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

#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: #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!

 

#MyLeftBoob Is Almost One Year Cancer Free!

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It’s been a while since I’ve written an update and wanted to let you know I’m almost done with with this year-long fight! The final surgery to get the chemo “Power Port” removed is Feb. 2, 2016! Woo hoo!

In some ways it seems 2015 flew by and other times it seemed like it would never end. We started the year with a bang with a broken bed, oven and dryer in week 1, my middle son almost dying from a ruptured appendix and torn intestine in week 2 and 5 days in the hospital (thank God he is still here!), and then me finding “the lump” in week 3, the day he came off of bed rest from his surgery. It’s all in the rearview mirror now as we look forward to the future with optimism.

On Feb. 17, 2016 I’ll celebrate one year cancer-free with a big party in Bethel, CT on Friday, Feb. 26, 2016. If you’re reading this, you’re invited! It’s a benefit for The Scotty Fund and Ann’s Place, two organizations that helped our family tremendously over the last year.

There will be dinner, cocktails, live music and a David Bowie tribute band! (R.I.P., Starman). We’ll post a Facebook event once bands and details are finalized, but please save the date! For more info, email wendyannmitchell@live.com.

Some people recently emailed, confused and wondering what happened after the last update? I’m still here! I spent 2 Tuesdays in December in the E.R.

On Dec. 4 I was admitted after having bad pain in #MyLeftBoob. When I felt another lump, my doctor felt I should get it scanned. Thank God it was not cancer (again!) and was just another side effect from the last surgery in August.

It’s a seroma- a collection liquid that forms sometimes after surgery. I’ll have it checked at the end of January to make sure it dissipates on its own. If not they will have to drain it.

The second time was exactly one week later for throbbing back pain in the middle of my spine. Because of the high recurrence rate of Metaplastic Carcinoma, my oncologist felt I should go and get an x-ray to make sure it wasn’t something serious.

After a CT scan, x-rays, blood work, EKG, etc. it was determined that I have early onset arthritis due to chemo. After breathing yet another HUGE sigh of relief I asked what I can do to stop the arthritis and the doctor replied, “Stop getting old!” Very funny. I did get a chuckle but realized many of these side effects (joint pain, back pain, hot flashes, tiredness) are something I have to learn to live with.

Part of writing here is therapy, some is to raise awareness for early detection and mostly I write to educate the many newly diagnosed people with cancer, and their families and caregivers, so they’ll know what to expect.

Now that treatment is almost done, many times if I suddenly get a hot flash or feel tired/achy, people ask why. I say it’s from treatment. Almost always the response is, “But I thought you were done with treatment?” Yes, technically I’m done with chemo and radiation but the symptoms don’t magically stop the minute chemo and radiation is over.

My doctor said it could take 6 – 12 months for all the harsh ACT (Adriamycin, Cytoxin and Taxol) chemo drugs and side effects to leave my system. While I may look somewhat normal, most days I don’t feel normal due to joint pain, sleepless nights and anxiety.

Here’s some information to help you better understand the conditions I still suffer, as many cancer patients do when treatment has ended, due to the side effects from chemo:

Chemo Brain:

“Research has shown that chemo can impact the thinking functions of the brain for up to 10 years after treatment. Some of the brain’s activities
are affected are concentration, memory, comprehension, and reasoning.” (Cancer.org)

Body Changes:

“Hot flashes at night and can disrupt sleep. This can cause mood changes and make it hard for to make decisions. You may feel tired or have trouble getting to sleep, getting up early, or getting back to sleep after waking up in the middle of the night. You may experience memory problems, depression, mood swings, and irritability.” (Dana-Farber.org)

Emotional Side Effects & PTSD:

“Some people with cancer may develop an anxiety disorder called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Although PTSD is most often associated with traumatic events such as war, sexual and physical attacks, natural disasters, and serious accidents, the disorder can also affect people with cancer. For example, a recent study found nearly one in four women newly diagnosed with breast cancer experienced PTSD.”

Many cancer patients will experience the same side effects months, or even years, after treatment. It’s been 6 months since the end of chemo and 3 months since radiation ended. I know I’ll get back to my “new normal” soon (and hopefully the gym) but I’m learning to listen to my body and rest when I need to…. which last weekend was 14 hours one day!

I’m happy to embrace 2016 with optimism, excitement and hope for more good things to come…. and more opportunities to pay it forward– especially with the benefit dinner/dance/concert on Feb. 26.

Thank you for your support, prayers and love. May 2016 be filled with all good things for you and yours.

