Monday, June 26, 2017

Cancer doesn't have to be a family affair

The phone call I never expected to receive came in last week. My youngest daughter was on the line. “Mom, I went to the doctor and she found a lump in my breast.” As she spoke the words, I felt my heart seize in my chest. Every ounce of my being wanted to scream out in agony, “Not my baby girl, cancer…not my baby girl!” Since receiving my breast cancer diagnosis, I’d never given much thought to the possibility that one day a child of mine might contract the disease and yet, three years post diagnosis, and here we were.

I continued to listen as my daughter explained the plan. The primary care physician was sending her to a breast specialist. The specialist would perform a diagnostic mammogram and if she felt it necessary, she’d also perform an ultrasound. That plan sounded all too familiar. I’d already been there and done that. My sweet little girl couldn’t fathom the tsunami of emotions welling up inside me. I didn’t want to frighten her, but I wanted her to know what to expect. Very gently, I explained the process to her. At 29, she shouldn’t be dealing with this right now. Maybe at 35 or 40, as the oncologist suggested for my girls as I completed treatment, but not now! She sounded so worldly and well informed. “Mom,” she said, “I already know. It’s going to be okay.” How could she sound so calm and free of fear? When I’d been told the same thing, I went into major freak out mode. It never occurred to me that she was trying to hold it together for my sake.

A few days later, one of my other daughters and I traveled to the Atlanta area to meet my youngest child for her appointment. Sitting outside the breast specialist’s office, I experienced an overwhelming bout of Deja’ Vu. Instead of seeing my daughter walking into that office, I was the one timidly pressing the elevator button. I was the one passing through the large glass doors. I was the one standing frozen in front of the registration desk. I tried to shake off the feeling and push the memories aside. This was not my experience, this was hers. I watched with careful eyes as my little girl, now grown, walked with confidant steps. She strode quickly as we followed behind. My other daughter, Laura, and I whispered. We hoped Jamie was all right. As we entered the office of the breast specialist, my eyes caught the large BCS logo printed on the wall. Three years ago, I wouldn’t have had any idea what those initials stood for but knew too well now.

After registration, we all sat in chairs along the wall. Thankfully, we were the only women in the office at that time. Laura and I made small talk to help put Jamie at ease. Gradually, the room filled with other women. I scanned the waiting area. Women of all ages were present but the median age seemed to be around 45. Most of the women were waiting for their annual mammograms. I didn’t see a single woman my daughter’s age.

I’d explained the procedure for the mammogram to my daughter earlier the previous week. I didn’t want her going in for the test unprepared. When I had my first mammogram, I was clueless. No one had taken time to give me a heads up and I hadn’t thought to look on the internet for information. I’ll never forget the feeling of complete humiliation as the technician took my breast and placed it on the cold, plastic plate. Feeling my body part being squeezed tightly between two plastic plates had been extremely painful, but even more than that, it was embarrassing. I explained each step of the mammogram in great detail to Jamie. Maybe I gave too much information, but I wanted her to be well informed and prepared.

When they called my daughter’s name, we went back with her. There was no way I was going to let my child go through this alone. We were taken to another waiting area and a volunteer took Jamie back to the dressing room. A few minutes later, she came out in a gown. I could tell, by the look on her face, the reality had just hit her. We sat and waited with the other women. All of them sitting in navy blue robes like perfect little marionettes, waiting for the puppet master to pull their strings and make them perform.

After the mammogram was complete, Jamie joined us in the waiting room once again. She explained the doctor wanted an ultrasound. Hearing those words caused me to tremble. I knew the doctor wouldn’t have ordered an ultrasound if she hadn’t seen something on the mammogram that needed further investigation. I kept my thoughts to myself and listened as my girls talked. Silently, I prayed. I asked God to please protect my daughter. I didn’t know how I’d have the strength to handle it if she received a cancer diagnosis. I begged Him to let her be okay.

The ultrasound was fairly quick and within fifteen minutes, Jamie was coming out of the back office dressed and ready to go. Laura and I looked quizzically at her waiting for an explanation, but none came. When I asked point blank, Jamie said, “Mom, I’ll tell you outside. Let’s wait until we get to the car.” Oh, my! Surely this couldn’t be good, I thought to myself.

Outside the breast specialist’s office, I waited for the results of the test. I was overjoyed when my daughter said, “They couldn’t find anything but I have to go back in three months.” I wanted to jump up and down. I wanted to do cartwheels across the parking lot. To say I was overjoyed was an understatement! Although she didn’t say it, I could tell a huge peace was washing over Jamie. I saw her shoulders relax and the tension leave her face as we went to our cars. Hugging her tightly, I began to cry. All of the pent up emotions I’d kept inside for the last couple of hours spilled out. Jamie looked me in the eyes and said, “Mom, I told you everything was going to be okay. That’s one reason I didn’t want to tell you I was going to have to need this test. I knew it would upset you. I knew it would bring back too many memories.” And she was right. Being here had certainly dredged up painful memories from the beginning of my cancer journey.

