “Everyone you meet has been through something or is going through it right now. You are not the only one. Maybe people are worse off than they appear.” Wow. The truth hurts but is sometimes so needed to snap us back in line.

The last thing that happened made me reflect deeply and realize how fruitless it is to only think of yourself.  I got the news that another person in one of my cancer support groups had earned his wings after a courageous, hard-fought battle. This man leaves behind two beautiful children and a loving wife.  My thoughts and prayers go out to all who loved him. I did not know him personally, as I have not attended the meetings in months due to my new job, but I have joined in on the prayers for him and his family as I got news from my group about his condition.

My breast cancer surgeon said to me early on in my battle, “I don’t understand why cancer has to happen to the nicest people? Why not the criminals and evil people? Why does it always have to be someone who does so much good?” I still don’t have an answer for her but I do know that all of those things made me realize how ridiculous I was being by staying stuck in my funk for this long and I am grateful for all of the signs that helped me out.

Thankfully, tomorrow is a brand new day and a new chance to make the most out of the time I have been given. Life is fleeting and nobody is promised another tomorrow.  I am so grateful and can’t wait to get back to work.

“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.” 
― Ralph Waldo Emerson

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Call Me Crazy (You’d Be Right) #MyLeftBoob #BreastCancer Chronicles

“Everyone’s a little crazy. Some people just hide it better than others.” ~Michelle Hodkin, The Retribution of Mara Dyer

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Pre-cancer pic circa 2015, “Queen Bad@$$”

To anyone I have met post-cancer-battle, on the outside I may “look” somewhat normal to you— a short-haired, sassy redhead with a biting wit, confident personality and many logs on the fire. But don’t let the tough-as-nails exterior fool you for what hides beneath the soft-as-marshmallow-fluff interior. I am a big mush and today that schmatlz came seeping out in a way I did not expect at the doctor’s office.

To look at me now, without knowing what I went through, you might think I was “normal.” But the short hair is a side effect of red devil chemo and neither is the extra baggage I carry in the form of chemo weight, chemo/fog brain, PTSD, pain and anxiety. These all contribute to self-confidence issues I never used to experience and, like many cancer survivors and patients, am having a hard time dealing.

You might be reading this and think— how shallow, how petty, you survived cancer, you should be glad to be alive, many are not that lucky, and you’re worried about your looks? And to you I say- BUH BYE, stop reading now, you just won’t get it.

Unless you have walked a few steps in my shoes, not even a full mile, you have absolutely NO idea what a cancer patient experiences. To be told you have a life threatening illness is hard enough but add to it that it’s rare, aggressive, only found in 1% of women, has a very high rate of recurrence, then heap on the fact that people you think will be there for you (like your family) are not and are too busy with their own lives to take you to chemo, that people want to make your journey all about them when it should be all about you…… Add in a heaping helping of “you should….” eat almonds, eat kale, do juicing, drink wheat grass extract, take oatmeal baths, smoke weed, just rub coconut oil on it….. Sprinkle in the stress and annoyance of daily requests from “well-meaning” individuals (and not-so-perfect strangers) who want you to not only buy their skin care line, weight loss wraps, hair regrowth serum, essential oils and health and wellness products but also sell them, and you have a recipe for full-blown psycho. So yes, as you can see, the stress was getting to me.

Of course I am blessed, grateful, happy and fortunate to be alive. Sadly, I have lost friends who did not get that chance. But this blog has always been about what I personally have gone through before, during and now after the C-word; my journey, and how I get through it with prayer, meditation, writing and other positive and productive methods. And guess what? I get messages from strangers-turned-friends from all over thanking me for being so real, honest and raw, when others are afraid of what people will think.

Before I was diagnosed and went through a 2-year-long harrowing battle to kill the evil demon,  we could blame the craziness on being an artist, or being the youngest of six black sheep and starved for attention. But now? Maybe it’s my age, maybe it’s my hormones, or being with the same wonderful person (“Mr. X,” who I am not allowed to write about or post photos of)  for 25+ years who is blinded by love and doesn’t feel the need to tell me I’m beautiful as often as I’d like (because again, he is blinded by love), but it all came out today in a big wet mess of black runny mascara on the fresh white paper of the doctor’s table. How embarrassing.

My amazing chiropractor is not even 40. He is single. He is not used to these crazy antics like so many men his age deal with on a daily basis and did not know what he was in for. Poor him.

As the massage therapist’s grip released the stress of the week that had built up in my neck and shoulders, I felt the tears coming that have been building up from frustration of weight not coming off as fast as I’d like….. aggravation of having to work so many jobs to pay the cancer doctor bills…. disgust of being called a racist for respectfully disagreeing with someone’s political viewpoints… and the list goes on and on.

I stayed composed until part two of my pain management therapy— spine/neck adjustment and acupuncture. I tried to hold back the tears but sometimes there is no stopping the flow after a hole is made in the dam. The pressure was just too much. As the doctor’s needle pricked my lower back, the physical pain of the action turned to mental. I tried not to cry but could not help myself. My doctor probably thought I was insane. But being the sweet, experienced professional that he is, he took it in stride, offered me tissues and apologized for the pain I was going through…. like it was his fault. Good man. Of course it was not his fault.

