Friday, September 30, 2016

Cancer is life altering but not defining

This past week, I was blessed to have time with two of my Texas grandchildren. Their other set of grandparents wanted to bless us as they traveled cross country to visit the Ark Encounter in Kentucky. Since they were on this side of the country, the other grandparents thought it would be nice to allow us time with Gavin and Kaitlyn. We usually only get to see them once a year or so. Thankfully, everything worked out and we were so grateful for their willingness to share.

The week was filled with electric energy as our home, usually quiet and serene, changed to a hub of activity. Short adventures were planned and each new day was filled with wonder. At the zoo, we watched as exhibits brought excitement and curiosity. The county fair came with cotton candy, games, rides and so much laughter. Parks, picnics, and playing in water fountains at the Splash Pad reminded me of so many things we take for granted. Seeing every moment through the eyes of a child was priceless.

Turbo Man
One evening, on a less busy day, the kids wanted to watch a movie. The only kid friendly DVD we had on hand was "Jingle All the Way." It's a Christmas themed movie but they didn't mind. How fun it was to hear their peals of laughter as the story line unfolded.  They enjoyed hot, buttery popcorn as they snuggled up in cozy blankets. In the end, the good guy wins and all is well, thanks Turbo Man!

Early the next morning, over bowls of cereal, we chatted about various things. I loved hearing their hearts and answering their questions. Throughout the day, I'd hear a constant, "Gigi, look at this or Gigi, why is...?" What an honor to feel so loved. I was thankful they wanted to converse with me. It was amazing to have them look up to me and value my opinion.

While they were here, I wore my prostheses. I didn't know how much they understood about my bout with breast cancer and thought it best to avoid touching on that subject in case they hadn't been told. We were constantly on the go so I never had to worry much about the subject coming up, or so I thought. One day, I forgot to put my boobs on. When Kaitlyn came up to give me a hug, she said, "Gigi, what happened to your chest?" I guess she noticed I wasn't as soft and squishy as I'd been on previous days. I tried to find words to skirt around breast cancer but still respond in a way an 8 year old mind could understand. It wasn't easy but I explained I'd been very sick and had to have an operation. That answer seemed to appease her and thankfully, the topic was never broached again. Children are naturally curious. I knew that. If I'd thought ahead, I could have prepared a better answer. Shame on me for forgetting to wear my prostheses that day...

On Instagram, I saw a Meme, "Cancer is life altering but not defining." I thought long and hard about that saying. It was very true in my case. Cancer had turned my world upside down and inside out but I didn't have to let it define me. For the past couple of years, I'd accepted the fact that cancer had stolen my femininity. Once I'd accepted my appearance, I decided I need to redefine myself and I came up with the super hero name, "The Incredible Boobless Wonder." Giving myself super hero qualities of being able to survive in a world full of voluptuous women as a flat chested, brave fighter made me feel pretty good. My self esteem rose whenever I looked in the mirror and imagined IBW emblazoned on my chest in brilliant ruby letters. No one knew my secret identity.

As we were watching "Jingle All the Way," I couldn't help but snicker. Turbo Man, with his ability to fly and combat evil, had nothing on me. Sure I wished I had real super abilities, who wouldn't like to fly? But I was happy to know I'd given myself permission to feel good about being alive. Overcoming breast cancer was a pretty big deal. Yes, cancer had totally changed my life. I knew I would never be the same again but really, I didn't want to be. If not for cancer, I wouldn't have learned many valuable life lessons. I'd tucked them safely under my belt. I didn't have to let cancer define me. No, in fact, I was happy to be the "Incredible Boobless Wonder."

Looking at my grandchildren, I realized I wanted a better future for them. I wanted a cure for breast cancer. I silently prayed neither of them would ever experience the trauma of cancer.

