Five Years and I’m a Survivor!

Please note: almost everything I ever write is wrapped up in two pages. Today’s story got carried away. Hang in there.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. It is also the month I was diagnosed.

Five years ago. It seems like forever and it seems like yesterday. So much changed that fateful day.

They say hindsight is 20/20 and looking back after the diagnosis certainly made everything clear. For me the cancer was insidious, sneaking in slowly, so slowly that when the fatigue and need for naps was explained away as just part of nearing 50; the shortness of breath was just the darn altitude in the mountains and being out of shape. It was easy to excuse everything.

I even managed to excuse the thickening in my breast. I was certain it was due to an ill-fitting bra. Until finally the Good Lord got my attention saying, “Hey dummy! That’s not just an irritation and look, it’s only on one side…Get it checked!” (Yes, I heard that voice clearly.)

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Like the temperature balls in a Galileo thermometer my priority list rises and falls.

Interestingly, I had an order for a mammogram given to me more than six months ago at my last visit. I went because my hands were bothering me and the doctor thought it was probably early arthritis for which she prescribed an anti-inflammatory and ordered an xray. She also suggested that it was time for a screening mammogram. Even with no family history she thought all women over 40 should have that first check. Well…priorities… Life for me is like a Galileo thermometer. Priorities bubble up to the top and only those that make it to the top are worried about. As a caregiver scheduling that mammogram just never rose to a top priority. I carefully filed those orders away.

Until that day.

Lesson learned: Just because you are a mom or a caregiver to someone else doesn’t mean you can let your own health slip. Don’t put it off. Don’t be like me.

So I had the mammogram. Let me tell you that, as a former mammographer I already knew what the xrays would show. And when the radiology office called to tell me to get in ASAP to see my doctor I was doubly sure. Within three days of my ‘awakening’ I was in the doctor’s office where she said, “I have your xray report. Yes, you have a little arthritis in your hands BUT THIS and she pointed to the one inch mass…” then she went on to tell me that I needed to go back to the radiology office for more tests and then to a surgeon. My priority bubble had shifted suddenly.

Warning: these are my real insides. You don't have to be an expert to see the picture looks a lot different from the one on the left.

Warning: these are my real insides.
You don’t have to be an expert to see the picture on the right looks a lot different from the one on the left.

The next month changed to getting a diagnosis. Ultrasound, needle biopsy and surgery were scheduled as I had the most frightening disease. First you get the diagnosis and then the staging. It’s quite a pace changing situation. Hurry to get one thing scheduled, then wait impatiently for the results knowing that if A happens you go on to the next step but if it’s B then there’s another detour while everything is evaluated and then you start all over again. As an aside, all of my doctors pushed for expedited care something for which we were very thankful.

Six weeks and four surgeries later I was finally to the next step.

Another lesson learned: Early detection means less surgery and easier treatment options. Don’t be like me.

I told Bob, chemotherapy takes you to the brink killing off all the cancer cells and then hopefully your healthy cells take back over. It’s rough.

But I didn’t feel any different. I wasn’t sick. At least not initially. The effects of chemotherapy are cumulative. Some of the medicine used is so toxic they have to make sure your heart can tolerate the damage it will do. Some of the effects are long lasting. But with newer treatment methods and better pre-chemo medicines the therapy is tolerable and the staff makes sure your body is well enough to handle each dose. In my case the nurses told me my hair would fall out. They guaranteed it. It depends on what drug is being used but they were right. Within two weeks I looked like a Chinese Crested Dog. I held on to the little hair I had until it finally dawned on me that bald was a much better look than tufted.

After sixteen grueling weeks I did finish. Then it was time to jump right into six weeks of radiation therapy.

Another lesson learned: if the tumor is small and if you don’t have any spread of the cancer there are much simpler radiation treatment options including one that only takes a week. The surgeon never did give me much hope for that treatment because the tumor was too big and it had spread to the lymph nodes.

Yes, this is me. Poster child of what not to do. No hair, sad puffy face. Toxic chemo drugs running in. Ugh.

Yes, this is me. Poster child of what not to do. No hair, sad puffy face. Toxic chemo drugs running in. Ugh.

So, for gosh sakes, don’t be like me.

The radiation therapy was fast and definitely easier to handle, which is not to say it was without challenges. Basically it’s like you are sitting out in the sun for hours on end. Depending on the location of the tumor a person would have more or less burns. Mine were mighty. You could still see the redness a year later. Along with the radiation burns comes scarring. I still have to consciously s t r e t c h the muscles in my affected arm. They don’t move like the other side.

