Wednesday, March 30, 2016

The Michelin Man look

It was still dark as I rolled out of bed. As I made myself leave the warmth of my electric blanket, I glanced at the clock. 7:00 a.m. It was an hour later than when I awoke yesterday. I was thankful to have gotten a good night's sleep. The Restoril, Dr. F prescribed is definitely working. I padded across the cold bathroom floor in my bare feet and turned on the shower. The Lymphedema specialist is coming at 9:30 a.m. and I need to get ready. While the water runs, I make my bed and then head back into the bathroom to take my shower. The water feels warm on my skin and I long to stand there as it massages my aching muscles. Instead, I quickly wash and get out. After drying off and dressing, I put on my makeup. I've been doing it for so many years, I can have my complete face on in less than 4 minutes. As I'm putting on my last coat of mascara, I hear my cell phone ding... the therapist...she says she'll be here at 9:00 a.m. Time to shift into high gear.

I run into the living room and tidy up. I flip on my Bose and slide in a classical CD and then plug in my scent warmer. I'm hoping to provide a serene atmosphere for my visitor but mainly for myself. I'm nervous. A few minutes later the doorbell rings, just as I down the last of my protein shake. I open the door and greet a young blonde woman carrying a huge bright blue duffel bag. She says her name is Anna as she steps over the threshold. I'm curious about the equipment Anna has in her bag and don't have to wait long to see her cargo. 

Anna sets up her Ipad on my living room table and goes over some paperwork with me having me sign some documents with my finger. She apologizes for having forgotten her stylus. I do my best to write legibly but it doesn't work...oh, well. She smiles and says it's okay and that everyone has trouble writing with their index finger. I watch as she begins to unzip her duffel and pull out the electric recirculating pump. She shows me the buttons and dials and quickly explains their functions. Next she pulls out what looks like a brown suede straight jacket with wires and hoses attached to it. She watches my face and laughs. "It really does look strange, doesn't it?" she says. I respond with a nod of my head. She lays it on the sofa and pulls out a measuring tape. She needs to take my measurements so she can order the proper equipment especially for me. First she measures my inner leg and enters the measurement into her tablet. Next comes my wrist, forearm and upper arm and then my chest wall. As she measures my chest she says with a huge grin, "I'm going to give you a big hug now." I laugh as she slides the measuring tape around me. At least she has a good personality and I'm thankful for that. She records all of the measurements in her computer and then tells me it's time for me to receive my first treatment. I wasn't expecting to have a treatment today and I guess my facial expression indicated that. She assures me it will be fine and to just relax.

I stand in the middle of my living room as this young college aged girl places the compression jacket on my body. She fastens many velcro closures to make sure the fit is snug. There are hoses and wires all over me. She skillfully connects them to their ports on the pump and plugs it in. She tells me to be seated and then she turns on the pump. Anna explains what is going to happen next. She says the pump will compress different areas of my body and then move on to a new section. It will repeat this procedure many times over the next hour. I will feel tightness but should not feel any discomfort. The process is odd but strangely comforting. Gentle squeezing pressure begins at my upper arm and moves gradually down to my fingertips. The pressure also travels to my chest wall, waist and upper thigh. I ask Anna why I need to have those areas compressed and she explains that lymph glands are all over my body. By gently compressing targeted areas, the machine will help my body disperse the lymphatic fluid so my body can process and eliminate it. While I'm in my compression suit, I tell Anna I feel like the Michelin Man in the movie Ghost Busters. She laughs and agrees.  

Anna and I strike up a conversation and she wants to know how I found my breast cancer. I tell her the entire story and weave my faith carefully throughout in hopes of finding an opening to witness to her. As I continue my story, she seems genuinely interested and I share a verse of Scripture with her. I share Jeremiah 29:11 "For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you. Plans to give you a future and a hope." I tell her I've been able to see my cancer as a gift from God....a gift He's used to teach me many things. I tell her I know God allowed the cancer into my life and that's the way I can accept it as part of His perfect will for me. She smiles and asks more questions. While we've been talking, the compression garment has been doing a great job. I'm amazed at how quiet the pump is and how relaxed the flowing of air through the chambers is making me feel. Before I know it, our hour is up. Anna is beginning to unhook the hoses and wires. She tells me she's got to head to Marietta next and then on to North Carolina. It seems she travels quite a bit. I thank Anna as she moves her large duffle toward the door. I tell her to be careful as she travels and she smiles telling me I sound just like her Mom. I smile and wish her well.

After Anna leaves, I look over the paperwork she left with me. The equipment is very expensive. Even after our insurance pays their part, we'll be left owing $950, but Anna said we may qualify for special financial assistance that would greatly reduce or perhaps cover all of our fees. I'm hoping we'll qualify because that would be a great blessing. 

I'm not sure how I'll fit the compression sessions into my daily life. Anna said I'll need to do it twice a day. I guess I can do it when I first wake up and then once again before I go to bed. If I chose those times of day, it shouldn't be too invasive. And if I need to travel, I guess I'll have to invest in a large rolling duffel like Anna used to carry my gear around. 