Children's minds are always seeking answers. They always seem to be filled with hope. After watching the movie with them, I knew I needed to write a children's book about overcoming breast cancer. I was going to use my super hero identity to explain this nasty disease on a child's level. So, coming soon, to a super center near you, will be an awesome story about a valiant warrior and her adventures as the "Incredible Boobless Wonder." Thanks Turbo Man for giving me a vision and in the words of Spiderman, "I believe there's a hero in all of us, that keeps us honest, gives us strength, makes us noble, and finally allows us to die with pride..."

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

An unexpected report

I'd braced myself for bad news. Although I had tried hard not to think about my recent ultrasound, I knew I needed to be prepared just in case the news was not what I wanted to hear. Over the weekend, I chose not to dwell on the "what ifs" and did my best to enjoy the beautiful weather. I knew I'd get the results from the test in a few days and didn't expect to hear anything until Monday or Tuesday afternoon.

When I received an alert on my phone regarding an email from Piedmont Hospital, I was surprised. I had been expecting a phone call. Quickly, I opened the email and went to the "my chart" link to pull up the results. The radiologist had sent a digital report to my breast surgeon. Dr. "S" had sent the report on to me via the my chart app. As I opened it, I was overjoyed to read I had a "negative" result. A negative result isn't what you might think. You may be thinking that meant my results weren't very good but it meant totally the meant my ultrasound was VERY GOOD! I had no evidence of new cancer! The suspicious mass Dr. "S" had discovered was nothing other than a fluid filled area that could be easily drained with a syringe equipped with a very thin, sharp aspiration needle. I was ecstatic but also in shock. I had prepared myself for the worst and received the best. And I wondered why...

Why hadn't I prepared myself for the best and expected it? As a person of deep faith, shouldn't I have trusted God enough to know my test was going to turn out just fine? Why had I focused on the negative instead of the positive? (And in this case, the negative was a very bad thing instead of a good thing like the results of my test.) I needed to figure this out. The more I thought about the reasoning behind steeling myself for a bad report, the more I understood. For the past 2 years I'd faced a lot of trauma in my life. The diagnosis of breast cancer was a huge, unexpected shock I never expected to experience. And being instantly schooled in the hard knocks school of breast cancer, I knew the chances of cancer coming back in the first 5 years were very great. That's the reason all of my doctors have watched me so closely and continue to do so to this day. It's like there's an expectation of bad news hovering over my head like an ugly, ominous cloud. So naturally, I would have prepared for the worst. But where was my faith? I knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, God had already told me (when I received the results of my "chance of recurrence" score in the F.I.S.H. test and my result was a 7 out of 100) in my spirit that the cancer was done, complete, finito!!! He used the number 7 (in Biblical numerology the number 7 represented completeness and finality) to seal in my spirit the end of my breast cancer journey. How had I conveniently forgotten that fact? I have no idea! But as I read the report for the ultrasound, it was almost like I could hear Him speaking to my heart saying, "Oh, ye of little faith! Don't you remember my promise? Don't you remember I confirmed your journey with breast cancer was completely over? Don't you remember that test and how you felt that day in the oncologist's office? Don't you trust me completely?" Wow. Just WOW!

So I need to do a little adjusting to my way of thinking and I need to do a whole lot of remembering what God has done in my life thus far. I know, more than likely, my preparing for the negative was just a spiritual attack from the enemy. But it won't happen again! With the Lord's help, I'm going to stay suited up and keep the belt of truth buckled tightly around my waist. God has already promised me that "no weapon formed against me shall prosper" and I'm going to hold him to that promise! I declare here and now that I am CANCER FREE and God has said so too. He spoke to my heart and I believe Him because the Bible says He cannot and does not lie.

Praise God for a negative report that held wonderful news! I am so blessed and so very grateful! God is good, all the time...all the time, God is good! If I could, I'd shout it from the rooftops but the internet is even better because it can reach a whole lot more people than I could standing on my roof shouting at the top of my lungs. Please rejoice with me! God is still in the business of doing miracles.