When I got to the car the full-blown sobs came and I finally felt the release that I so desperately needed. People, myself included, don’t realize how emotional it is to deal with the day-to-day business of life after cancer until something like this happens. Then I think— I need therapy, why am I not going to therapy, oh yeah, because I have no time, because I work too much, because I have to pay the cancer docs, and the circle goes round and round.

The good news is that I know this season will not least forever. And I hope that by writing about it I can help someone else feel less alone. I stopped frequenting online cancer support groups because I felt it was doing more harm than good. It became more of a “One Upper” club of sorts and less “supportive” with women saying things like— oh you’re so lucky, you only had Stage One cancer, you’re so lucky, you didn’t have to get a mastectomy. Yes, both true. But I don’t consider myself “so lucky” to have to endure red devil chemo which is so toxic the nurse brings it to you in a hazmat suit, to get my skin painfully burned 30 times during radiation, to go through numerous surgeries and complications. I DO however consider myself incredibly blessed.

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Surgery scar after chemo port was placed in my chest and tube was inserted into my jugular vein for treatment.

I am blessed to have stared death in the face and survived, to have been brought to the edge of death and back again 8 times during dose dense chemo, to have been given a second chance at life. For that I am eternally grateful and try to live my life helping others, volunteering to help children and my community and to treat others the way I want to be treated— The Golden Rule. Am I perfect? Far from it. But my intentions are good and I try my best.

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This is by far the worst of the worst days of my entire treatment.  It was right after lumpectomy #2 when I had many complications including a skin infection and an allergic reaction to the iodine during the surgery. I do not even recognize this person but it was me. I do remember how grateful I was to have woken up and to have been given the chance to live. It’s hard to put into words the profoundness of that feeling. 

So what will I do now with this life I’ve been given? I will try my best to help others by writing and raising awareness for early detection. I will continue to raise funds for Ann’s Place for Cancer as I have done the last two years. I will continue to raise up strong, confident leaders through my jobs at the church and teaching musical theater. I will love my family and appreciate those who take time out of their busy day to spend time with me. And I will try to act less crazy by making the most of every day.

I will make time for me— my health, my family, my goals and dream of someday being a published writer. I know it will happen because, like Jeffrey Tambor said in his new memoir, I have that “fire in my belly.”

I just started reading his new book Are You Anybody? in which he describes his desire to become a famous actor as a “fire in his belly” that would not quit since he was a young child. I have that fire too— I just never knew what it was I wanted, or was meant to do. Now I know.

In the book he says that everyone wants to be like Cinderella— invited to the ball, the life of the party, the most beautiful girl in the room. We all just want to be loved. I am so grateful to be in a new town of fresh, new faces and people who actually appreciate all that I do and tell me so!

Last night I met with two women who want me to help out their youth organization. When I asked if they had any more questions one said, “Yes, where have you been all my life?” After living in a small-town full of bullies for 12 years that constantly gossiped, lied and tried to destroy my business when I was only trying to create something beautiful for children and teens, it is so refreshing to be valued and appreciated for my experience and the good that I do.

Today I had an awesome meeting of the minds and got a chance to share about all that I did to help victims of the Sandy Hook tragedy after 12/14 by opening up The Sandy Hook Arts Center for Kids (SHACK). Then I remembered how I wrote an interactive live drama by teens, for teens that dealt with issues they face in a real way and many other things that have been a distant memory since cancer has consumed the last two-and-a-half years of my lfe. NO MORE.

Reminding myself that I have done way more positive than bad is a good thing. It’s not bragging. It should be inspiring to be kind, do good and pay it forward.

People have a tendency to compare themselves to others and that’s when we will end up feeling disappointed. There will always be someone smarter, funnier, better looking and wealthier than you. That’s not what life is all about because we will all grow old, get wrinkles and know that you can’t take it with you.

If this blog post has touched you in any way, I challenge you to show some love to someone this week.  It could be picking up the phone and calling your parent, brother or sister just to let them know you were thinking of them. It could be complimenting a stranger or paying for their coffee. But do something to show kindness. Why not start today? You could start a chain reaction.

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Another Day #1 Has Begun: #MyLeftBoob Chronicles – #LifeAfterCancer

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Last oncologist follow-up visit, always a nerve wracking time, but I did get the “all clear!”

It’s been a LONG time since I had a fitness post on this blog and I’m so happy to finally be back! For those just joining me, I’m a married mom of three and a fairly recent survivor of an extremely rare, very aggressive type of breast cancer that only occurs in 1% of women called Metaplastic Carcinoma (MpBC). It has a high recurrence rate and not much is known about because it was only just discovered in 2000, which is pretty scary.

I’m also Triple Negative (TNBC) which only occurs in 15% of women diagosed, including Joan Lunden, compared to 80% of the “normal” kinds of cancer. This means I don’t have the hormone receptors to be on any follow-up meds like Tamoxifen. Also scary. I describe life after my type of cancer like walking on a high wire in high heels without a net. Read my story from the beginning by clicking here.

Over the last two years, I endured five surgeries, 30 rounds of radiation, and tons of painful and emotional side effects. According to Living Beyond Breast Cancer, some of the short-term side effects of ACT chemo are:

I experienced 99% of these symptoms, the worst being hair loss, bone and joint pain and mouth sores. The long-term side effects are what I still deal with day in and day out two years later. Cancer.net describes these as:

So after dealing with all of this over the last couple of years, you might understand why it has been incredibly difficult for me to get up and get out to the gym.