Peace,
Wendy 🙂

*Pictured: Me & my medical oncologist, Dr. Robert Cooper, at his retirement party in Nov. 2015.*

#MyLeftBoob Breast Cancer 201: The Good, the Bad & the Ugly

“Perseverance is not a long race; it is many short races one after another.” ~Walter Elliott, The Spiritual Life

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Tonight, as I sit here coughing with a bright red nose like Rudolph, I’m reminding myself to focus on the GOOD among the bad and the ugly.

The BAD: This week, the one week in 9 months I only had one doctor appointment compared to 5-7 over the last 9 months, we all have terrible colds. My daughter stayed home yesterday and I stayed home today…..

The GOOD? I get to work from home (most of the time) in my cozy jammies, sipping tea with honey and lemon and a monster-sized box of tissues nearby.

The UGLY: So far this week for work I’ve been threatened with a lawsuit for posting a letter to the editor (baseless), I’ve been accused of impartial political reporting (not true) and last night I was yelled at from across the room of a standing room only crowd because I was videotaping a First Selectman debate for work…..and it’s only Wednesday.

The GOOD? Also through work- I met a wonderful and inspiring woman who is also battling the evil C word for SIX years now. Wonderful because I could see her inner strength beneath her outer beauty which put my perspective back into focus.

The BAD: I’ve been having anxiety attacks because I feel like I can’t keep up at work, or with laundry, or sleep, or a second part-time job I’m about to begin tomorrow to try to help pay off some of these mounting medical bills. I only slept for 2 hours last night because my heart was racing and the worry warts were invading my mind in between coughing fits.

The GOOD? Among the 30+ political letters to the editor I’ve received today, there was one bright ray of sunshine from my now retired Medical Oncologist who stumbled across my “Behind the Pink Ribbon” series. I’ve been sharing stories this month of survivors for Breast Cancer Awareness Month. (Google “Patch.com, Wendy Mitchell, Behind the Pink Ribbons” to read them).

He told me he loved the articles and that I was doing a great job raising awareness for breast cancer. And he told me to keep on fighting which I will do! #MyLeftBoob is winning the battle. And if you’re just joining me, sometimes mammograms are not enough. You HAVE to feel your boobs!

The UGLY: My scars, my peeling skin, my growing waistline….I’ve been meaning to get to the gym for 2 weeks now and haven’t been able to due to my work schedule, my daughter’s field hockey games/practices 6 days/week, or me being sick and/or exhausted.

The GOOD? As Clarice in “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer” once said, “There’s always tomorrow for dreams to come true. Tomorrow is not far away.” I have to stop beating myself up and realize I JUST finished radiation treatment and still have one more surgery to go. I’m not going to feel better overnight.

The BAD: I keep getting woken up by hot flashes due to chemo induced early menopause (I know, TMI for some, but for the newbies out there, this is what you can expect).

The GOOD? “This too shall pass” and at least I won’t have to go through it when I’m 55+.

The BAD: Numbness in my fingers and toes still plagues me.

The GOOD? It doesn’t last long and is getting less and less frequent.

The UGLY Truth: The dark shadow of “recurrence” still haunts me, which I hear is a common fear among survivors.

The GOOD: My new Medical Oncologist said that even though I can’t take any post-chemo drugs because I’m Triple Negative, there are things I can do to help prevent recurrence:

1. Exercise for 30 minutes 5 days a week.
2. Avoid alcohol
3. Stay away from animal fats and processed meats
4. Reduce stress

I’ve got 2 & 3 under control but I still need to work on 1 & 4. I will get there…baby steps….little by little.

“Drag your thoughts away from your troubles… by the ears, by the heels, or any other way you can manage it.” ~Mark Twain

CLICK HERE to support my breast cancer battle on Go Fund Me.

Almost Celebrating End of Treatment for #MyLeftBoob

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A week ago I was getting radiation for a “rare and aggressive” type of breast cancer only 1% of women get. Two days later I was on an insanely fast roller coaster with my kids, screaming my head off, celebrating no more treatment (almost). That brought to mind a quote from my oldest son’s favorite movie, Ferris Bueller:

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Today marks one week since I completed 6 weeks of radiation, Today is also 3 months since I finished 16 weeks of dense dose ACT chemo for Metaplastic Triple Negative breast cancer.

It’s 4 a.m. and I can’t sleep again, which seems to be the norm lately due to radiation burns and other issues. Later this morning the hubs and I will travel to Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in NY for my 3 month checkup.

In the week since I’ve updated, there have been 2 more women in my life who are just starting their cancer journey. They are both private so I won’t write about them, but I’m so glad to be here to answer questions and lend support.