“God is not a man, that He should lie, nor a son of man, that He should repent. Has He said, and will He not do? Or has He spoken, and will He not make it good?” Numbers 23:19

"No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper; and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment thou shalt condemn. This is the heritage of the servants of the LORD, and their righteousness which is of me, saith the LORD." Isaiah 54:17

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Giving thanks in all things

Waiting is so hard! I have no idea whether I'm going to get good news or bad news. I know sometime around the first of this week, I'll receive a call with information about the results of my recent ultrasound. My breast surgeon thought it would be a good idea to check out a suspicious area. I'm glad she is keeping me under close scrutiny but I wasn't expecting her to find anything concerning at my last appointment. But she did. And now I'm waiting to hear the results. It would be so easy to give thanks if I get good news but would it be just as easy to give thanks if I don't? Listen to what the Bible says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18: "Give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you." Wow! That's powerful! Learning to give thanks in all things isn't only what I'm supposed to do, it's what I'm commanded to do. As I thought about this verse today, I realized I haven't done a very good job at giving thanks in all things. I've done some mumbling and grumbling recently about things I didn't quite like. I've questioned God about some things He's allowed in my life and griped how they were out of my control. It's tough to thank God for the hard things, but I want to do better. I want to try harder to grasp this verse and apply it to all aspects of my life.

I want to live a life that is supernatural. I want it to be a life that is hard to explain to those who don't understand what it is to live under grace. I want God to do a deep work in me where I can learn to give thanks in everything, no matter what...whether it's good or bad. I want my family to see me changed...that my roots have grown down deep into Jesus. I want them to see me turning my heart back to praise and adoration of my Father instead of focusing inwardly on myself and my situation. I want to become so intentional about gratitude that I look hard for it every. single. day.

So today starts the first day of my new lease on journey with God in learning to give thanks in ALL things. I'm asking God to shift my focus and help me see that even in the hard things, He's always good.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Another ultrasound...

It all started with a scheduled visit to the breast surgeon. I've progressed from the regular 3 month visits to the periodic 6 month visits now. (All of my doctors are in this same rotation pattern. Thank goodness for my trusty iPhone. Without my iCalendar, I'd never be able to keep up with every appointment. It helps me remember who I'm supposed to see and when I'm supposed to see them.) Since this was a routine visit, I wasn't overly concerned. I figured I'd breeze in and breeze out. I love going to see my breast surgeon. She's a very kind and caring physician. She never makes me feel hurried. When she comes into the exam room, she sits down on her stool and begins talking to me like I'm her best friend. She shares news about her family and asks about mine. We have a good rapport. After a few pleasantries, we get down to business. She starts palpating my chest and comments on my scar. She says, "I did good work on you! Just look at that beautiful pink scar! It's almost perfect and I even worked hard to save your tattoo." I smile a big smile and she does, too. I like her. A lot. She continues talking and feeling my chest. Her fingers are steady and sure. She knows exactly what she's looking for and I can tell by the way she moves her hands. She never stops talking but as she talks, she pauses for a minute over one area. I blurt out a strong "ouch" and she asks if that really bothered me. I explain to her that the area she just touched if very sensitive. She tells me it felt spongy and she wanted to check it out a little further. She tells me to sit up and I tie the ends of the white linen robe so my bare chest isn't exposed to the scribe she calls in to take notes. "I'd like to order an ultrasound for you so we can't see what this is," she says. In the same breath, she tells me not to worry. Right. I've already started. When we're through talking, I ask if she'd mind taking a selfie with me. I tell her I'm documenting every step of my journey for my daughters. She doesn't mind and the scribe does the honors. I watch as she walks out the door, on to her next patient, and thank God for my sweet doctor.

On the way home from the appointment, I text my husband telling him the doctor has ordered a test. He responds immediately and voices his concerns. Although I can't hear the inflection in his words, I can read he's worried. I reassure him and try to sound upbeat. As I drive home, I feel numb. I wasn't expecting this.