I'm so thankful for my oncologist. His attentiveness, caring, and concern have been such a blessing. If he hadn't noticed the extreme swelling in my arms at my appointment the other day, I would never have known there was equipment available to help with the Lymphedema. Anna told me the equipment she brought was invented by a nurse whose husband developed severe Lymphedema after complications from his own cancer treatments. I'm very thankful for her ability to understand and develop equipment that specifically targeted her husband's problem areas and then pass that knowledge on to others. I guess many pieces of medical equipment are invented out of necessity. Dr. F stays on top of the latest medical advancements because he wants the very best care for his patients. I am grateful for his expertise and friendship. 

In the next few weeks, my very own Flexitouch® system will arrive and I'll velcro myself in for instant inflation and compression. I may look like the Michelin Man for a couple of hours every day but at least I'll have better mobility and less swelling and that makes me very, very happy! 

© bonnie annis all rights reserved 

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Unexpected news

Waiting on the doc and being silly
Yesterday I went for my check up with the oncologist. He's a very busy man and a very popular doctor in our area, so I wasn't surprised when I had to wait 45 minutes for him to come into my exam room. When he entered, he started with the usual questions: How've you been feeling? Any new lumps or bumps you've noticed since your last visit? What's your pain level? etc, etc. After getting those things out of the way, he began to talk about the last three anti-hormone therapy medications I've tried - Arimidex, Tamoxifen, and Aromasin. He asked me how I felt went I was on each of those medicines and I explained the symptoms once again: severe bone and joint pain, hair loss, mood swings, tearfulness, insomnia, severe fatigue, etc. He took a long pause and said, "You know, there's only one more medication in this class of medicines we have to try you on and that drug is Femara. Do you want to try it? If you do, I have to warn you that you'll probably experience the same types of side effects you've had with the other three." I told him I didn't want to try it and instead of him really pushing me to try the last drug, he just smiled and said, "Okay." I explained that I was trying to do everything naturally. I expected him to give me a long speech about reasons why I needed to follow the regular regimen of treatment, but he didn't. He just listened. I was thankful. He was very concerned about my insomnia and said he wanted to try me on a medication to help with that for a couple of months. I eagerly accepted. I haven't had a good night's sleep in ages. After he'd written the prescription, he asked me to put on a gown so he could perform his physical exam. He left the room while I changed. I was thankful he did because I didn't want him to know I couldn't take my shirt of by myself. I had to ask my husband to help me get it over my head. My arms were so swollen I just couldn't do it and I was thankful he was there to assist me.

I sat on the exam table with my gown open in the front. In a few minutes, Dr. F knocked on the door and then came in. A woman doctor was with him and he instructed her to observe. I assumed she was training but he didn't divulge that information. The doctor opened my gown and began to palpate under my arms and along my chest wall. As he moved his fingers slowly against my skin, I could tell he was feeling for anything unusual. He moved toward the right side of my chest and commented on the tautness of the skin. He also said the muscles over my right rib cage were extremely hard and immovable. He explained it was a side effect from the radiation but he was surprised to find the limited range of motion I had in my arms. He explained it was probably side effects of the radiation and the surgery combined. He lingered near my right arm pit and I felt fear rising up in my chest expecting to hear bad news. Dr. F asked how long my upper arms had been swollen and I explained they were this way every day since I'd had my initial surgery. He asked if I'd ever been to see an Lymphedema specialist and I told him I had indeed. He seemed very concerned about the amount of swelling and told me we needed to address that right away. He said he was going to have a Lymphedema therapist come out to visit me and take some measurements. He wanted me to begin lymphatic therapy at home with the use of a compression top and a recirculating compression machine. He explained they're quite expensive but he'd have his office check to make sure my insurance would cover it.

When we left Dr. F's office, I wanted to cry but I didn't. I already feel like a freak as it is and now, I'm going to have to be hooked up to a machine twice a day to move my lymphatic fluid through my body. I'm thankful for the equipment available to help do that but I'd love to have my own lymphatic system working the way God intended. Surgical removal of some lymph nodes disrupted the flow and now it collects in and around my upper arms. I know it seems trite to complain about something like this but it really does affect my every day life.

A Lymphedema jacket and pump
Tomorrow the Lymphedema specialist is coming to take measurements and order the equipment for me. I'm hoping our insurance covers the majority of the expenses. The pump alone can cost anywhere from $500 - $2000. I have no idea how much the inflatable compression top will be. Thankfully, I've already met my deductible for the year so that should help. It's crazy but for the past 2 years, I've met my deductible by the end of January each year. There are so many scans, tests, appointments and labs and the financial expenses mount quickly. Cancer is a very expensive illness. I'm just very thankful my husband is still working and I am covered under his insurance. There are many with no
insurance and I don't know how they make ends meet. It's hard enough as it is with only one income.