Monday was a big milestone in my post-cancer life as I began yet another Day #1 of my never-ending quest to get fit. It was an emotional day as it also marked the 2-year anniversary (July 17, 2015) of finishing my arduous battle through the hell of red devil chemo.

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Last day of chemo: July 17, 2015

Doctors said the side effects of chemo could last up to 2 years or more but I naively thought I’d pop right back into shape, not get chemo brain (forgetfulness/fog brain) and have my energy back in no time. I thought wrong.

There were so many times I truly believed I was going to go to the gym and paid for a gym membership for an entire year without using it once. I even signed up for spin classes, but my body had other plans— mainly taking its own sweet time to recover and regain my strength after the harsh drugs pumped into my body, killing the good cells along with the bad. Dealing with a new lump and two painful biopsies last month didn’t help matters either.

So I almost could not believe that I was finally walking into the gym Monday morning to begin what I’d planned on starting many times since completing treatment. I joined, and paid for a membership, to the Rec Center over a year ago but never had the time or energy to go. But on Monday, I was motivated and inspired because a Facebook group I recently joined, Hello Fitness!, connected me with a trainer who organized a FitBit Step challenge.

Being somewhat competitive as the youngest of six, this was just what I needed to motivate me as I tried to keep up with the other five women in my group. It helps so much to have accountability partners cheering me on and watching my group members reaching their step goals was just what I needed to get me to get up and get moving.

I know from past experience in starting a workout program that I need to start slow, especially with my ongoing joint pain, torn rotator cuff shoulder pain, surgery scarring on my chest and other chemo side effects. In addition to that, I’ve been dealing with neck and back pain. While I was tempted to beat the rest of my team mates, I knew that if I reached 10,000 steps, that would be good enough for me.

So Monday I set out to reach my 10,000 step goal and was so pleasantly surprised when I already had 7,000 steps before noon! While doing a half hour on the treadmill and a half hour on the elliptical might not be a big deal for some people, for me it was HUGE. And that’s why halfway though my workout I had to choke back tears as I realized that I was finally doing this without feeling nauseous, tired or dizzy.

And little by little, as I set attainable goals I can reach, I get a little bit stronger.  I’m finally breaking free of the old, tired, pain-infested body and embracing the newer, stronger me, thanks in part to my new chiropractor, Dr. Nick Peterson of Peterson Chiropractic & Acupuncture.

The beginning of this Day #1 journey actually started several weeks go when I was searching for a new doctor to get back x-rays. Metaplastic Carcinoma has a tendency to recur in the back, bones, skin and/or lungs so naturally the fear crept in when I began experiencing back pain which made me fearful of that dreaded R word— recurrence.  “Metaplastic” means “change in form” which means this type is known to come back and spread to the back, the skin, the bones, the lungs and more. Every new ache, pain, lump or bump forces us to think again about our the fear of recurrence.

I began to think about two women I knew who also had Metaplastic Carcinoma and whose cancer came back to their spine. Both, sadly, passed away but they each fought their battles with dignity, positivity, grace and class.

So naturally when my back started aching in May, I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking about these two brave warriors who held my hand and inspired me since I was diagnosed in February of 2015.  I went for an x-ray at my new chiropractor’s office and it came back all clear. Thank God!

I’m so grateful to have found Dr. Nick Peterson, who got me started on a wellness plan that includes toning, stretching and strengthening. He has been working to rehabilitate me and got me to start moving and stretching several weeks ago which made Monday’s Day #1 at the gym a lot less painful.

While other chiropractors basically gave up on me and said the only way I would get relief from the neck pain (whiplash) and lower back pain was to have surgery, Dr. Nick is working with me by using a combination of massage, electromagnetic stimulation, traction, manual adjustments and acupuncture. Already in just one month I am seeing a difference in mobility and a decrease in pain levels.

I  know that if I continue on this path of a combined wellness, healthy diet and regular exercise plan, that I can finally reach my goals, gain more energy and stamina and weight loss will be a pleasant side effect. So what’s different now than all of my previous failed Day #1 attempts? Why do I think this is the time I really will stick with it? Three things:

  1. I started gearing myself up for it 3 weeks ago thanks to the new stretching and strengthening my core exercises I’ve been doing at the recommendation of Dr. Nick
  2. I have a workout buddy— my wonderful 17-year-old daughter
  3. I have an online community of cheerleaders in the Hello Fitness! group and I’m participating in a 5-day fitness step challenge

I’ve been drinking a lot more water and eating a low carb diet similar to Keto or as us old(er) folks call it, The Atkins Diet. This means so sugar, no pasta, bread, fruit or carbs. Your body goes into ketosis after the first 3 days which are BROOOOO-TUULLLLL as you go through withdrawals. You may get headaches, mood swings and cravings but just push through and after day #3 you will see the pounds melting off which will be motivation not to go back to the old way of eating.

What I learned most this week about myself is that I need to stop comparing myself, or try to keep up with other people. They have not been through what I’ve been through. Some have had it worse, some much easier and others have absolutely no idea how hard (and painful) it is sometimes just to get up and get dressed, nevermind get to the gym.