When my husband arrives home from work, he instantly comes to me and gives me a big bear hug. As he smothers me, he begins to cry. I pull away from him so I can see his face. I ask why he's crying and he tells me he doesn't want to lose me. I wasn't expecting his reaction but I understood it. It felt like we were beginning at the beginning again. We'd already been here and done that with the first round of cancer. Neither of us wanted to be there again.

When the doctor's office called to confirm the appointment, the scheduler said they wanted to get me in quickly. I was surprised when she asked if I'd be okay to have the ultrasound performed the following day. I was glad it was going to be done so soon and that way I wouldn't have to spend days worrying. I didn't sleep well that night. I tossed and turned wondering what I'd do if the test revealed the cancer had returned.

As I drove to the appointment, I tried not to think about the numerous trips I'd made to hospitals, labs, or doctor's offices over the past 2 years. When I pulled up to the outpatient clinic, I was overcome with emotion. I could feel the pressure building. It felt like I had a volcano brewing inside me. All of a sudden, tears came spewing forth and they did not stop. Waves of grief overtook me. I felt so out of control. I didn't know how I'd be able to face another diagnosis of cancer. It had taken over 2 years to get past the first diagnosis. I just had gotten to a point of feeling like my life was returning to normal again. But here I was again at the same location where it all began. I cried a few more minutes and then decided it was time to suck it up. My appointment was at 11:15 a.m. I looked at my watch and saw I only had a few more minutes. I worked hard to regain my composure and when I felt ready, I made myself get out of the car and go inside.

I only had to wait a few minutes before being called back. I was thankful I didn't have to wait long. A volunteer took me to the dressing area and I was told to undress from the waist up. She handed me a gown and told me to put it on with the ties in the back. I looked at her and said, "Are you sure?" I could tell she was new when she said adamantly, "Yes, please put it on with the ties in the back." I knew every doctor or technician previously had asked for the gowns to be tied in the front for easy access to the chest, but I did as I was told. After my gown was on, the volunteer helped me put my belongings in a locker. We sat in the waiting area together and chatted. As I talked with her, I found out she'd just been diagnosed with Stage 0 breast cancer the week before. As I listened, I could hear the trepidation in her voice. She explained she'd hoped for a lumpectomy but her doctors said it wasn't an option. She'd have to have a mastectomy. My heart went out to her and I asked if she'd had time to process it yet. She said she hadn't and I advised her to really take some time to do that. I shared a little about my experience and her countenance seemed to improve slightly.

The radiation tech came to get me and take me for my test. She laughed as we were walking down the hall and commented on my gown. I shook my head and said, "Yep. I tried to tell her but she wouldn't listen." The tech said I could turn the gown around when we got into the testing room. After getting my gown turned around, I was asked to lie down on the table. The warm conducting jelly felt soothing to my skin as the technician applied it and within minutes, she was gliding the ultrasound wand over my chest. She asked if I knew where the area of concern was located and I pointed to an area just underneath my incision. She made several passes over that area and I watched the monitor to see if I could tell what lie beneath the surface of my skin. I know she wasn't supposed to comment but she said, "It looks like a lot of fluid." I didn't respond knowing the Radiologist would review the films later that day. 
The diagnosis on my ultrasound order

I was told I'd know the results in 3 to 4 days. I'm hoping for the best but preparing for the worst. I can't tell you how much fear and dread came over me when I was told by the breast surgeon she'd found a suspicious area. Instantly, I was transported to that fateful day in June 2014 when my cancer was first discovered. At that point, I felt like my life was over and I'd been handed a death sentence. Now, after having lived a little over 2 years since that date, I know that feeling wasn't necessarily true. I do wonder how long a fear of recurrence will have power over me. Will it totally disappear after I reach the miraculous 5 year mark or will it haunt me the rest of my days? I have a feeling I'll always be looking over my shoulder to see if cancer is lurking somewhere deep in the shadows but hopefully, if it is, it won't catch up to me again anytime in the future. I'm trying my best to be optimistic. When and if I ever have to face a recurrence again, I'll deal with it then. I don't want to waste any more time today thinking about it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Post cancer fatigue and Getting Back My "Want To...."