It will be embarrassing to undress in front of a complete stranger. I hate it every time I have to do it. I've always been very modest and although more people have seen me topless in the past two years than I'd have ever thought possible, it still embarrasses me and makes me want to turn my head in shame. I feel like need to apologize to the person viewing my body or to prepare them in some way for the horrible sight they are about to see. It isn't pretty but my sweet husband reminds me that those scars saved my life.

I'll be hooked up like this at least twice a day
I'm still waiting on lab work from my visit to the doctor. I have received some of the bloodwork but not all of it. My Lymphocytes are extremely low and that's not a good thing. I'm sure after the rest of the tests come back I'll get a phone call from Dr. F with instructions for the future.

I wish with all my heart that this cancer ordeal would be completely over and a distant memory, instead it just keeps lurking around like an unwanted guest. I keep clinging to hope and trusting that even though I can't see God's hand, I can trust His heart. I know He's got me in the palm of His hand and I just have to rest there knowing everything is going according to His perfect will for me. Some days are harder than others. Today's been one of the tougher days. Please keep me in your prayers and I'll keep you in mine.

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Saturday, March 26, 2016

A perfect day

Yesterday, we drove 2 and a half hours to reach a park in Alabama. I was eager to get outdoors and do some hiking. Being in the woods always makes me feel so relaxed and peaceful. It's hard to explain but I just feel like I belong there.

We arrived at the park a little before noon. The sun was shining, the birds were singing and I was feeling great. We stopped by the visitors center to use the restroom and talk with the rangers. As we picked up a park map, we planned to start our route at Beaver Pond trail. We drove a short distance to reach the trail head and parked the car. Water bottles in hand, I grabbed my camera and off we went. The trail was a moderate 3 mile loop. Along the way, we traipsed over many roots and I warned my hubby to watch for snakes. Since the weather was warmer than it had been in weeks, I knew there was a good possibility we'd come across a snake lying on the trail. The tree roots all looked like small to mid-sized snakes so I did a lot of walking with my head down and my eyes on the trail. Phil always lets me go first on the trail because he's scared to death of snakes. I didn't have on my hiking boots or have my walking stick with me so I made sure to keep my eyes peeled just in case.
There weren't a lot of trees blooming just yet, but we did find some wild blueberries and rhododendron in bud. Bear are indigenous to this region and I mentioned we needed to be on the lookout for any signs of scat, too. We continued our hike and came across a beautiful stream about halfway through our walk. We stopped to take some photos and then continued on. The sun felt amazing on my face and arms. I didn't realize how much I'd missed it these past winter months. About 2/3 of the way around the loop, I heard something moving through the dry leaves. I stopped in my tracks and Phil stopped right behind me. I told him to listen and as he did, I pointed just ahead of me and to the right. A beautiful King Snake was slithering through the brush. I could see Phil grimace as he watched it. He really is afraid of all snakes. I think they are beautiful but I do respect them and give them a wide berth while hiking. We finished our hike and decided to drive over to the canyon rim for a better view of the falls.

At the canyon rim, we were able to get a panoramic view. We were also able to see the falls below. They were beautiful and the river was running strong from recent rains. Three kayakers were braving the waters and I was able to get some good action shots as they scooted through a narrow rapid.

We continued on and stopped at Hawk's Glide Overlook to have lunch and enjoy the scenery. It was so quiet and peaceful as we sat under a large tree and enjoyed our sandwiches. Right before we left, a glorious Red Shinned Hawk soared through the canyon. I didn't have my camera out and was disappointed to miss the shot. Sometimes I think God wants us to only capture those types of special moments with our eyes instead of our cameras. I stored the glimpse of the hawk in my memory banks and whispered up a quiet thank you to God.

Our next stop was Mushroom Rock, a large sandstone formation in the center of the park. When we arrived, we ran into another couple and started talking with them. Their names were Ellie and Inar and they were from Norway. They'd recently moved to Georgia and were looking for scenic places to visit. Ellie was an amateur photographer like me and was looking for some tips on places to photograph. I told her she needed to visit Cumberland Island and gave her information on how to make camping reservations there. She was so excited and said she'd call as soon as she got back home.

The sun was starting to go down and we decided we'd better head back home before it got completely dark. On the way back home, I couldn't help but thank God. I was alive! I currently have no evidence of any cancer anywhere in my body and I was feeling really good. Spending the day out in the woods in the bright sunshine was so invigorating. I am so thankful I felt like going hiking. There have been so many days lately that I haven't felt well.
Endangered Red Elph Orphine growing on the rocks

On Monday, I go see the oncologist again for a check up. I'm hoping my blood work will be good and show no evidence of any active cancer cells anywhere in my body. I'm praying for that anyway! I'm still doing all of my natural cancer fighting routines and I'm hoping Dr. F will encourage me to continue. I really don't want to hear him say I should be taking the anti-hormone therapy medications. My hair has just started to grow back in from the last round of Aromasin. It's taken about 2 months and lots of Biotin to get it looking decent again. I'm not willing to go back on Aromasin, Arimidex, or Tamoxifen even if Dr. F says I should. I'd rather trust in my healthy choices to keep me cancer free.