To be alone during this ordeal would be miserable. I could not have done it without the support of family and friends. Going to my folks and telling my family the news that first week was the most difficult thing. My parents immediately went into gear pulling up stakes and came to take care of Matthew. We also realized how great our friends are. Every treatment day one friend (who is the busiest person I know) would bring a crockpot of food because she knew I wouldn’t be up for cooking afterwards. When I started whining about food not tasting good another friend brought a whole Butterfinger Tree! The surprise packages and mail were tremendously encouraging. Interestingly, some people admitted that they were afraid to come visit. Better, some people admitted they were afraid to come visit but did it anyway. (Be the second person.)

Nearly eight months after finding the lump I was finished with treatment. Eight months of my life gone in the blink of an eye. You can’t beat yourself up for ‘should‘ve, would’ve, could’ves’. But I know it’s hard not to. Sure I wish I’d done things differently but I expect the Good Lord above had some plan in mind. After all, caring for a sick mother really worked out well when it came time for Rebecca’s life story in her medical school application. Who knows.

Enough of that. Let’s skip forward a few years. Just imagine that I had MRI’s regularly and in my claustrophobia induced panic pushed the RED EMERGENCY button more than once and know that once these doctors get hold of you they don’t let go so visits to the clinics, doctors and labs continued until today.

Here we are today. Five years is no longer the magic cure length of time. But it is a major milestone. I no longer have to take the chemo pills that make my head feel like it’s being held on by a toothpick. Mammograms and the cancer check labs are finally annual. And with this new schedule I don’t expect to see the chemo doctor again after December. Still, there is no doubt that always in the back of my mind is the idea that the cancer could come back. This has been a life altering change. Earlier detection certainly would have made it less impactful.

But that said, life changes are not always bad. We now celebrate life. We use our good dishes instead of saving them. And what’s that saying, “Life is short; drink good wine.” Or maybe it’s cheap wine…or maybe it’s just wine… Something like that. But I’m rambling…

Something about wine...  Salut!

Something about wine…
Salut!

So what’s your take away if you managed to read this far? Two things, I hope. The first, that if you are a woman or know a woman who reaches the age of 40, get that screening mammogram. Don’t let your mother tell you she’s too busy. Don’t let your sister slide on this just because you have no family history, remember I did not. Don’t put yourself at the bottom of the priority list. YOU are IMPORTANT. Take care of yourself. And secondly, there is hope. You can have a mass that is 2.5 centimeters that has spread and survive. The doctors told me at each step what my odds of survival were. Each point improved my odds; I had surgery, if I had chemo and each different drug’s impact, if I had radiation, etc. Modern technology is amazing. I don’t know where they put prayer on that list but when our friend invited the family down to the altar and prayed with us and I felt a peace wash over me. Take it to the Lord. Prayer is powerful and I recommend adding it to your arsenal.

Along with that hope is where we are today. Physically I don’t need those naps anymore and have energy to work on all the projects that piled up, though my list still is long. Each morning we walk on the treadmill. When I say we I mean Matthew and I take turns. He walks 2.5 miles and I walk 5 or 6. He has trimmed down to a lean fighting weight…me, well, I’m still ‘full figured’. I blame the chemo. In fact, I blame the chemo for every health issue I now have from having thin hair to a short memory. Is it unfair? Probably, but too bad. I can still garner sympathy points with my family and you bet I use them.

And that’s my story. As Breast Cancer Awareness month comes to an end you can now say that you know far more than you ever wanted to know about one woman who putzed around and didn’t get her tests done in a timely fashion and ended up being put through the wringer due to her own negligence. But that you also know she managed to scrape and crawl her way back out of the dark hole and today she sees every sunrise as a fresh chance to begin a new chapter.

And for crying out loud don’t let a year pass without pestering your mother, sister, aunt to have her mammogram.

Love you all!

I hope Maxine doesn't mind that I borrowed her picture.

I hope Maxine doesn’t mind that I borrowed her picture.

One Woman, One Pry Bar and Determination

Today’s post is a “What I did this summer,” story. But the truth is it began over five years ago.

We have a small home in the Arizona mountains. Like much of the land in Strawberry it is on a steep hillside as it backs up to the Mogollon Rim. When the house was built we had to have fill dirt and rock brought in to give us a somewhat level foundation. From the back to the front of the house it’s still a three foot drop, but it was workable. As you can imagine where the bulldozer stopped leveling the ground there was a steep drop off with this fill dirt. In my eyes it wasn’t a very pretty sight. But it also wasn’t a priority.