We celebrated the good news over a leisurely lunch and followed that with a trip to the ice cream shop. I watched as Jamie licked her ice cream cone. This 29 year old woman was still my baby girl and always would be. As she nibbled at her cone, I got a glimpse into the past of Jamie when she was a little girl doing the exact same thing. Her mannerisms hadn’t changed much over the years, although her stature certainly had. I was proud of how she’d grown. I was awed by her strength and marveled at her bravery. I wondered where she obtained those characteristics, certainly not from me.

I was thankful her tests were over. In three months, we’ll go through the tests with her again and we’ll pray for the same results. We thought we’d gotten rid of the fear of cancer with my experience and surgery but apparently not. It seems cancer longs to be a permanent part of our family but that’s not going to happen, at least not on my watch. Cancer doesn’t have to be a family affair and we’re going to do our best to keep it that way. 

Friday, June 16, 2017

A little creativity goes a long way

Last year, I wrote a couple of articles outlining some challenges I’d faced dealing with summertime temperatures and my prostheses. I wanted to give a clear perspective on the difficulties of surviving breast cancer surgery especially as those challenges related to mastectomies. This year, I find myself taking a more humorous glance into the same world and I hope what I share will make you laugh just a little.

Silicone prostheses are wonderful! They come in all shapes, sizes, and colors. These breast forms range in price but can be quite expensive. The designers do their best to make the forms look as life like as possible. Some forms have nipples and some do not, but there are drawbacks to the realism these facsimiles provide. Silicone breaks down over time requiring replacement annually. If punctured, the breast form will leak. And while these forms feel very similar to real breasts, they are not. If you squeeze them too hard, they will burst. Silicone prostheses must be held in place against the chest wall by either a self-adhesive pad or a mastectomy bra. Silicone is not lightweight and the larger the cup size, the more heft to the prosthetic.

About ten years ago, I had my first experience with a prosthetic. We were cleaning out my mother in law’s house after she’d passed away and there in her dresser, inside a little round box, lay her flesh colored breast form. I’d never seen one before and was curious. I wanted to touch it and feel it. As I held it in my hands, I couldn’t help but think about my mother in law and her bout with breast cancer. She was very private about her situation never talking openly about her cancer. She’d had to have one of her breasts removed but didn’t shared her challenges with family.

Three years ago, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After having both breasts removed, I was given a prescription for prostheses. Who ever dreamed you’d need a prescription for boobs? It was quite an experience standing in the little boutique amid boxes and boxes of silicone breasts. I was overwhelmed having to choose new breasts. I had to decide what size I wanted to be and what type prostheses I wanted. There were so many choices and I was unable to think clearly so I relied heavily on the advice of the fitter. I went home with two boxes. Inside each box was a silicone breast form. I’d chosen a C cup, after all, I’d been a barely B for most of my life. Didn’t I deserve to enhance my figure a little?

After wearing the new breast forms for a while, I realized I’d made a mistake. The C cups were extremely heavy and uncomfortable against my fresh mastectomy scars. I returned to the boutique and asked for a breast reduction…well, not really. I asked for a reduction in cup size explaining my challenge in wearing the heavy C cup forms. I opted to downgrade to an A cup. A new model was available with a cooling gel backing. The fitter explained it would be more comfortable during the warm summer months and she was right. I found the smaller cup worked much better and the cooling gel helped a lot. Still, the weight of the silicone was too much. Every time I went to the doctor’s office to be weighed, I had to explain that extra 5 pounds I’d gained. They always got aggravated when I asked them to deduct the weight of my prostheses but I was diligent and they finally relented.

Last summer was unbearably hot. I dreaded going out in public and having to wear the heavy, sweaty, hot prostheses so most of the time I didn’t wear them. While not wearing the prostheses solved the problem of dealing with trauma to my scars, I felt embarrassed to be out in public without my breasts. I needed to come up with a solution.