It sure feels good to feel almost like I did before cancer. Getting back to living my life has been my number one priority and it feels great! I'm really starting to believe I'm moving out from under the huge cancer shadow that's been hanging over my head for the past 20 months and sometimes, I feel guilty that I'm doing so well. There are 4 of my friends who are dealing with stage 4 metastatic breast cancer right now.  One of those friends has invited us to share Easter dinner with her tomorrow. When she invited us, I immediately said yes without even thinking about any of my family members and how we usually spend Easter together. I knew it was important for Bonnie (my friend and I share the same first name) to know we cared enough about her to want to be with her. She doesn't have much time left and I think she's wanting to tell her friends goodbye. She's been under hospice care for months now. It's hard to understand why some of us are able to fight cancer and move on with our lives and others only seem to get worse. I'm so thankful God has allowed me to do so well and I keep praying I never, ever face another round of cancer. I don't know if I could handle it. But I'm not going to borrow trouble! I'm going to be grateful for today and live in this moment. For me, that's the best motto for surviving and thriving. Have a Happy Easter and remember death could not hold Him! He is risen!

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 22, 2016


I am soooo, I'm ecstatic! I received the results of the biopsies performed on my recent EGD. Dr. R. said there was absolutely NO EVIDENCE OF DISEASE in my esophagus, stomach, or upper colon. N.E.D. Those three letters are the most coveted of all breast cancer diagnoses. They mean that cancer is not present in any way, shape, or form. What a wonderful diagnosis! I was so thankful to get this news and I'm doing the happy dance today.

When I went in for my test, I wasn't expecting to receive a diagnosis of cancer but I wouldn't have been surprised if I'd gotten one. Many breast cancer patients experience a recurrence of cancer during the first 5 years after diagnosis and with me foregoing traditional anti-hormone therapy, I'm sure the doctor was expecting to find my "all natural" remedies had failed. But that was not the case and that reassures me that what I'm doing is working! So I'll continue taking my huge array of supplements and essential oils. I'll keep eating beautiful, fresh, organic produce and I'll keep a positive outlook on life. I'll get as much sunshine as I can each day and I'll keep getting daily physical exercise. Most of all, I'll keep my faith in God because that's the key to beating this disease. And, with that being said, I'm off to celebrate!!!

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Friday, March 18, 2016

Adversity makes us stronger

I read somewhere that we must partake of the bitter with the sweet. There's a divine purpose in the adversities we encounter every day. They prepare, they purge, they purify, and they also bless. When you look at life that way, it's a little easier to accept trials as they come.

Today I spent the first few hours of the morning in the hospital having some tests done. Apparently, I have polyps growing in my stomach. The doctor wanted to do an EGD, a test where they take a lighted hose with a camera and a cutting tool on the end of it and run it through your mouth down into your upper intestines. I've had it done once before when doctors were looking at a hiatal hernia in my belly so I knew what to expect. It's weird to be conscious one minute and totally out the next. When the anesthesiologist told me they were going to give me Propofol, I immediately thought of Michael Jackson for some reason. No sooner than I'd begun that thought, the room went dark. The next thing I knew, a nurse was fiddling around with some paper in my room and I was wondering how long I'd been there. Scary.

My husband came in a few minutes later and then the doctor. Dr. R explained that I had some erosion in my esophagus lining, a large hiatal hernia, about 20 or more polyps in my stomach and a few more things I can't remember. He told me he'd biopsied all of the suspicious areas and I'd get the results in a week to ten days. I'm not worried at all, which is really strange. I have a wonderful peace about everything and I know that's the result of many prayers going up for me.

When it was time to leave, a beautiful black nurse came to wheel me out. She had the sweetest smile and I told her so. I could tell by her sweet spirit that she was a believer and I told her I could see Jesus sticking out all over her. She laughed and thanked me. She said she needed to hear that and said she was indeed a believer. I told her how blessed we are to have a mighty Savior and she agreed. It was so nice to share a little of our faith with each other. God always plants special people in my path and as I listen to the Holy Spirit's prompting, I know which ones to share a word of encouragement with and when.

We left the hospital and my hubby asked if I was hungry. I hadn't been able to eat anything before the tests and although I wasn't really hungry, I knew he was so I said, "Sure." We ran by a fast food restaurant and grabbed a couple of biscuits and headed on home.

I'm feeling remarkably well today and I have a lot to accomplish including reading some of my new book, "Never Fear Cancer Again." Although cancer is always in the back of my mind, I'm trying not to let it come to the forefront again. I'm continuing to do everything I can to stay healthy and strong. So far, so good! If adversity truly makes us stronger, then I must be a power lifter.  I've certainly had my share of trials and tribulations, in fact, enough to last a lifetime but I'm sure God doesn't have the same view I do. I know He has used my trials to teach me some very valuable lessons over the years and I wouldn't take a million dollars for any of those lessons. I am thankful for tough lessons but I'd rather have easy ones. Don't we all feel that way?

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

What's in your belly?