Some of the scars after my cancer battle are easy to see on the outside— like the eyebrow, eyelash and hair loss and extra weight I gained during 4 months of red devil chemo……

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Cape Cod, the day after the last day of chemo, July 2015

……or my fried skin from 30 radiation zaps over the course of 6 weeks……

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Radiation marks

…….or the pink, raised bump on my chest where my chemo port used to be.

Other scars are not so easy to see and they’re on the inside, buried under the layers of 40 extra pounds I’ve packed on that are being more stubborn than an Irishman at last call. All of these factors can take a toll on my emotions. But thankfully I am surrounded by some awesome people who love and support me no matter what.

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Cape Cod, July 2016

And now I’m counting down the days (20), looking forward to making more memories and taking more fun family photos next month on our annual trip to Cape Cod!

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Cape Cod, Summer 2013

Unfortunately (or fortunately) I will not be posting any bikini pix just yet, but I will feel good and energized since starting this wellness program. So for now I just keep on trucking and try to remember that each day is a new day to start again. And remember what matters is not how I look compared to others, but how feel I feel compared to myself at this time last year one year post chemo or the year before one day or one week post chemo. It’s been a long, hard road ut I am getting there little by little. As long as I keep moving forward.

 

 

While I would love to go to the gym every single day, lift tons of weights, do aerial yoga, hot yoga, laughing yoga, water mat yoga and headstands on the beach, the reality is that I need to do what I personally can handle, take baby steps and set goals I can reach.

Last week my goal was 10K steps a day for 5 days and 3 times going to the gym. So how did I do? I did 9K a day for 5 days and made it to the gym 3 times! That is a huge accomplishment for me. No, it’s not even close to my team-mate who had 80K steps in 5 days, but for me? It’s awesome! I’m comparing myself with myself.

The week before last I had 40,791 steps for the week. Last week I had 56,704. I increased my activity by 15,913 more steps, or 2,273 more steps a day. Here are my other accomplishments:

  • Week of July 9-15 = 27 floors, 16.99 miles
  • Week of July 16-22 = 116 floors, 23.62 miles

I’m not running any marathons yet but I am feeling more energized, eating healthier and feeling much better about myself— as long as I remember that the only person I need to try to be better than is who I was yesterday.

For anyone reading this who is in the same, or a similar boat as me, I will say this: don’t compare your behind the scenes with someone else’s highlight reel. While filters, smoke and mirrors may make them look like Greek goddesses living the best, most fun and perfect life, the real you, scarred, imperfect, raw and honest is beautiful inside and out.

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From BecomingMinimalist.com:

“Comparing our lives with others is foolish. But finding inspiration and learning from others is entirely wise. Work hard to learn the difference……We ought to strive to be the best possible versions of ourselves….. Work hard to take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Commit to growing a little bit each day. And learn to celebrate the little advancements you are making without comparing them to others.”

~Joshua Becker

1 X-Ray, 2 Biopsies, 3 Awesome Results: #MyLeftBoob #BreastCancerChronicles

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Okay, that last post was super depressing but sometimes that’s life. This blog is honest, open and real and doesn’t sugar coast the roller coaster ride we are on. Some readers may think I’m being melodramatic but the majority of emails and comments I get are from followers who say how much my writing has helped them— people who are not as open about their cancer journey as I’ve been, women who are going crazy but are afraid to go to therapy, patients who, like me can’t understand why the ones they thought would be there for them are not. It’s all part of the journey and the wounds that thicken our skin in this life-long battle we’re in.

We may look normal from the outside now that we’re done with treatment, but our lives will never be the same. Every new ache, pain, lump or bump forces us to think again about our biggest fear— recurrence. What it the cancer is back? And this is what I’ve been dealing with for the last few months.

Back in April I began having really bad cramps. At my annual gynecology checkup I shared my symptoms with my doctor thinking he would say it was normal for women my age. He didn’t. He ordered an ultrasound because of the type of cancer I had and its high rate of recurrence.

Seeing as I had so many complications during my breast cancer treatment, I figured I couldn’t possibly have anything but normal results for this test. I thought wrong. He said the results were abnormal and that I’d need another test. Test number two- they found a lump. More waiting.

In the midst of all this waiting over the course of two months my back began to hurt. Immediately my mind raced and the thoughts came flooding back— what if it’s back, what if it’s in my back? I fought so hard for so long. I just can’t go through all of this all over again. Except for telling my husband, I kept the results to myself and tried to go on with life as usual. But the pain, lack of sleep and worry took a toll on my sanity.

I thought about two women I’ve met who also had Metaplastic Carcinoma, a very rare type of cancer that only occurs in one percent of women diagnosed. It’s a very aggressive type of “new” cancer that has a very high rate of recurrence. “Metaplastic” means “change in form” which means this type is known to come back and spread to the back, the skin, the bones, the lungs and more.

One woman, a fellow journalist, was one of the first to reach out to me after I found her online support group. She was an amazing advocate for this unrelenting disease and launched metaplasticbc.com to connect patients, caregivers and researchers. She also created a YouTube channel detailing her treatment. She fought a three-year battle with dignity, grace and humor. But the cancer came back, to her back, and she passed away in November of 2015.

The other woman is still fighting. The cancer also came back to her back and, after surgery on her spine to remove the tumors, she is now paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheelchair. You’d think this would give her a reason to complain, be angry and bitter or all of the above. But not this fierce warrior. No, she fights with dignity, positivity, grace and class.