Until the summer five years ago when I looked around and decided to make good use of the natural sandstone found everywhere on the property and build a stone wall up the hillside. The sandstone was so plentiful it seemed an easy job to level and stack. But it was not. The pry bar immediately gave a resounding thump as it bounced off a big rock. It was so heavy that after less than fifteen minutes I was ready to cry in frustration. Of course, Bob ran over to help (that’s how he is) which only irritated me more. This was to be my project but I couldn’t even move one single stone. There was a big ‘woe is me’ pity party, blaming myself for being out of shape and unable to manage the 5000 feet altitude.

You know how hindsight is 20-20? A short month later I had one of those moments. Yes, that’s when I was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer. Ah ha! It was a moment of clarity. Suddenly, the fatigue, shortness of breath and lack of strength made sense. If only it had been recognized sooner…but that’s a story for another day except to say, if you are a woman get your mammogram. My doctor had recommended a baseline study and with no family history of problems my prescription had been sitting on the counter waiting for the opportune time. Because of, well, priorities… Don’t be like me. Make your health a priority.

Fast forward five years to this summer.

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Planting a little peach tree right in the middle of the wall.

Other projects finished, my attention turned back to the front yard. I dug out the pry bar and headed back over to the hillside. Five years of better health brings with it strength and to my surprise, ability. Ability to pound the pry bar into the ground. Ability to move big rocks. And ability to persevere. I began stacking the sandstone, learning as the project moved along how to make them level and how to lock them together. At first, I would wait on Bob to help move the big rocks and then came realization that one person can do a whole lot using a lever and fulcrum. Learning that the same small stone that keeps a rock wiggling when you stand on it can also be used as a pivot for a much larger rock. Slowly, and some days, ever so slowly, the wall began to take shape. Bob would call and ask what we accomplished that day and I’d tell him, “I moved one rock.” Some days I imagined myself like the ancient Egyptians building the pyramids but thank goodness I wasn’t. Still one rock at a time it was built.

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The finished product?

As summer ends is my rock wall finished? Maybe. Maybe not. I still haven’t decided. It’s far enough over and close enough to the brambly manzanita bushes that it could be done. Or it might be continued next summer. In the mean time we planted some vines in the cracks and a few lilacs dug up from Mom’s yard. Hopefully they will become well established over the winter.

Before leaving you’ll get a laugh from this picture that comes with an explanation. I asked Bob to take a flattering photo I could share (Rebecca says if I wanted a flattering picture I should have looked at myself in the mirror in those pants…) But I gave Bob my camera, the one he never uses, with instructions to take a panoramic picture, something he has never done. He tried to figure it out but my directions were pretty poor as was my impatience. Ha. As you can see, the picture turned out so terribly that it’s funny.

100_3425And that’s what I did this summer. Just call me the stone stacker.

And So???

I know. I know. Dear gentle readers, who followed us all the way up to the North Country and back, you are right to ask this very question. What happened to us? Did we just disappear? Did we melt in the heat? Well, honestly, time escaped me and until my air card required its monthly renewal I didn’t realize how much had passed.

After our return to the very HOT Valley of the Sun we had only a few days before Rebecca headed back to school. We are learning that medical school programs do not have to follow the same schedule as the regular university. Without Rebecca’s company we decided to let Bob fend for himself and Matthew and I headed up to Strawberry to work on a few projects. . . and that’s where we’ve been since.

My helper.

My helper.

You may remember we have a little place right on the side of the Mogollon Rim. It’s wonderful Ponderosa Pine country and at 6,000 feet it is always much cooler and peaceful than the metropolitan area of Phoenix. Once the monsoon season arrives it brings cooling rains most every afternoon and provides an amazing respite from the valley heat a short two hour drive away.

The monsoon brings welcome rain which is especially fun to watch from the front porch.

The monsoon brings welcome rain which is especially fun to watch from the front porch.

Anyway, there have been a number of items on my priority list begging for attention at the place. Since Matthew and I had no other commitments we thought we’d use this time to start tackling them. As we were working I remembered when last I had attempted to work on some of them. For example, I wanted to take the many sandstone rocks from the lot and build them into a stairway on part of the hill. I remember well heading out with my shovel in hand and trying to dig the dirt so that I could move the rocks around. I remember how quickly I became discouraged when I tired after chipping out what seemed like only a half shovel of dirt.

I blamed the high elevation. . . It takes time to become acclimated and be able to work at such altitudes.