I'm getting a little nervous about Friday. I'll be having an EGD done that day. What's an EGD, you say? Well, it's a test used to discover any abnormalities in your esophagus, gastrointestinal system, and your duodenum. (You can read more about that here or watch an informational video about it here.) It seems the last one I had done, a little over 3 years ago, revealed stomach polyps, a hiatal hernia, and Barrett's esophagus. Since I was diagnosed with breast cancer 20 months ago, they want to recheck the polyps in my stomach and do biopsies on them. I'm not looking forward to being sedated again but I know it's necessary. I'm just praying that anything that needs to be seen will be clearly visible and that the doctor will have the wisdom he needs for the best treatment options. All that being said, I'm thankful we have insurance to cover the cost of the procedure. Hopefully, everything will be okay but if it's not, at least they'll find it early and be able to do whatever they need to do to take care of it. Please pray for NO CANCER!!!

Last night, we had our first date night in ages. We didn't do anything fancy, just went to dinner and a movie, but it was good to FEEL NORMAL again. Even though I wore my prostheses all evening, things almost felt like they did BEFORE CANCER and that was a good thing! It feels good to know I'm taking baby steps at reclaiming my life. It seems like it's been so long since I've felt normal. I'm sure I'm not the only one who's experienced this after being dealt the cancer card but it would have been nice to have had a "head's up" and to have known all of the emotional struggles that might come my way...then again, it's probably better that I didn't. At least this way, I can face them one at a time, as they come and that seems to be a good strategy in winning this war. 

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

A directional challenge

Me with short hair
I was so excited! Tonight we were actually going on a date. It's been a long time since my husband and I have planned a night on the town. We've just been focusing on getting through each day but, as I learn to move forward, in this journey out of pink, it's time to start getting back to normal and getting back to normal includes date nights.

How early is too early to get ready for a date? Well, when I was in high school, I'd start getting ready as soon as I got home from school. There was so much to do! Clothes had to be pressed, hair had to be washed, nails had to be painted and as each step of preparation went forward, the excitement swelled. It hasn't changed, I don't think, even after all these years. I still get giddy at the thought of going out, so I began early this morning.

After my shower, I styled my hair. It's super short, so it doesn't take much time to do. I blow it dry, squirt some gel into the palms of my hands and give it a quick run through pushing wisps of hair into place and guiding them exactly where I want them to be. Mirror check...yep, looks good. Now to get dressed. What to wear? We never really dress up for week night dates, so I'll wear jeans and a nice blouse, comfy but still pretty... but before I pull on my clothes, I have to don undergarments and that's where it gets a little more complicated.

A few weeks ago, it was time for me to visit Renewal, the little store that specializes in all things cancer related. My insurance stipulates that every two years I can get new prostheses. It was exciting to be able to go in and get an upgrade. My first set were the "barely there" model, a mere AA cup, no projection, just a little fullness. This time, I was going for broke. Even though the larger models weighed more, I wanted the look of femininity and whatever it took to get it, I was going to do. I chose a B cup with the help of the fitter. She said, "take baby steps, you can always go bigger next year." I kept that thought tucked in the back of my mind. The fitting went well and I left the store as a proud owner of some "real" silicone boobs, not just little hints at womanhood, these were the real deal.

I slipped on my underwear and went into the bedroom to get my "over the shoulder boulder holder." I'd had to upgrade my bras when I upgraded my girls. With new bra in hand, I opened up the little zippered boxes that held my B cup prostheses. As I lifted the lid on each box, it was almost as if I could hear the Hallelujah chorus playing loudly and see sparkles and glitter floating through the air. I held one of the new boobs in my hand. It was amazing! The pinkish flesh color was almost perfect. The nipple, barely there, but still gave a hint at realism. I carried my boobs into the bathroom and began trying to tuck them into the pockets on my mastectomy bra as the fitter had instructed. After they were in place, I slipped the heavy bra on and reached around to fasten it in back. I looked in the mirror. Horror of horrors! One of my boobs was pointing North and the other was pointing South! This would never do! I slipped off the bra and tried again. I glanced in the mirror and thought things were better but now, instead of my boobs pointing North and South, they were pointing East and West! Real breasts didn't lie in that position! I had to do some readjusting and finally, was able to get them both in the proper position with a little manipulation. I checked myself out in the mirror. Not too bad. I looked at myself sideways, there was a nice projection. Yes, these were perfect. I'd made a good choice with the fitter's help. As I continued to dress, I had to laugh. I wondered how many woman had difficulty getting their prostheses lined up correctly and how many never gave it a thought.

After I was dressed, I began to put on my makeup. First came moisturizer, then concealer, foundation, powder, blush, eyeshadow, liner, mascara and lipstick. Whew! I wondered if men ever thought about all we do to make ourselves visually pleasing to them. It's a lot of work to be a woman!

Glancing at the clock, I noticed it was just before noon. There were still many hours to go before my husband would be home from work. I knew he'd be tired when he got home but he'd made a promise to take me out and he'd keep that promise. Dinner and a movie, that's what our date night would start off with and who knew where it would go from there.