Today's been a difficult day. It seems I'm having more of those types of days than I should. I've been suffering from extreme fatigue. I don't know if I should be concerned about this or if it's just post cancer fatigue but it surely is frustrating.

My days start pretty early. I'm usually up between 5:00 a.m. and 6:00 a.m. I don't get up that early because I have to, but because I want to seize the day. I've always been a morning person. The mornings have always seemed to be the best part of the day. There's nothing like rising early to catch a glimpse of the sunrise as the beautiful pinks and purples fill the sky. I love hearing the birds sing as they greet the day. Their joyful tunes fill the air with heartfelt hope. Rising early is a pleasure.

While the house is quiet and still, I can focus on tasks ahead of me and since cancer, I've learned to slow down just a bit and enjoy the time even more. A wise friend told me life is lived in minutes not years and boy, was he right. One of the most important gifts cancer gave me was helping me understand this concept. This year, I've truly learned to live in the moment savoring each precious one and holding it dear.

After breakfast, I began to conquer menial tasks around the house. I was full of energy and full of joy. As I went about my duties, I was thankful for the ability to perform the daily chores. Last year, it hadn't been easy to carry the laundry basket full of clothes or lug the vacuum cleaner around the house. My body was still healing and I was forced to take it slowly. Since my incisions had healed, I had begun to pick up where I left off. Instead of asking for help when a task was difficult, I managed to do it myself. I was stubborn. I cherished my independence. My husband never minded giving a helping hand when I'd ask, but I was finding I didn't need to ask quite as often as I had in the past. That felt good.

Before I realized it, the clock struck noon. Where had the morning gone? It seemed like I'd just gotten started! After stopping to enjoy a salad, I looked at my list of things to do. I had a few errands to run in town so I gathered my things and headed out. While shopping, I noticed my energy level had begun to wane. I pushed through my tiredness and kept going. Just a few more errands to run and I'd be done. Two hours later, I was on my way home. Sitting behind the wheel of the car, I yawned. It was almost 3:00 p.m.

For the past few weeks, I had noticed a trend in my circadian rhythm. My most energetic time of the day was early morning between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 8:00 a.m. Mid morning I slowed a little but still had enough steam to do the things I wanted to do. By lunch, I could feel a marked difference and after 3:00 p.m., I noticed a huge change. Was this early afternoon fatigue due to age or was it an after effect of cancer's effects on my body? I wasn't exactly sure. Maybe it was both.

I've never been one to take naps during the day. No matter how tired I was, I always kept going. Lately however, I'd found myself becoming increasingly exhausted and felt the need to close my eyes. Leaning back in my recliner and enjoying a power nap had proved to be very useful and gave me the strength to make it to bedtime. Learning to listen to my body has been hard for me. I don't like admitting I'm tired. My husband has no problem taking a nap whenever he feels the need to take one, but not me! I've always been like the Energizer Bunny and kept on going and going and going.

Since my energy level has become so low, I've begun to let my mind wander to the land of "what if." Is my Vitamin D level low again? It has been several times in the past and I've needed to be put on an extremely high dosage of the supplement to correct the deficiency. The oncologist told me it was fairly common for cancer patients to suffer from low Vitamin D because of their lack of exposure to the sun during and after treatment. I hadn't wanted to be outside much lately because I'd been so tired. I could see a vicious circle developing. I didn't want to go out and do things because I was too tired to do them but I needed to be out in the sun because it helped my body have more energy. I also wondered if possibly something more was going on inside my body. I'd opted to forego traditional medical treatments for cancer and was following a more holistic approach. I wondered if perhaps it was no longer working.

It was concerning to be experiencing such fatigue. I don't see my oncologist for a checkup until next month. When he does blood work, will a problem be indicated? Am I being overly concerned for no reason? Should I continue to make myself do the things I need to do even when I'm exhausted? The answer to all of these questions is "I don't know." What I do know is that post cancer fatigue is a very real thing and it affects many women for various periods of time after diagnosis and treatment. Will it ever go away completely? I have no idea. I'm inclined to think I'm probably going to be stuck with some level of fatigue for the rest of my life.