So naturally when my back started aching in May, I couldn’t stop my mind from thinking about these two brave warriors who have held my hand and inspired me since I was diagnosed in February of 2015. I went for an x-ray and it came back all clear. Thank God!

But I still had to wait for test number three and two biopsies on my uterus and cervix. I won’t go into detail about the procedure, I’ll just say there were needles, catheters and painful scraping involved. The doc said the pain would be over before I knew it— not so much.  The cramping and pain from the biopsies lasted for hours and I had to take 4 Motrin to finally get some relief.

Finally after almost a week of waiting I got the good news— it’s not cancer. Thank GOD! The last three months have been awful, filled with so much worry and fear. Now that I know I remain cancer free I can try to get on with this thing called life.

While cancer has robbed me of so much it has given me so much more— appreciation for family, friends and of course my special sweet pup who never leaves my side, gratefulness for the doctors and nurses who have helped me get better, the helpers and the pray-ers, thankfulness that while I had it bad and some of the pain and symptoms will never go away, I still have all my parts, can still get up every day and be with my loved ones, go to work, exercise, smell the stargazers and enjoy all of the blessings I’m fortunate enough to have.

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And now that I have the all-clear, I can try to finally start getting back to taking care of my health. My goal for next week is going to the gym 3x and yoga 2x. If I don’t reach my goal please feel free to cyber-fish-slap me.

Black and white photo of Wendy by Garrett Burdick, San Fran., CA

Stargazer photo by Emily Lewis via Flickr Creative Commons

Life is Like a Boxing Match, Not a Box of Chocolates: #MyLeftBoob #BreastCancerChronicles

I found this blog post saved in my drafts folder that I wrote back in early March and wonder why I never posted it? Perhaps it was because the king of the chaotic castle I was leaving was threatening my piddly grass shack in the woods and I was afraid. This king thought he was important just because he was somewhat wealthy and surrounded himself with status symbols to make the peasants who worked for him submit to his authority. But what he didn’t realize was that there is only so long a ruler can oppress “his people” before there is mutiny. This king was egomaniac who hated any woman who was not young, beautiful, blond and skinny. The longer was held captive the more I realized I could only remain a victim as long as I stayed. So I left.

 

After the last few months of complete stress and chaos, working way too much and being stuck in an unhealthy relationship (no, not my marriage), I’ve broken out of the chains that once bound me and I am finally FREE! A few people I’ve crossed paths with lately have made snarly comments about how many jobs I’ve had, like it’s a bad thing. It’s not by my choice. If it was my choice I’d still be working from home as I did for 7 years in order to be there for my kids. But unfortunately layoffs happen, life happens and you do what you have to do to survive.

Sorry Forrest, but life is not at all like a box of chocolates. A box of chocolates comes in a shiny gold box, freshly sealed in plastic, wrapped in a silky red ribbon. When you open that up your suspense heightens because there is a glossy bi-fold paper filled with delicious, delectable photos of every decadent chocolate treat just millimeters away from your anxious fingers. Beyond that lays a squishy piece of black cardboard separating your watering mouth from dark chocolate truffles with raspberry, caramel and milk chocolate centers. Maybe that’s life for millionaires.

For us working class blue-collar folks, life is more like a boxing match. It’s brutal and the pain seems never-ending at times. It takes a sucker punch at you, catches you off guard, smashes you in the head a bunch of times and then knocks you bloody and bruised, down the ground. While you’re laying there staring at the tooth you just spit out on the dirty ground next to your swollen cheek, you think you’ve been beaten so much that you might not have the strength to get back up again but then you hear your coaches, your friends—

“Hang in there. Life sucks, people suck. I wish I could help. I’m here for you. Don’t stoop to their level. You’re better than that. Don’t listen. Karma will get them. Just keep moving forward.”

And so you get back up.

Life is like a box you left in your garage that you’ve packed and moved along with you during each of your 20 relocations in the last 12 years. That box may look a little crusty on the outside, but you can’t throw it out. Inside sits a tiny white cotton sweater that a neighbor hand-knit for your adorable baby girl to wear home from the hospital before that same sweet neighbor passed away. It may be tattered and torn but just beyond the dingy brown packing tape sits a story your middle son wrote in second grade in crayon, complete with stick figures, about why he loves his mom. And then there’s the guest book to your oldest son’s graduation reminding you that your babies are not babies any longer. Time is fleeting.

I know that I am not going to waste any time working for, or surrounding myself around, people who suck all the life and love out of me. There will always be another job, another boss, another battle to fight— win or lose. I stared death in the face many times during my 2-year cancer battle I know that life is way too short to waste time on people who make you feel anything less than what and who I am— a strong, talented, loving, caring, giving human being who tries to do what’s good and strives to treat others the way I want to be treated.
Life is full of changing seasons— seasons of drought and seasons of turmoil,sickness, seasons of sadness, loss and famine, seasons of health and maybe some temporary wealth, seasons of tragedy and grief, followed by overwhelming laughter, joy and amazing love.  That’s life and, win or lose, I’m so glad to be blessed with another day. And now for some chocolate.
Photos by Rob Howard and Recetas Pasteles via Flickr Creative Commons

#MyLeftBoob #BreastCancer Chronicles: Gratitude & Springtime’s Faithfulness

Never yet was a springtime, when the buds forgot to bloom.”