I walked through the living room and as I did, I passed the mirror in the hallway. I noticed one of my breast forms had slipped a little and was trying to sneak over to the West again. I pushed it back into place and wondered how I was going to keep both of these girls planted firmly throughout the night and that's when it hit me...DUCT TAPE! Duct tape was good for everything! I ran into the garage and dug through my husband's tool chest. I found a roll of the shiny, silver tape and hastily ripped off two small pieces. I went back inside and stripped off my bra. I lay it flat on the bed and made sure the breast forms were exactly where they needed to be and then VOILA! I taped them in place. Now they'd stay positioned and I wouldn't have to worry. But how was I going to explain the duct tape if the night got a little racy? That was the question. Well, I have a few hours to think about the best way to answer that one. In the mean time, I've got a few more things to do to get ready so I'd better end this post. It's exciting to be able to go out with the man I love even if I'm held together with duct tape. Hey! A girl's gotta do what a girl's gotta do, right?

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Monday, March 14, 2016

Breast cancer related PTSD

What is wrong with me? I've been trying to figure it out for several months. I've struggled with insomnia, irritability, cloudy thinking, self isolation and a loss of interest in life. Could it be that I'm suffering from breast cancer related PTSD? I think that might be the case.

According to the National Cancer Institute, it's not uncommon for cancer survivors to experience crippling emotions even years after treatments have ended or the word "cure" is handed down. Follow-up visits, anniversaries of diagnoses or surgeries, birthdays, sights, smells, objects or symptoms similar to those they had when they found out they had cancer, such as lumps or aches, can be enough to trigger a tailspin of fear and anguish. Many survivors who battled cancer develop "cancer-related post-traumatic stress," which it likens to post-traumatic stress disorder, only not quite as severe as the full-blown condition that arises when some individuals, such as rape survivors or members of the military, are exposed to seemingly imminent death, injury or another major sources of stress.

When I was in the middle of fighting cancer, I adopted a warrior mentality. I buried anything I felt. It was easier that way and I was able to get through it, but now that my 2 year cancerversary is just a few months away, I'm finding all the feelings I pushed deep down inside resurfacing. Dr. Anne Kazak, of Nemours Alfred I. DuPont Hospital in Wilmington, Delaware says, "You may be done with treatment, and you may even be referred to as cured. But the psychological effects of experiencing a serious illness can take much longer to surface." Dr. Kazak also says it's important to seek help from a mental health professional.Treatment for cancer-related post-traumatic stress is similar to what patients undergo for PTSD and can include cognitive behavioral therapy, which can help patients learn coping strategies to better manage stress, develop awareness of distressing thought patterns and become desensitized to triggers."

So I guess the next step is to seek out help. My local breast cancer center offers group counseling and I'm hoping they also have individual counseling available. It's hard to admit I have a problem, but I do. I know I've not been feeling or even acting like myself for months now. There's no shame in admitting something I'm experiencing as a result of a traumatic event in my life. I think the real shame would be to ignore it and not seek out help.

It's time for me to get back into the land of the living. I'm so tired of letting this whole cancer ordeal run my life. While it's true that I do feel physically exhausted and fatigued as a result of surgery and I do deal with the daily challenge of Lymphedema, God has been gracious to me. He's spared me and I know He has a reason for that. Now it's high time I figure out what the next step on my journey should be. 

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Rough waters

One summer, many, many years ago, I was excited to be allowed to go off with a group of friends to church camp. We weren't going very far, probably not more than a few hours from home, but it would be my first real trip. I was excited and scared at the same time. I remember my mother helping me pack my suitcase. We picked out cute little short sets, baby doll pajamas, a one piece swimsuit and all the other things I'd need. While we packed, she gave me a long list of rules for conducting myself while I was away. She wanted me to be safe but also gave me permission to have fun. Finally, the day came for us to drive to the church and for me to get on that big church bus. All of my friends were there. It was going to be great! My mother waved goodbye and we were off. My friends and I were chattering all the way and it was a great day. 

The bus pulled into camp and we were each assigned a camp counselor. Since it was in the 1960's, boys and girls were kept separated. Each camp counselor was assigned about a dozen kids. We were taken to our bunkhouses and told to unpack. Each of us got an assigned bunk bed and camp buddy. After we'd unpacked and set up our things, we were taken around camp and shown where all of the amenities were located. I was excited to see a swimming pool. I'd just completed swimming lessons the previous year and I was looking forward to being able to swim without a life jacket. 

The first few days, we worked on Bible studies and crafts. We played outdoor games, performed skits, sang songs, and had a great time. It felt like heaven not having to spend a boring summer at home. At the end of the day, we'd gather together for a big bonfire. We'd sing "KumBaYah" and other traditional camp songs. It felt like a wonderful bonding experience. I came to love and respect the camp leaders as they shared Scripture and the love of Christ with us.

