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.

#MyLeftBoob2017 is Celebrating 2 Years #CancerFree with a Benefit for Ann’s Place!

IMG_2739#MyLeftBoob is celebrating 2 years being cancer free with a musical celebration! Join us on Saturday, Feb. 11th at the Danbury Elks Club, 36 Sugar Hollow Rd., Danbury (Route 7), from 7 p.m. – 12 a.m. for live music, awesome food, raffle prizes and tons of fun! It’s all for a great cause!
 
From the day I was diagnosed with the evil “C’ word I’ve worked to raise awareness of self breast exams for early detection. I was low risk, went for a mammogram every year but got Metaplastic Carcinoma (MpBC), a rare, aggressive, fast-growing type of caner found in only 1% of women. I was lucky enough to have caught it early at Stage 1 while dying my hair (dropped hair dye on #MyLeftBoob felt the lump and the rest is history). Many women who get it don’t find MpBC until it’s at Stage 3 or 4. I’m also Triple Negative, something only 15% of women have, so I can’t be on any follow up meds. I say it’s kind of like walking on a tightrope in high heels with no net. It’s scary at times but as long as I stay balanced, keep my chin up and keep moving forward, everything will be okay!
 
After 16 weeks of dose dense “red devil” chemo, 30 rounds of radiation, 5 surgeries, 5 lumps and numerous complications, I’m happy to say I’m now 100% cancer free and planning the 2nd annual #MyLeftBoob celebration to raise funds for Ann’s Place a nonprofit that provides free services for cancer patients and their families. We’ll have live bands, delicious food prepared by Odeens BBQ, raffles by local bands and much more!
 
Bands include:
 
$2 Hat (featuring members of Future Tense)
The Knockoffs (featuring members of HED & Leadfoot)
Sugar Hollow Band (featuring Elks Club House Band)
 
Tickets are $25 each and include hors d’oeuvres, live music and one free raffle ticket. There is a cash bar. A portion of the ticket sales will go to benefit Ann’s Place. 100% of the raffle prize funds collected will go to benefit Ann’s Place.
Raffle prizes so far include:
 
To read my survivor story from the beginning visit:
 
 
To learn more about Ann’s Place visit:
 
 
For questions about this benefit or to donate a raffle prize, please contact wendyannmitchell@live.com or call/text (203) 501-7424.
Tickets are $25 each and can be purchased in person at Bach to Rock Music School, 15 Danbury Rd., Ridgefield or by going to PayPal.com and entering wendyannmitchell@live.com.
 
Image by Lisa Kosarko Sotero, Gruntled Design

#MyLeftBoob Breast Cancer Chronicles 2017: Out with the Old, In with the Boobs!

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Boobs— we know them, we love them and some of us, such as myself, can act like one from time to time. For anyone who has known me pre #MyLeftBoob cancer diagnosis, you might say I can be a bit coo-coo. I love hard, play hard, feel deep and pursue dreams and aspirations passionately. I am persistent and tenacious and (mostly) don’t give a crap what people think (unless I really care about you).

And for those who met me post evil “C” word, you might be thinking what a completely insane loony I am….. and you’d be right. In addition to recovering from the biggest, baddest type of “red devil” chemo, 30 treatments of radiation and five surgeries over the course of 18 months, having constant aches and pains in my joints, still struggling with exhaustion and roller coaster emotions, cancer patients can suffer from PTSD- Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Pile on financial burdens, getting let go of a job you loved and worked hard at for nearly seven years, family and relationship issues with people close and I might have a teeny bit of a good reason to act like a boob. Heap on a few thick layers of insecurity from not having your once-fit body, hair, or eyebrows back, and you’d have the perfect recipe for one big, humongous hot mess. That’s me.

The holidays can be particularly emotional. People we call “family” don’t call anymore and it seems like they don’t care if you’re alive or dead. Those who were once so helpful and present while I was sick, bald and weak are now suddenly “forgetting” to invite us for Thanksgiving or are having Christmas with their “own family.”