~ Margaret Elizabeth Sangster

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There’s something about spring that makes my heart leap. After months of being cooped up inside, cold and cranky, longing for sunlight, we emerge from our cocoons ready to greet the sunlight and the stunning new life that it brings. No matter what gloom the winter may have sent our way in the form of sickness or any other challenge, the spring season is always faithful to give new life, vibrant colors and endless beauty to lift our spirits. I’ve been reminded of this for the past week each morning as I open the curtains in my living room and see the gorgeous magnolia tree blooming in our front yard. I’m reminded again when I see the striking pink weeping cherry tree outside the bedroom window of our new house. And for these two trees, I am grateful.

These past few months have been quite a struggle, mainly due to my work situation and leaving an environment that was not good for me physically or emotionally. But I know there is a light at the end of this dark tunnel and if I just keep on truckin’, eventually “this too shall pass.” I’m hopeful that “good things come to those who wait” and that I will “reap what I sow.”

If you’re not a fan of cheesy, inspirational quotes maybe you should stop reading this blog now. I never was a big fan myself, until I learned that these simple quotes, sandwiched between three slices of Bible verses, prayer and faith, were the “meat” in my triple-decker daily pep talk sandwich I have to give myself to get out from under the mountain of negative thoughts that try to attack each day.

A cancer patient can become a hypochondriac quite easily, especially survivors of the rare kind that comes with a “cloudy with a higher chance of recurrence” forecast. But in order to prevent the evil C word from coming back, my doctors tell me I need to eat right, limit alcohol, exercise at least 5 times a week for 45 minutes each time and try to live a low-stress life. Easy as pie, right? Not so much. It is a daily struggle. But I know that even in dark times, like when I feel what I think is a new lump, get another reminder of a humungous hospital bill that still needs to be paid or get stress migraines from toxic people still trying to haunt me, that if I look for the good, appreciate the simple things and don’t beat myself up for little missteps, that I will be okay.

I think many of us suffer from trying to “keeping up with the Jones,” especially in the social media world. We see posts of our Facebook friends going to the gym every day, traveling the world, having a gazillion gorgeous and beautiful bff’s who always seem to be having way more fun than you are but we forget that’s not reality— it’s just their highlight reel. And personally I forget that I can’t push myself so hard to train for a 5K, 10K or any other K when it’s a challenge just to stay healthy when I’m only one year post-chemo.

I was supposed to be training over the last four weeks for a Mother’s Day 5K that’s coming up in a few weeks. My plan was to go to spinning class three times a week, run twice a week and go for a hike on the weekend with the family. But my sentinel-lymph-node-free body had other plans— like fighting off a 4-week-long illness that send me to the emergency room. I’m now feeling 95% better but only got to hike twice this past month and did spinning and running exactly zero times each.

Instead of getting down on myself for not accomplishing my goals, I need to remind myself that my body has been through a harsh battle, was pumped full of strong toxins that killed the bad cells and the good and may probably never be the same. I had five surgeries, chemo and radiation, each of which took its toll on me and can have long-term after effects. Plus I’m missing lymph nodes (that I used to take for granted) to fight off infection. I need to remind myself not to push so hard, not to strive for perfection and not to measure my bad days against someone else’s highlight reel. I need to remember to take things one day, and even sometimes one hour, at a time and celebrate life’s little daily achievements.

For other cancer fighters and survivors reading this now, I hope you will remember this too— you are stronger than you think, you are a fighter and you are an overcomer every day you wake up and breathe another breath. Take a look back to last week, last month or last year at this time and see just how far you’ve come.

In everyone’s life there are seasons. While it may look like you’re stuck in a cold and lifeless winter, don’t worry— springtime is here and is faithful to bring new life!

In prayer and meditation today the word that kept being brought to my mind was “gratitude.” I think that word is meant for me to focus on what I do have instead of what I don’t.

Google says gratitude is:

grat·i·tude
ˈɡradəˌt(y)o͞od/
noun
  1. the quality of being thankful; readiness to show appreciation for and to return kindness.

Merriam-Webster’s definition of gratitude is:

“the state of being grateful :  thankfulness

Oprah Winfrey is a huge advocate for keeping a gratitude journal and writing at least five things a day that she is grateful for. My goal is three. I’m sure my list will grow each day. Watch Oprah’s video here about focusing on what you’re grateful for, even if you only start with being grateful for your breath.

“Be thankful for what you have; you’ll end up having more. If you concentrate on what you don’t have, you will never, ever have enough.” – Oprah Winfrey

So what am I thankful for today? Many things! Here are a few:

  1. My awesome children with whom I got to spend a beautiful day with on Easter eating, laughing, playing games and hiking
  2. My amazing, selfless, funny, handsome, loyal, hard-working husband
  3. My faithful self-taught therapy dog who comforts all of us every single day
  4. My health, even though my joints still ache and I still get waves of tiredness, but I am 100% cancer-free!
  5. Springtime which brings beautiful blossoms, fresh air, sunlight and new life
  6. The power of prayer
  7. A handful of good, loving, loyal, faith-filled old friends
  8. A handful of beautiful, giving, talented new friends
  9. A steady job, even if it is only part-time (for now)
  10. A decent house in a gorgeous, safe and welcoming town

Healthy Living Made Simple’s website states that “the single greatest thing you can do to change your life today is to start being grateful for what you have right now. No gesture is too small when done with gratitude… By concentrating on what’s good and giving it your energy, you attract abundance. But if you focus on what’s lacking: money, time, resources you will never have enough. Gratitude opens the door to abundance consciousness because it gets you to the source, which is the source of all things.”