In the middle of the week, the daily schedule was posted and we were thrilled to see swimming listed. About an hour after lunch, we donned our swimsuits and marched single file to the pool. The leaders went over rules and told us they didn't want to see any monkey business. That went in one ear and out the other as our group kids ran to see who would be the first in the water. My buddy and I didn't care about being first. We were having fun laughing and talking as we entered the gates to the swimming area. We lay our towels on the concrete surrounding the pool and walked down the steps to the water. Since we were both novice swimmers, we stayed near the shallow end of the pool and played there for a while. Soon more kids were in the water and challenges began. Some of the counselors put kids on their shoulders and began to play a game of "Chicken." The boys were splashing water in our faces and daring us to come out a little deeper. Of course, we couldn't let them think we were scared, so went a little further. At the four foot marker, the water was just under my chin. I had to tip my head back a little and stand on my toes to keep my face out of the water. While I was there, I decided to practice treading water, a skill I'd learned from the swimming instructor at our local pool last year. I walked forward just a little more until I had to begin moving my feet in order to stay afloat. I was scared to practice this new skill without an instructor close by. Frantically, I moved my feet back and forth in a rapid motion. I knew in order to stay afloat, I had to use both my arms and legs. I could hear my swim teacher's voice, "Just keep moving your arms and legs. You won't sink. Relax." I did exactly as I remembered her teaching me to do and it worked. Soon I was no longer freaking out, I was just treading water and enjoying it. My buddy was by my side and we were laughing as we tread water together. I heard a boy from my grammar school calling out my name. As I turned to look at him, without warning, he came running and jumped into the pool. I don't know what his intention was at the time, but he landed square on top of my head and forced me under the water. I hadn't even had time to take a breath and I felt like I was going to die. His weight on top of me was so heavy. 

I struggled to get out from him and get to the surface for air. I managed to break the surface and take a huge gulp of air before I sunk back down again. This happened 2 more times and finally, one of the lifeguards saw I was in trouble. When I was rescued and taken out of the water, I could hear the boy laughing his head off. He thought it was the funniest thing he'd ever seen. Little did he know I almost lost my life that day. Even though I knew how to tread water, I'd been pushed into much deeper water and could barely make it to the top for air. 

Almost 49 years have passed since I've thought of that terrifying ordeal. Why would that old memory be so fresh in my mind today? I think it's because I have felt like I've been treading water for the past few days. I've been struggling to keep my head afloat. There's been a huge personal challenge in my life and I've felt like I was drowning. 

It's been pretty smooth sailing for months, especially in the area of health issues, but the waters have been churning in other areas of my life. Just like my surprise attack from a friend at church camp years ago, I was blindsided by something very unexpected and painful. I never expected to be so deeply hurt by someone I loved so much, but it happened. For days and days, I've been sinking below the surface and fighting my way up to take that deep gulp of air. But the air wasn't enough, I needed to be saved. I needed a lifeguard to help me overcome impending doom. I did the best I could to tread water. I kept my feet and my arms moving but it wasn't matter how I tried, I was sinking and sinking fast. 

Today, I spent 2 hours lying on my closet floor crying out to God, my one and only lifeguard. I begged Him to take my burden because it was too heavy for me to carry any more. I knew if I kept holding on to it, I was going down to the bottom like a dead weight. And do you know what? After hours of pouring out my soul, He reached down into the depths of my despair and took hold of my hand. He lifted me up and reminded me that He knew my pain. He told me I didn't have to tread water any more. He gave me permission just to lay back and float knowing that His ever loving arms are beneath me and He won't ever let me go under. 

I'll never forget the relief I felt when the lifeguard pulled me out of the water and I was safe on dry ground; but I'll forever etch into my memory the way I felt today when God set me free from the chains of bondage that were weighing me down. I can't share the details of what happened with you because they are of such a deep, personal nature but I want you to know if there's something you're struggling with...something that has thrust you into rough waters, there is a lifeguard and His name is Jesus. Why keep on treading water if you don't have to? Just give it up and let Him have it and then, you can just lie back, rest, and float. 

©bonnie annis all rights reserved

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

Boobs R Us

They should have a store named “Boobs R Us”, you know, like Toys R Us®, only not. I think adding a little fun to the name of a store where they sell necessary items for women who’ve been through the traumatic experience of breast cancer would make it a little more interesting, but that’s just my opinion.

Today, I made a trip to that necessary store. The store I visited is named “Renewal”. They sell everything related to breast cancer – bras, prostheses, wigs, turbans, etc. It’s a really nice store and is run by a couple of Christian women. As soon as you enter the store, you feel total peace. That peace doesn’t come from the soft music playing in their overhead speakers, although that’s part of the ambiance I really love, no…it comes from a spirit of love that dwells there. These women consider their store a ministry. They want women who’ve suffered trauma in their lives to know they are loved, to know they are seen, and to know they are understood. I like it there. It’s a great place and this would be my second visit to the shop in the last two years.

Last year, I must have looked like a deer caught in headlights when I entered their store. Wide eyed and scared, I was just a couple of weeks post surgery and my incisions hadn’t fully healed. The women were so tender and kind to me. They took their time and were extremely patient. I was thankful because I had no idea what I was doing. Today, I felt like I was going back to visit old friends.