Getting upset about this can lead depression, anger and a “valid excuse” to over drink and/or over medicate. And so the vicious cycle continues and repeats.

According to Cancer.net, it’s normal for cancer survivor to experience feelings of anxiety, worry, fear and dread.Cancer survivors who have PTSD risk developing depression, alcohol and/or drug abuse, eating disorders and loss of relationships and employment.  Symptoms of PTSD include:

  • Nightmares and flashbacks
  • Avoiding places, events, people, or things that bring back bad memories
  • Trouble sleeping or concentrating
  • Self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse
  • Frightening or unwanted thoughts

So how do cancer survivors deal with this anxiety, stress and fear on a regular basis? If we listen to our doctors, we pump ourselves full of Zoloft, Xanax and other anti-anxiety meds and antidepressants. Unfortunately these don’t mix well with alcohol and can make a person do and say crazy things….and then not remember them after….and then have to live through the next few days, weeks or months with embarrassment, humiliation and shame.

I said all that to say this— I’m sorry to anyone I hurt, annoyed or pissed off this past year. I’ve been struggling with a lot with my health, finances and relationships. My goal for 2017 is to try to be a better person, be more giving, more loving and more forgiving and to leave the past in the past. Unless you live in a vacuum, or Amish Country, you’d have to agree that most everyone shares the same sentiment about 2016- it SUCKED.

Personally, in 2016, I lost a strong and inspiring woman from my cancer support group who passed away after battling breast cancer and then stomach cancer ten years later. I lost a full-time job that helped pay for the mountains of hospital bills from Sloan Kettering and Danbury Hospital. And I lost a few people that are not worth keeping in my life anymore.

Whether they realize it or not, I’ve decided that it shouldn’t take so much effort to try to keep people around that don’t want to be. Life is short. A cancer patient faces that reality as they’ve stared death in the face and continue to do so over and over again.

I need to remind myself to count my blessings and appreciate all the good things I do have in this life. In 2016 I celebrated being one year cancer free on Feb. 17th, we celebrated my daughter’s “Sweet 16,” my son’s Star Wars themed 21st birthday, got a new house, a new job, moved to a wonderful new town with a great new school for my girl and made some amazing new friends.

Also, I’m cancer free! But yet I still feel like I’m being stalked by that the dreaded “R” word– recurrence– that keeps waiting to rear its ugly head. During my dark dance with cancer, faith, optimism and a good sense of humor helped get me through so why does the depression keep creeping in?

Dana Farber’s website states that it’s important to focus on wellness to stay as healthy as possible:

“Don’t blame yourself for your cancer. Some people believe that they got cancer because of something they did or did not do. This is usually not true—and you should not dwell on feeling this way. Remember, cancer can happen to anyone. You don’t need to be upbeat all the time. Many people say they want to have the freedom to give in to their feelings sometimes.”

I believe in the healing power of the stories we tell each other help us cope and not feel so alone. It’s never too late to start over, follow your dreams and be who you want to be. Life is short. Do what you love. Try, fail, try again, and if you fail again at least you won’t live with a giant cloud of “what ifs” lingering over your head. And who knows? Maybe you’ll succeed?!

These are my resolutions for 2017— work less, write more, cry less, laugh more, stress less, relax more, sit less, run more and find my ohm. Oh, yeah…..and try my best to stop acting like such a boob!

PS: Stay tuned to my blog for details on my 2-year cancer-free party on Feb. 11th and round 472 of my ongoing battle of the bulge….and scale…and kale.

#MyLeftBoob #BreastCancer Chronicles: Post War Wounds & Battle Scars

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Photo by Alan Barry

After a bloody battle, most warriors would lick their wounds, or at least clean them with hydrogen peroxide and slap a Band-Aid on and then move on with their lives, never looking back. Been there, done that, not going back. A cancer survivor has no choice but to keep looking back to see how far they’ve come, how much has changed and keep fighting— day in, day out, as the dark shadow, the “R” word (recurrence) hovers overhead, haunting our days and nights.