I’m going to try to post what I’m grateful for each day (maybe in a journal, maybe here on my blog) and I know my life will get better because of it. I hope you do the same and that yours does too!

 

#MyLeftBoob #BreastCancer Chronicles: After-Effects of Cancer

ERE.R. visit April 6, 2017 for a pneumonia scare. No, doctor, this is not happiness to see you.

Forgive me cyberspace, for I have sinned. It’s been far too long since my last blog post but I’m happy to say that we raised $888 at our #MyLeftBoob Cancer-Free Celebration/Ann’s Place Benefit Concert in February! A HUGE thank you is going out to all the bands, donors, sponsors, volunteers and supporters who made it possible!

While I would have liked to have raised more money, I’m happy with the end result. As my beloved father-in-law used to say (God rest his soul), “It’s better than a poke in the eye!” I know that every little bit helps Ann’s Place continue to offer amazing free programs. I go whenever I can for yoga, have benefitted from reiki and therapy and am so grateful to have a place like this in my back yard.

Also since my last post, I met a woman who recently completed her treatment, learned of another who is newly diagnosed and three more who are currently going through treatment. I hope my blog can serve as a place where you/they can gain insight, comfort and support on what you will go through physically, emotionally and spiritually. And for their families and caregivers who ask me what they can do to help my answer is— just be there in whatever capacity your loved one wants. Some don’t want visitors (I didn’t), but will want to know you’re still thinking of them. I found a text or email was the best bet so as not to wake is in our odd sleeping patterns. Others might want someone more hands-on. Everyone is different— just ask!

This July will be two years since I completed 16 weeks of dose dense ACT chemotherapy, which I started two years ago this week on April 9, 2015, followed by 30 radiation treatments from August-October 2015. I started by treatment with two separate lumpectomies in February and August of 2015. (Click here to read my story from the beginning) So I “should” be feeling “normal” again by now, right? Wrong.

The biggest thing I’ve learned about cancer is:

  1. Everybody’s cancer is different, therefore everybody’s treatment is different.
  2. A cancer patient’s treatment is their choice— it’s their body— and they should not be made to feel guilty for choosing not to listen to others’ advice or home remedies.
  3. A cancer patient needs support, should take advantage of their local resources and not walk this road alone. Click here to find a support group near you.
  4. Getting cancer reveals who your true friends and family are and that some people who you think will be there for you may not be and that’s okay. There is a whole new family you’re a part of now- the WARRIOR family!
  5. Cancer happens to the whole family, and then some. Be sure that children, spouses and all those close to the patient are also getting the love and support they need.
  6. Cancer is not over when treatment ends— especially if you’ve had chemo and/or radiation. It could take months or even years to get back to “normal” and some never do. It all depends on the treatment.

While I might look “normal” to many, I’m not. I won’t use cancer as a “crutch” or an “excuse” for getting out of, or not doing things, but it’s been tough. I still don’t feel 100% and need to allow myself the right to not try to be Super Mom and/or Super Woman. I suffer from many of the long-term side effects that Cancer.net describes on their website, including constant joint pain, fatigue, pain at the surgery site, lung problems and fear of recurrence, to name just a few. I can’t lift heavy things on my left side due to the risk of lymphedema.

But I’m still here and will continue to write to raise awareness for early detection. Why not take the time right now to stop and squeeze your boobs?! It only takes a moment. It saved my life and can save yours too! Sometimes mammograms are not enough.

At this time last year I had surgery to get the chemo port placed in my chest. Today, because of another illness, I’m feeling about as weak as I was here in this photo but  now I can say that I am 100% cancer-free!  Photo: April, 2015.

port surgery

For those of you just joining me, I’m a recent survivor of a rare and aggressive type of breast cancer called Triple Negative Metaplastic Carcinoma. Triple Negative is only found in 15% of women diagnosed and it means that the tumor is estrogen receptor-negative, progesterone receptor-negative and HER2-negative. The good news is that this type of breast cancer is typically responsive to chemotherapy. Joan Lunden has a great blog that explains TNBC in detail.

Metaplastic Carcinoma is the scarier part of my diagnosis as it’s only found in 1% of women diagnosed and has a higher rate of recurrence in the bones, skin and lungs. It was only just discovered in 2000 and there has not been a lot of testing, research or clinical studies so diligent follow-up is key to me staying healthy and cancer-free. I can’t be on Tamoxifen or any other post-cancer meds because I don’t have the receptors for it. So  I describe my life now as sort of like walking a tightrope in high heels without a net. As long as I keep my chin up, stay focused on looking ahead (and don’t look down or back), I’ll be fine. Sort of. Eat clean, avoid sugar, exercise 5 times a week for 45 minutes each time, limit alcohol and try to keep stress levels down because stress is horrible for recurrence. Easy peasy! Right? Not so much….