I entered the store and was welcomed by the owner. We talked a few minutes and then got down to business. I explained I was here for my annual bra purchase and to pick out new prostheses. My insurance company allows 4 bras a year and new prostheses every 2 years. I was taken into the back of the store to a fitting room and there, I began to undress. I felt so much more comfortable this time and I think it was because I knew what to expect.

The owner asked me some questions about my bras. She wanted to check the fit, especially the band that fit just below my bust line. She explained it was very important for that band to fit snugly against my chest wall. If it didn’t, the breast forms would slip and sag causing back pain. After taking a few measurements, she found the bra I was wearing was 2 sizes too big. I’d lost weight since my last fitting and that had affected my bra size. Next we discussed the prostheses. She asked if I wanted to stay with the same kind I’d purchased 2 years ago. They were unique because they were made with a special cooling gel layer. It was meant to fit right next to the chest wall and remain cool throughout the day. If I wanted to keep that kind, I’d need to stay in the same size range as before. Those types of prostheses were flat and fit close to the body. They did not project like normal breast tissue and they were much lighter weight than regular prostheses. I explained to the fitter that I was hoping to find something with a little more OOMPH. She laughed and said she knew exactly what product I’d like. I watched as she searched through stacks of boxes. She was diligently seeking something particular. Within a few minutes, she had two light pink boxes in her hands and inside were silicone prostheses. She had chosen prostheses in sizes 8 and 9. Prostheses come in numerical sizes according breast size, body height and weight. I had been wearing a 7, she explained and now would need to step up to an 8 or 9. After searching high and low, the owner could only find one size 8 breast form and one size 9. She said we’d have to just work with what we had, so she slipped the size 8 in the left side of my mastectomy bra and asked me how it felt. It was a lot heavier than I expected! The size 7 I’d been wearing was very light. Then, she slipped the size 9 in the right side of my bra and asked how it felt. The right side of my bra sagged down lower with the weight of the size 9 form in it. I knew it was much too heavy for me so I told her I thought I’d go with an 8. Both the 8 and 9 were B cups. The size 7 I’d been wearing was a AA! The difference in cup size along with the increase in breast form size accounted for the increased weight of the new breast forms. I wondered exactly how much they weighed. Out of curiosity, I’d taken my size 7 AA prostheses and weighed them on my postal scale. The two prostheses and the bra weighed a whopping 5 pounds! That’s a lot to carry around on your chest and now, I was going to be wearing even more weight with the new breast forms. (I wondered how the nurse at my doctor’s office would react the next time she took me to the scale for a weigh in and instead of just removing my shoes before getting on the scale, I unsnapped my bra and whipped it off, too. Afterall, that weight is artificial and shouldn’t really be counted into my actual body mass if it’s not really my own flesh and blood, right?! 5-10 pounds less could make a huge difference in my favor!)

The owner stepped out of the fitting room to allow me time to get dressed. As I put on my clothes, I tiptoed out into the hallway to look at all the boxes of prostheses just outside my room. There were shelves of boxes stacked up to the ceiling. They must do a lot of volume here, I thought to myself. I wondered if I had made the right choice in going with a size 8 prosthesis.

At the register, I watched the owner tally up the sale on her little order form. I listened to Chris Tomlin singing “How Great is Our God” as she totaled everything. The total was just under $1000!!! I almost fainted until I heard her say, “Don’t worry, sweetie. You’ve already met your deductible for the year so you’ll only have to pay your 20%.” Whew!!! I was so thankful we had insurance! I wondered how women without insurance manage to buy their prostheses. Each prosthesis cost between $300-$500 and each bra cost between $40-$75. Thankfully, our insurance allows me to get 4 new bras a year and a new set of prostheses every two years. Not all insurance plans are as generous.

At the end of this week, I’ll go back to pick up my order. I think I’ll suggest, to the owners of Renewal, they make a “play area” for the women who’ll come in this year for their first set of breast forms. They could display various sizes and styles of prostheses in an attractive way and put up little signs that say, “Give me a squeeze!” or “Feel me Up!” It might help ease the tension just a bit and allow first timers a chance to laugh before getting down to business. It’s a scary thing to choose new breasts when you’d much rather have the real ones back but, it can also be fun if you look at it through eyes of gratitude. I’m grateful to be alive. I’m grateful for insurance. I’m grateful for lifelike breast forms that allow me to feel normal even when I know I’m not. I’m also thankful for sweet, Christian ladies who have hearts of gold. They temper love with a Christlike attitude of service and that makes all the difference in the world.

Maybe “Boobs R Us” isn’t such a great name for a shop that sells prostheses. I think Renewal is much better. The dictionary defines renewal as:

  • the act of extending the period of time when something is effective or valid : the act of renewing something 
  • the state of being made new, fresh, or strong again : the state of being renewed 
I like both of these definitions but especially the part about being made strong again. Yes, Renewal is a much better name than “Boobs R Us,” but it made you smile, didn’t it?

© bonnie annis all rights reserved

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