The best advice I’d give to anyone just starting out is:

  1. Listen to your body – rest when you need to
  2. Learn to say “NO” – so many people will want to pop over & spend time with you & that’s the last thing I felt like doing. I was just trying to get through each hour of each day while working and being a mom.
  3. PUT YOUR BLINDERS ON! My doctors told me this so many times and I wish I listened. People will tell you every cancer horror story & the truth is that everyone’s diagnosis and reaction is different,
  4. STAY POSITIVE- pray,meditate, watch comedies, don’t answer your phone/texts/email if it’s from someone who will stress you out or make you fearful. This is a time to focus on your treatment and recovery.
  5. Find a support group that is truly supportive and positive.

If you are a family member or friend of someone going though treatment, the best thing you can go is to stick with your patient the whole time and let them know you care. It’s a long, hard road and some people drop out after the first couple of months. Maybe they’re tired of hearing about it. Maybe it’s depressing. Maybe they feel like they don’t want to bother you. Getting a quick text or Facebook message to let us know you still care and are still here for us is certainly no bother and is very much appreciated.

And when the treatment is over it doesn’t mean we’ll be back to “normal” right away. It takes months for all the chemo drugs to leave our bodies and for the symptoms to go away.

So how am I doing 3 months post chemo?

  • Chemo brain (Google it, it’s a real thing) is still here. I forgot about 2 appointments this week and feel like I’m forgetting to do something, or I can’t remember the words I want to say.
  • Red, bumpy, burning, itchy skin from radiation is still a problem but getting less and less.
  • Neuropathy in hands and feet is still bothering me but not as much. It hurts most when I first wake up in the morning and hurts to walk sometimes. The numbness comes and goes in my fingers which is a challenge because I do need to type for a living.
  • Chemo induced early menopause– not a fun thing to talk about but it happens….and that could be why I’ve been waking up in hot sweats and getting horrible sleep.
  • Eyebrows and eyelashes are back. Hair is coming back in and super short still. IMPORTANT beauty tip: If you have red or blonde hair and are thinking of dying it right away- don’t. Mine turned orange….one of the things people forgot to tell me. It has something to do with the new hair coming in- or red going on top of grey hair or something. I’ve been told I look like Mia Farrow and Annie Lennox, which I’m taking as a compliment.
  • The “X Marks the Spot” scar is still prevalent but I don’t mind, it’s one of my warrior scars- surgery area is still sore 2 1/2 months later.

Sleep escapes me because I have so many questions firing through my brain…. sort of like those firecrackers you threw on the ground when you were a little kid….bang! bang! pop-pop-pop-pop! It’s so loud I can’t keep up enough to write them all down so I write here. Studies have shown that writing is one of the best forms of therapy for someone going through this battle.

I still have one more surgery to go and due to the type of cancer I will need follow-up checkups every 3 months for the next 2 (?) years because I can’t be on any follow-up meds since I’m Triple Negative. After the 2 years it goes down to every 6 months for 5 years I believe.

The aftermath will be long-term. It’s a war we’ve fought, and are still fighting, and there are physical, financial and emotional scars that need time to heal. I’ve read that cancer patients actually can get PTSD from the trauma of what we’ve been through. I can definitely see how it can mess with your head. The key is to keep your mind busy with good thoughts, focus on other things, and even helping other people. A small act of kindness goes a long way and makes you and the recipient feel so good.

I was supposed to start at the gym this week but lack of sleep, my daughter’s field hockey games and 3 doctors appointments threw a hitch in my giddyup, so I’ll have to start small next week. I’m not going to beat myself up for not beginning on time. I know I will get there eventually.

The past month has been tough- 3 of my husband’s friends’ fathers, and his aunt, all passed away. A girl who goes to my daughter’s school lost her dad unexpectedly due to a heart attack. Another friend lost a lifelong childhood friend in his early 50s who took his own life. Life is rough, life is short but it’s also amazing and wonderful and full of beauty and grace if you look hard enough. Nobody is promised tomorrow and when you stare death in the face, as I have, you learn to let the small stuff drift away and enjoy each moment you’ve been gifted because life is a gift.

Life moves fast. So stick your head out of a sunroof, scream loud and beep the horn every time you go through a tunnel, go on roller coasters and celebrate each breath.

“People usually consider walking on water or in thin air a miracle. But I think the real miracle is not to walk either on water or in thin air, but to walk on earth. Every day we are engaged in a miracle which we don’t even recognize: a blue sky, white clouds, green leaves, the black, curious eyes of a child — our own two eyes. All is a miracle.”  ~Thich Nhat Hanh

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