It’s been four months since I last updated this blog and since then I’ve had four more people reach out and tell me that they, or someone close to them, got the horrible news nobody ever wants to hear— you have cancer. One woman told me that she was so scared to hear not only did she have cancer but it was Metaplastic Carcinoma, a very rare, very aggressive “new” cancer (same as I had) and that she stumbled across this blog from a Google search. I’m so glad my writing is able to help others and let them know what to expect along the way.

I wish I could tell you that life goes back to normal after surgery, chemo and radiation, but it doesn’t. People who said they’d be there are not. People who were so scared that you might die and promised they’d make an effort to be in your lives break their commitments and carry on with their lives just like before you got the news. You’ll try to hold on to those who are there, sometimes a little too tight. You’ll try to live life to the fullest because life is short, you almost died and, heck! You beat cancer— this time. You’ll wish you could stop thinking about and talking about and writing about cancer but this is your new normal.

YOU ARE A SURVIVOR. You’ve been through WAR- you’ll tell yourself while being reminded daily as you look in the mirror that the scars are still there, on the flesh and deep down beneath. The battle rages on and most times it’s a battle in your mind.

Sure, neuropathy from ACT chemo comes and goes, your joints ache, your eyelashes and eyebrows aren’t as thick and full as they used to be. You’re exhausted and have major mood swings that makes everyone around you think you’re insane (you kind of are, learning how to hide that is key).

On the outside to someone who met you after the “C” word, you might seem crazy. But that’s okay. You’ve been through WAR. I’ve read that cancer patients can get PTSD because they’ve been through something so incredibly traumatic. Staring death in the face over and over is enough to make anyone go a bit crazy.

You get mistaken for a 40-something when you used to get mistaken for a 30-something. It’s because of the short hair, and tired look that never seems to go away.

Depressed yet? Don’t be. YOU CAN RISE ABOVE. It’s a choice. Through this almost 2-year-long fight, I’ve learned that I won’t base my feelings upon other’s actions (or inactions). I’ve learned to be thankful for those who are always here for me day in and day out, through all of my mood swings, ups and downs and craziness, and they still love me no matter what— my husband, my kids, my super sweet therapy dog Sadie, my cancer support group (that I haven’t been to in way too long) and a handful of friends.

The holidays can be particularly draining, especially when there are strained relationships with family members. You’ll rationalize in your head that  your whole family should be together, after all, you almost DIED! Don’t they care? The sad truth is, nope. Many do not. But that’s okay. Why waste your precious time and energy trying to fit a square peg in a round hole? Doesn’t fit. There are plenty more people out there just like you that have walked through the fire and came out the other side stronger, fiercer and full of moxie to take on anything life throws at them. After all, you almost DIED! And you kicked cancer’s ass! If the people around you who you think “should” appreciate that don’t, it’s their loss.

When I went to a strict Christian church years ago the preacher would always say that the “Us four and no more” mentality was wrong and selfish. I disagree. Sometimes that’s all there is (sometimes five for us). I’ve volunteered countless hours of time and money to help others in my community and to give back as my way of saying thanks for all I’ve been given. Whether you want to call it karma or reaping what you sow, being a good person and putting good out there into the world does come back to you. And if choosing to only surround myself with the four or five closest to me around the holidays helps me remain sane then so be it. I’ll be selfish for the sake of my sanity.

I’ve been so blessed with an outpouring of love and support from strangers-turned-friends from around the globe for which I’m so grateful. I was given a second chance in life and won’t take that for granted. Some of my warrior brothers and sisters are no longer with us and that is so unfair.

I think of my friend Pat Nagle who left us this past September after battling breast, then stomach cancer. She was always there for us, was a gentle, sweet soul and a huge encouragement through my cancer journey. Although I only knew her for less than two short years, Pat touched my heart in a tremendous way. No matter what she was going through physically or emotionally, she always managed to give  a word of encouragement and bring a sense of calm to our cancer support group. Pat was instrumental in me staying sane during difficult times by sharing the battle she fought. If she knew I was going in for chemo or surgery she would reach out and send me a quick note to let me know she was thinking and praying for me. I will miss her gentle spirit but I am glad she is no longer in any pain.