When the “normal” stressors (work, bills, busy-ness of everyday life) get interrupted by another curveball life throws at me and my husband’s driving me to the ER at 8 p.m. to make sure I don’t have pneumonia is when I’m forced to stop dead in my tracks and remember that I can’t do everything I used to be able to do. I need to allow myself time to rest, learn to say “no” and remember not over-extend myself.

As I lay on our lumpy, 16-year-old couch battling a 3-week-long, stubborn illness that sent me to the emergency room last night, I find it hard to believe that at this time last year I was in the hospital, recovering surgery #2 of 5 to get my chemo port placed for breast cancer surgery. Glad I didn’t know they would go in through the jugular vein to place the tube that connects to the port they use to administer the chemo drugs or I might have been freaking out juuuust a little bit. Now when I get sick I say to myself— at least I’m not that sick.

Last week I went to Urgent Care because I’ve been coughing, wheezing and having a hard time breathing. For many cancer patients when new ailments arise the first thing we think of is— I hope it’s not cancer. The doc checked me out and said my lungs were clear and I was sent home with antibiotics, cough syrup, two different inhalers and nasal spray. The fever went away for a few days but the lingering fear of not knowing what was causing this sickness still haunted me.

When my temperature spiked to nearly 103 degrees last night, I called the doctor who said to go to straight to the emergency room to get a lung x-ray (which was exactly what I wanted). The Physician’s Assistant said he “thinks” it looks clear and to call back to see what the radiologist said. I asked if there were any spots on the x-rays because that’s what I was more concerned about and the PA assured me that my lungs were clear, had no black spots (cancer) but to call back later “just in case.” Pneumonia would show up white. I am putting in a call to the oncologist tomorrow too as an added precaution. Thank goodness for my husband’s insurance!

pneumonia

If looks could kill…….. (#badhairday #nomakeup #nofilter) Photo: April 6, 2017

After a few hours of waiting, the radiologist gave me the all-clear. Phew! Not cancer, not pneumonia, thankfully, yet I still lay here feeling like I got hit by a Ford F-150. I won’t say I feel like I got hit by a Mack truck because after enduring 16 weeks of dose dense red devil chemo I do know what that feels like and it’s not fun (but neither is this).

Heaped on top of battling sickness is a mountain of debt that doesn’t seem to be going away, a pile of horse-s#*t that a person who is no longer in my life keeps throwing in my face that’s consuming my time, money and energy and dealing with a huge pay cut that’s forcing me to seek out other jobs—  all adding to the stress. Volunteer work, house work, mom and wife duties and a new business launch that can’t seem to get off the ground due to lack of time and energy only adds to the pile I’m getting buried under. Oh, and then there’s this trying to lose the chemo weight battle. (Yes, you do gain weight during chemo because all you want to eat is buttery noodles, starchy bagels and other fattening carb-filled foods…at least I did).

#pitypartyendsnow

BUT I do still see a flicker of light at the end of the tunnel from a match I’m lighting myself and that’s what I’m aiming for as I crawl out of this mess.

Before I got sick, I visited Joy Ride’s beautiful Ridgefield facility  and can’t wait to get started. Spinning is the perfect exercise for me because I can’t lift anything on my left side due to the surgery and lymph node removal so any cardio, like jogging or spinning, is perfect.

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Joy Ride Ridgefield seems like such a warm and welcoming environment and I can’t wait to be a part of this community. But I can’t start yet if just walking from the couch to the kitchen gets me winded. I know this illness can’t last forever and that “this too shall pass,” I just wish it wasn’t taking so darn long! Once I get started, I will be posting several times a week about my progress so be sure to check back!

Since I had my lymph nodes removed to make sure the cancer didn’t spread (it didn’t), including my sentinel lymph node, my immune system will always be compromised so I’m assuming that’s why now when I get sick it’s much worse and takes much longer to get over.

This is supposed to be the year I do all the things I’ve always wanted to do but have been putting off like skiing for the first time in 30 years (check!), like auditioning and being the part of a community theater production (check! – more to come on that later), like starting my own Arbonne business and becoming financially independent (a work in progress- click here to read more and order!), like finishing at least one of three books in progress and sending to an editor to polish up to start pitching (half-check, also a work in progress) and like registering for my first ever 5K (double-check!).

I signed up for Run Like a Mother, a 5K that occurs annually on Mother’s Day, that’s happening in just 37 days! (but who’s counting? I am!) I’m planning on running this (at least part of the way) with my daughter Ruby, but have not felt well enough to train at all. It might be a fast walk-jog-run-pant-crawl to the finish line but I will finish the race and get my Mother’s Day rose at the finish line!

But for now the wild roller coaster ride continues and I learn to live with my “new normal,” trying not to lose my lunch on the loop-dee-loops, keep my hands in the car, seek out the good in every bad situation, find a learning moment in every challenge, surround myself with positive people, have gratitude for each day I’ve been given and learn to live in the moment.

People often ask how I’m able to keep a positive attitude and get through what I’ve been through and the answer is this— I remember how blessed I am to be a survivor and to be surrounded by such an awesome family and amazing support system. I don’t know why I am still here but some of my incredible warrior brothers and sisters are not, but I do know that as long as I am here I will be their voice through my writing.  I try to take things one day, and many times, one hour at a time, and keep fighting the good fight.

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Do you have a question about my diagnosis or treatment?

Contact me at wendyannmitchell@live.com.

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