I thought long and hard about ways to solve my problem. The first idea I had was to make my own breast forms from a material other than silicone. As I began to think, there were two options. The first was to use a tiny, lightweight product called microbeads. These beads are found in many children’s stuffed toys and are used to make comfortable travel neck pillows. I had one of those neck pillows on hand so I decided to cut it open and use the beads from it to make my first set of lightweight forms. Big mistake! When I cut into the travel pillow, tiny Styrofoam beads went flying everywhere. They stuck to the walls, carpet, and me. I did my best to scrape them up and put them into another container. After a lot of work, I finally managed to get them wrangled. Taking some soft jersey knit fabric, I fashioned two breast form patterns by drawing around my silicone prostheses. I seamed up the new forms and left a small opening for the microbeads. When I tried to get the beads into the forms, like little magnets, they adhered to everything. I had to figure out a way to get them into the forms efficiently. After a lot of thought, I had an AHA moment – the turkey baster! I suctioned up the microscopic white beads and forced them through the opening in the homemade breast forms. After I filled each one, I seamed up the hole and VOILA! My new breast forms were done. I placed them in my mastectomy bra and tried them out. They were extremely lightweight and felt wonderful. But in a few minutes, I felt them rising. Since there was nothing to weigh them down and keep them in place, every time I moved, my bra moved with me and the forms rose higher and higher. Soon, they were just under my chin! This would not do. I tried to think of a way to weight them down inside my bra but couldn’t come up with a solution so I scrapped that idea.

Next, I decided to try polyester fiberfill. This product would also make a nice homemade prosthesis. Once again, I chose a soft jersey knit fabric. I traced gently around the silicone form with a marker to get a perfect pattern and cut out the fabric. After sewing the pieces together, I stuffed the fiberfill into the new breast form. These forms, too, were lightweight and fluffy. They fit well into my bra but as I tried wearing them, they too rose out of the normal breast position on my chest. An abnormal placement of breasts would be very noticeable in public situations, I just knew it.

Frustration drove me to the internet. I researched many companies that manufactured breast forms. There had to be something out there that would work for me. Finally, I came across a viable option. I found two organizations offering free knit or crocheted breast forms to women who’d faced breast cancer. The first was called Knitted Knockers and the second was called Awesome Breastforms. Their teams of volunteers made knitted or crocheted breast forms as an act of love. Knitted Knockers asked for a $10 donation to offset the cost of materials and shipping. Awesome Breastforms did not accept monetary donations but did have an Amazon wish list for those who wanted to help out. I was impressed with both companies. Knitted Knockers even offered free downloadable patterns and video tutorials for those wanting to make their own knockers. Since I didn’t know how to knit using three needles, I chose to let them make the knockers for me. 

I had several choices to make before ordering my knockers. First, the color. Did I want neutral, pastel, bright color, or multicolored yarn? Next, I had to decide whether I wanted my new forms to have nipples or not. I was unsure. Then, I had to choose the cup size. I had no idea what to do so I chose the “let us choose for you” option. A few weeks later, I received my knitted knockers. When I took them out of the package, I was amazed. They were so soft and pliable. The handiwork was exquisite and I could tell someone had made this gift of service their fulltime ministry. Yet again, I took the forms and slipped them into my bra. They were comfortable and light but they didn’t want to stay put. I found them crawling up under my chin. Oh no, not again!

I tried to come up with a way to keep the knockers in place. An instruction sheet included with the knitted knockers suggested placing small, flat garden marbles inside the breast form to help weight it. I tried that and it didn’t work. Maybe I didn’t use enough marbles! I was more than upset! I took the knockers and sat them aside. I couldn’t deal with it any longer that day.

I’d always heard it said that “necessity is the mother of invention.” I needed to figure out a way to keep my forms in place, at the normal, natural location where my real breasts used to reside.  Marble garden weights didn’t work. I liked the lightweight forms but didn’t want them under my chin. The more and more I thought, the more creative I became. Finally I had an idea. I needed to find a way to anchor my bra in place, thus keeping my breasts where they needed to be.

Walking through our neighborhood Goodwill, I found a suspender type strap. It had a clip on both ends. Now we were getting somewhere! I purchased the suspender strap, which was really designed to cinch in loose waisted jeans, and took it home. After unpackaging the strap, I lifted my shirt and hooked the top clasp to my bra and the second clasp to the top of my pants. I cinched it tight until my breast forms moved into the proper position, lowered my shirt and looked in the mirror. At last! My boobs were where they were supposed to be. They felt lightweight and comfortable. No more heavy silicone forms weighing me down, making me hot, or causing me pain. I felt good knowing I’d found a solution to my problem and no one would know my secret unless I raised my blouse. That evening, I showed my husband my ingenious invention. Through hysterical laughter, he warned me to be careful. With a puzzled look on my face, I looked quizzically in his direction as he exclaimed, “You know if that strap ever comes loose, you’re going to get slapped hard in the face.” He was right. There was a good bit of tension on the strap. I’d adjusted it so it was tight enough to pull the bra into the proper position. After all the hard work and drama, I wondered if it was worth the effort. I could just wear the heavy silicone forms and suffer through the summer in silence or I could go without breast forms and be embarrassingly flat. But, I wanted the best of both worlds! That’s why I worked so hard to find a way to make it work. Now I’m not saying my solution is the perfect one, I’m sure it’s not, but it will have to do for now…until I can come up with another idea. And if you have one, I’m open to suggestions! You know what they say, “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.”