I think of Maria Fowler, an award-winning photo journalist for USA Today who welcomed me into an online support community for women with Metaplastic Carcinoma. It’s been one year since she passed away and many of her sisters are still struggling. We had plans to raise awareness for the little-known cancer that only 1% of women diagnosed get called Metaplastic Carcinoma. I was going to help her with her website, she was going to be filmed as our expert on the subject. Sadly neither happened. Life (and death) had other plans.

I don’t know why I’m still here and they are not but I do know that while I am here on this earth that I will make it my mission to help others through my writing and through reminding people to squeeze their boobs! Early detection does save lives, not all but many. If I hadn’t found the lump myself while dying my hair it could have progressed to stage 3 or 4 and spread. Thank God it didn’t.

When the fear tries to grip me at night I say a prayer and think of what my oncologist told me— “You caught it early, it’s stage one and hasn’t spread. You’re going to be fine!” I know that no one can predict the future and anything can happen. We’re not promised tomorrow or even today so we must love the ones we’re with an enjoy and be grateful for each day we’ve been given.

I know this sounded like two parts self-help with a dash of Hallmark card clichés but that’s my life now— sometimes sappy, many times goofy and crazy and always something to be grateful for. There have been many ups and downs, twists and turns and loop-dee-loops but I’m still strapped in with my hands inside of the car (most of the time). I hope that by my sharing my story it can help you or someone you know to feel that they are not alone.

 

 

 

#MyLeftBoob #BreastCancer Chronicles: #Cancer 101— What to Expect When You’re Expecting the “C” Word

Hello! It’s been a while since I last updated this blog because life has been a  whirlwind— in a good way. I am now 100% CANCER FREE and on the road to recovery. Praise the Lord!

For those just joining me, I’m the mom of 3 awesome kids and an incredible rescue-turned-therapy puppy named Sadie. I’ve been married to the most amazing hubby a girl could ever ask for going on 22 years this August.

Just last week I celebrated one year post-chemo and I’m still waiting to feel “normal” again after fighting an 18-month long complicated, harsh battle with the evil “C’ word. Here’s what I looked like before “IT”……..

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In case you didn’t know, in January of 2015 life threw me a 99-mile-per hour curve ball and I was hit with “IT.” You know— the thing you never want to be hit with or told— “You have cancer.” I found the lump while dying my fiery red hair and from Day #1 I knew the diagnosis had to be about something much more than just me. So I began a #MyLeftBoob awareness campaign and began writing to remind people to do monthly self breast exams.

On Feb. 17, 2015 I had a lumpectomy to remove the tumor— Surgery #1. I thought I’d only have to do the one surgery and 6 weeks of radiation and be done with “IT” but after the biopsy my doctor said I had a “rare and aggressive type of cancer only 1% of women are diagnosed with called “Metaplastic Carcinoma.” And I’m also Triple Negative which only occurs in 15% of women. Both of these types have a higher recurrence rate than other cancers and require very aggressive treatment and careful follow-up.

Here’s what I looked like post-surgery #1 of 4 before I knew I had “the bad kind” of cancer……..

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There would be 3 more surgeries after this photo was taken, 16 weeks of dense dose ACT “red devil” chemo, 6 weeks, 30 treatments, of radiation, tons of complications and emergency room visits along with terrible side effects.

What I know now that I didn’t know then was that life will never return to “normal.” I can’t just wrap up my cancer, put it in a box on the top shelf of my closet, shut the door and forget about it. It is who I am and what makes me stronger, more grateful, more positive, more forgiving and less stressed about the little things that really don’t matter when looking at the big picture.

In the past few weeks I’ve had several people, some complete strangers, tell me they or someone they love have cancer and they don’t know what to do or how to stay positive. They came across my blog and asked for advice and “words of wisdom” to help get them through. I’m so glad I can help others and pay it forward for all the good I’ve been blessed with.