I'd like to be able to do the things I did before cancer with the same amount of enthusiasm and gusto but things are different now. I guess learning to accept my current energy level goes hand in hand with learning to accept my "new normal." There are so many things cancer has changed about my life but the most significant for me, being a constant mover and shaker, has been the limitations it's placed on my physical energy level. For now, I'll continue to push through when I'm tired and make myself do the things I need to do but on days like today, it's awfully hard.

Sometimes it's good to just rest. It's important to listen as my body tells me what it can and cannot do. I'm hearing it a little more clearly now than I have in the past few months. I've taken a few naps on occasion and haven't felt guilty. I guess that's a good thing. I'm still learning how to "get through" this journey. A lot of people don't understand even after treatment ends, the side effects of cancer don't. I'm trying my best to get my "want to" back but my "get up and go" feels like it got up and went.

Since I know the earliest part of the day is best for me, I try to schedule important projects or appointments during that time. I'm learning to readjust my schedule and be okay with limitations. I'm not the same as I used to be before cancer and I never will be again. Cancer has drastically changed me.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

This is what breast cancer looks like

My courageous friend
This is what breast cancer looks like. What you see are two very different aspects of cancer. In the black and white photo, you'll see a woman who's had surgery to remove her cancer and the surgeon has prepared her body for a followup reconstructive surgery. She still has her drains in place (look at those thin plastic tubes running along her sides. Those are to drain away accumulated fluid and blood. They are very painful and sometimes blood clots or seromas develop around the incision site. They usually stay in place for several weeks. The fluid has to be measured and recorded so the doctor can gauge when they're ready to come out.) What you don't see in the photo is her face. She's a vibrant and beautiful young woman. She's strong and brave. She's a friend of mine and I'm honored to call her friend.
The color photo is a picture of me after surgery was completely healed and my drains had been removed. I chose not to have reconstructive surgery so I'll be forever flat chested. See those pretty colorful sleeves? Those aren't just for making a style statement. They're to combat Lymphedema. It's a side effect many breast cancer patients get after having lymph nodes removed. When the lymphatic system is disrupted, the fluid builds up in the arms or chest area and causes swelling and discomfort. It's a lifelong condition and will never go away. The sleeves help keep it under control. They're made of strong elastic material that squeeze the tissue tight preventing an accumulation. See that long horizontal scar across my chest? It's where my breasts used to be. It took two surgeries to get all of my cancer. My surgeon was very skilled and worked hard to save my tattoo as she placed my incisions underneath it. She knew it was meaningful to me. A phoenix symbolizes rising from the ashes. Mine symbolized rising from breast cancer. See that smile? I'm smiling because it's been a little over 2 years since I was diagnosed with Stage 2B Invasive Ductal Carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. I'm currently out of treatment but have to see the oncologist every 3 months. He's still keeping a close eye on me. They say most cancers recur within the first 5 years.
What you don't see in both photos is our resilience. We've been knocked down and kicked around by cancer but we've both fought to get back up again. We're determined and focused. We are optimistic and full of hope. We want to live and we want to thrive. We are friends, sisters, wives, mothers, career women, writers, dreamers, and lovers. Cancer didn't choose us by any criteria. It picks at random. So this, friends, is what cancer looks like and these photos are mild compared to many others. When you think of breast cancer and what it looks like, don't just think of the sparse haired woman who's just completed chemo and looks like she's at death's door...think of beautiful, strong women who were innocently living their lives when an uninvited guest came crashing in and totally changed their lives forever. This is what breast cancer looks like and it's not a pretty pink ribbon.#stupiddumbbreastcancer
Please feel free to share!
I'd like to thank my friend, Anne Marie Otis, for the use of her photo.

If it ain't one thing, it's another!

  Trying to smile through the pain I've been AWOL for a while now, so this post will more than likely be longer than most. I don't e...