Thursday, June 15, 2017

What a difference a day makes!

Have you ever had a day where you just felt really, really ill...I mean to the point it felt like a big cosmic vacuum cleaner had hovered overhead and sucked out every ounce of your energy? Well, yesterday, that's the way I felt. On top of the lack of energy, I had picked up some kind of germ while out shopping the day before with my daughter. My throat was raw, my muscles ached, and fever wracked my body. It was not a good day. I didn't do anything other than sit in my recliner. It was 90 degrees outside but I was freezing one minute and burning up the next. I wanted to have a pity party but I was too tired. I did all the things I knew to do - I drank lots of fluid, took Tylenol every 4 hours, slathered my neck with OnGuard essential oil, gargled with warm salt water, and prayed.

My sweet hubby texted from work and asked how I was feeling. When I shared the news, he asked if I wanted him to stop and pick up dinner. At first, I said no. I was going to try to make dinner but as the day wore on, I recanted and asked him to pick up Chick Fil A. He said he would.

When he walked through the door, my sweet mate could tell I was struggling. He took one look at me and started to cry. I was surprised by that reaction and croaked out, "Why are you crying?" He explained he was scared. He said he didn't want to lose me. I told him it was just a bug and not to worry. He was okay after that but I realized, as did he, we'd both been traumatized by the cancer and we'd both been on constant alert in case it ever reared its ugly head again.

We ate our dinner in the dimly lit living room as we watched a program we'd recorded from cable. He was exhausted from working in a hot warehouse all day and I was wiped out from the internal battle my white blood cells were raging against some interloper. What a pair we were!

By the time 8:30 p.m. came around, we were both ready for bed, but we stayed up a little longer so we wouldn't wake at the crack of dawn. At 9:30 p.m. sweet hubby went to get the bed ready and crawled in exhausted. I waited about thirty more minutes to give him time to unwind and fall asleep.
By the time I entered our bedroom, he was snoring loudly. I was so thankful to be able to call it a day. By the time my head hit the pillow, I could barely keep my eyes open but, as I usually do, I made myself read a few chapters in a good book. It always helps me relax and pretty soon, I felt my eyes getting heavy. I could no longer focus on the words, so I let the book fall to the floor and I clicked off my flashlight.

This morning, as sunlight slid across our room, I began to stir. Another new day. I wondered if I'd still feel crummy. I hoped not. I got out of bed and flicked on the light. Looking at the clock, I saw it was just 6:00 a.m. "What am I doing up this early," I thought to myself. Oh well, when I'm awake, I'm awake so I might as well make the best of it. I made my bed and got dressed. So far so good! I did a little voice check to see how my throat was feeling. Asking myself how I was feeling out loud seemed silly but how was I going to know unless I said something? My voice didn't sound as scratchy as yesterday but my throat hurt. I grabbed my flashlight and took a peek inside my throat. It was raw and red. I didn't see any white spots so apparently no strep. It was probably just a good case of pharyngitis. I made a note to have some warm tea with honey and lemon.

After breakfast, I got busy about my day. I noticed I wasn't as tired as I'd been yesterday. I could tell I wasn't quite myself yet, but I was getting there and that made me happy!

It's amazing how much difference a day makes. God has made our bodies to be amazingly creative at healing. I could imagine tiny white blood cell warriors, swords raised, charging into battle against the nasty germ that had tried to take up residence in my body. Yesterday, while I was feeling so rotten, the war must have been intense. Today, as I began to feel much better, I could imagine them about to raise their little banner of victory.

When you've been the victim of cancer, every illness is cause for concern. I'm thankful this one has come and gone, but it was tough while it lasted. I continue to equip my body to do what it can to fight by taking natural supplements every day. Some days, I want to give up, but I know it's the best way I can fight cancer naturally and stay healthy. If you saw the number of vitamins and supplements I take each day, you'd probably stand with your mouth gaping open. I won't give you the exact number, but I will tell you it's quite a lot and sometimes, I feel like I'm eating more pills than I am real food. But, ya gotta do what ya gotta do, right? Whatever it takes to continue giving myself a fighting chance, that's what I'm going to do. And my little white blood cells are always at the ready.

A robot is going to do my surgery?

My innards have decided they don't want to work anymore. For the past 3 years, I've been having issues. First, it started with diffi...