A woman who was recently diagnosed with endometrial cancer asked me— “How did you get into ‘Warrior Mode’ and stay strong throughout your fight?” The truth is, I wasn’t strong all the time. It’s because of an army of angels that I was able to keep moving forward. I tried to only write when I had something positive to share, but there were many times I wasn’t feeling so bright and shiny. There were some really low days and some nights I felt like I might not wake up after chemo kicked my butt HARD.

What Can You Expect When Expecting Treatment for the Evil “C” Word?

I can share what I went through but everyone’s cancer and everyone’s treatment is different. I heard someone say cancer is so common now it’s like getting a cold. If only it was that easy to deal with— pop a couple of Alka Seltzers, slug back some Nyquil and voila! You’re healed! Unfortunately it’s not quite that easy. Some warriors I met along the way will never be done with their treatment— those with Multiple Myeloma, those whose cancer is resistant to chemo, those who have to deal with it spreading and recurring…..for them it’s a  living hell every day.

What Can You Expect if Expecting the Red Devil?

They call it “red devil” chemo because it is actually bright red in color and feels like the devil has invaded your body. The stuff is so toxic the nurse who administers it comes all covered up in a hazmat suit, gloves and goggles. It takes (4) huge 6″ long, 1.2″ wide syringes to get the full dose and after the fact it literally turns your pee red. You can’t touch or hug anyone for 24 hours. Not fun.

What About Losing Your Hair?

It may sound vain but losing my hair was the hardest part. Since Bible times hair has been associated with strength (Sampson and Delilah) or beauty (Jezebel) and femininity. So losing it is a tough pill to swallow. It means everyone will now know you’re sick. They’ll look at your with pity.

There were some days I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t recognize the bloated, frail, hairless person staring back at me. The worst was last August after I just completed 16 weeks of chemo and had to get another lumpectomy for another abnormal lump found in #MyLeftBoob. This was that day, two days before our 21st wedding anniversary………

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Weak….hairless….nauseous….bloated but still alive and trying to squeeze out a little smile. I know I’m not special and hundreds of thousands of people go through this battle every day. But I feel I can use my writing to help others and I feel that is what I’m meant to do.

So what is my “Cancer 101” advice and tips for the newly diagnosed patient?

1. Put Your Blinders On

My doctor told me this and I wished I listened. People will say the dumbest things in the beginning. You have to have tunnel vision and focus on your treatment and taking it one day, sometimes one hour at a time and get through.

2. Don’t Check “Dr. Google”

Another thing the great Dr. Cooper advised— but the reporter in me naturally wanted to gather as much information about my type of cancer since many at Danbury Hospital hadn’t even heard of Metaplastic Carcinoma, only just discovered in 2000. A lot of the information online is scary…… and old. Your doctor knows best. Listen. Get a second or third opinion if you have to— especially if it’s rare.

3. Let It Go In One Ear and Out the Other

Everyone and their mother will try to give you advice, figure out how and why you got it and try to blame something or someone. They might even ask you— Did you take birth control pills? Did you smoke? Did you dye your hair a lot?

They will tell you— smoke pot, eat almonds, take oatmeal baths, rub coconut oil on it, buy these magic pills and it will cure you. If all of that could cure cancer thousands wouldn’t be dying each year. A nutritionist may have studied nutrition for 20 years but have they studied cancer for 20 years? No. But your doctor has. Listen and trust your gut.

4. Surround Yourself With Positive People and Get Support

Make it a point to only be surrounded by positive people who will lift you up, make you laugh, make you feel loved and supported. I went to a faith-based cancer support group at Walnut Hill Community Church.  Words can’t describe how grateful I am for their love, prayers and support. I also went to Ann’s Place which provides free therapy for cancer patients and their families— another amazing place  I can’t thank enough.

5. Start Journaling

Research has shown that a cancer patient who begins journaling does better in their treatment because they are less stressed. MD Anderson says on their website: “Journaling is one way patients can care for themselves. Writing down your thoughts gives you an opportunity to work out your feelings and emotions, which may help you relax and find reasons to be happier and more hopeful about the future.”

5. Make Time for Yourself

Get a massage, go to the beach, shut off the phone and take time for yourself. People you haven’t heard from for years, or even decades, will crawl out of the woodwork wanting to take you to lunch or a movie. Now is a time to be selfish, do what makes you happy and helps you relax. Time is precious. Choose to spend it with those who love and support you “in sickness and in health.”

6. Distract Yourself by Focusing on Others (or a project- or both)

While undergoing chemo I organized a fundraiser for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. It took a tremendous amount of time and energy to plan a 9-hour-long, 9-band concert, to coordinate schedules, round up volunteers and raffle prizes but in the end we raised $2,600 for the ACS. I also headed up a Relay for Life team as team captain for Wendy’s Warriors which was a great way to give back as my way of saying thank you for how many angels on earth helped me. Read about them here…

7. Cut the Negative Nellies & Ignore the Jealous Ones

People might actually get jealous of the attention, money and gifts you may receive. The ones who gave me a hard time over creating a GoFundMe page have never volunteered an hour in their life.

Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve been a volunteer for 15+ years and gladly do it to help those less fortunate, to be there for troubled teens or help my community heal in the aftermath of the tragedy in Sandy Hook by volunteering time and money to offer a free space to heal through the power of the arts. I was grateful to have faithful volunteers by my side that enabled us to provide a safe haven when it was needed most.

When I was learning gymnastics, my instructor used to tell me to do a somersault to look down, tuck my chin and roll and I look at fighting cancer the same way. Obstacles will cross your path in the form of people who “just want to help” and may not realize their version of “help” is actually hurting and stressing you out. People might get jealous and even tell you so and try to make you feel bad for asking for help. Just ignore them, tuck and roll.

 

8. Find Your Village and Let Them Help

It’s hard and embarrassing to ask for help. It takes a humble spirit to open your hands and ask, “Please?” And it takes a village, a small army, to nurse a cancer patient back to life after staring death in the face.  I’m so incredibly grateful that my village was ready, willing and able to support me each step of the way. I am blessed beyond words and only hope I can help half as much as I have been helped. I believe what goes around comes around. Do good for others and it will come back to you.

9. Get Info Warrior Mode

To get into “Warrior Mode” you will have to choose your weapons wisely—

  • Choose to fight obstacles with perseverance.
  • Choose to fight weakness with inner strength by feeding your spirit.
  • Choose to fight criticism with kindness.
  • Choose to fight fear with confessions of faith.
  • Choose to fight cancer with dignity, grace, thanksgiving and optimism.

I did and that’s how I got through, and continue to get through, the after effects of this horrific war.

I would not wish cancer on my worst enemy and would never dream of being jealous of someone who had to go through what I went through. I’ve been blessed beyond measure and am happy I’m still here to pay it forward and to be able to look at myself in the mirror and say, I am a warrior— thanks to all of you!

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I had the opportunity to share my journey at Bethel’s Relay for Life a few months ago and hear the amazing stories of warrior sisters just like me who fought, or continue to fight the good fight. This is a club none of us ever wanted to be in and that’s why I feel it’s my duty to advocate for early detection since I was given a second chance. By the grace of God,  I’m still here. Some are not as fortunate.

Thank you so very much to everyone who was there for me every step of the way.

What are the Next Steps for Me?

With this type of cancer we don’t use the word “remission” due to the high recurrence rate. I must be diligent with follow-up which is why I’m now going to a “Functional Medicine” doctor to get my diet on track.

Because I’m Triple Negative, I can’t be on Tamoxifen so I describe my life now as walking a tightrope in high heels over the Empire State Building. I can look down and be afraid of falling off and plunging to my death, or I can put one foot in front of the other, take one step ahead and keep moving forward. I choose the latter.

If you know someone going through this battle feel free to send them to my blog. You can read from the beginning here if you scroll all the way down…..

https://wendipoprock.wordpress.com/myleftboob-breast-cancer-awareness-campaign/

Or they can email me at wendyannmitvhell@live.com.  Be well!

 

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