I blamed the rocky soil. . .Who can shovel this hard rock filled caliche?

I blamed my age. . .After all, I was nearing that scary mid-life number.

I blamed everything but I didn’t realize the culprit. Longtime readers and my family know what it was. They know the answer. I discovered it in September four years ago. It was an insidious cancer that was so slow growing in my body that all its symptoms were able to be explained away.

Today I lecture people. I know the caregiver’s life is never her own. But there are times when we must make ourselves the priority. (And even though I had gone to the doctor I had put off getting that screening mammogram because. . . well. . . there were other things needing my attention. . .)

So there. After going through the hell of chemo and radiation therapy I came out on the other end, slightly worse for wear. I still have chemo brain and just hate when I can’t remember the _____.

Before

Before

and After.

and After.

But. Here I am and it is four years later. Matthew and I headed back to the mountains to see what we could accomplish. And this time, I’m pleased to report that I could shovel the dirt. And I could move the rocks. And we were able to trim the trees and use the weed eater—we hauled off three truck and trailer loads of brush. And we even worked on the inside of the house painting.

My rock staircase. A work in progress.

My rock staircase. A work in progress.

You may be asking when or if we will return to the valley. But I know if you are fighting the urge to turn down the air conditioner and sweating instead of sleeping at night you will understand that I am keeping the windows open and sometimes, well sometimes, the fan is just a little too cool. Ha. We’ll come back when the high temp drops under triple digits. Or. . .

100_1848. . . if Matthew’s satellite reception goes out.

And so. . . that is my report. I am happy to say we have been busy. But, never fear, I have been thinking of lots of other things to share, including a couple of product reviews and I promise to post them soon.

Why I am Against Obamacare

I don’t usually post political articles on this website but this is a serious time in America. If you are interested, please click on the link below. If you aren’t, well, maybe next week I’ll something more exciting to talk about.

A number of people have noted that I am outspoken against the Affordable Care act (Obamacare).  Some have even asked why, why when this is such a good program that will provide health care to all, am I against it?

So here are my key reasons. Many are from personal experience. Many are from discussions with health care providers and some are just from anecdotal information.  I’ll back up statistics with links and my opinions with common sense.

The rest of the article can be read by clicking this sentence. 

Phase Two

Today begins the second phase in this detour in the road. The past week we visited the chemotherapy doctor, had a class on chemo and toured the facility. This morning I will have a “port catheter” put in which is a direct intravenous line attached to a vein that is always accessible for medications. The drugs given for chemo are harsh and toxic. So much so that the doctor won’t take a chance that the IV leaks into the surrounding skin (hence, the port cath).

Following this minor surgery we’re off for a PET and heart scan. These are tests that I am familiar with from my years at the hospital in the nuclear medicine department. I shall endeavor to be a good patient and not whine about having to lie still. Both tests are done as baseline. The PET (positron emission tomography) scan is looking for any additional tumor cells that might have slipped out prior to surgery. The heart scan (called a MUGA for multi-gated acquisition) is done to look at the strength of my heart and make sure I am able to tolerate any damage done from the chemo drugs.

During our tour of the chemo lab we ran into a nurse who grew up best friends with one of Bob’s nieces. It’s a small world… and it will be nice having someone familiar around during the upcoming weeks.

As it stands today, this phase will take four months. There are three different medicines given at different stages every other week. The first two drugs are apparently guaranteed to make my hair fall out. My friend who is a five year survivor wrote me that without having to fix her hair she was finally able to beat her husband getting ready in the mornings.

The doctor and staff continue to reassure me that treatments are better managed than in years past still there is no doubt that these upcoming treatments will be wearing. But I’ve discovered (as I always knew) that we have a very strong support system in place through family and friends. I am reminded daily that there are a lot of people praying for us and giving us strength as we move forward. Some have asked how much Matthew realizes. I can’t say for sure but Sunday the pastor mentioned my name during closing prayers. Matthew reached over, patted my hand, and kissed my cheek. As always, he seems to see all and understand much more than we think.

So Friday afternoon I expect to be able to put a big check mark on my calendar. And phase two will be underway.

Two Surgeries in Two Weeks???

Several of my friends have had major events upon reaching the age of 50. I thought I would be lucky and spent most of this past year bragging how my only “age-related” issue was this very early gray hair. But, now I join them as I hit these unexpected speed bumps on the road.

I’m reminded of sledding. Growing up in Alaska we had plenty of opportunities hike to the top of a hill and jump on our sled zooming down to the bottom. Some kids would choose to go at break neck speed but I was never so adventuresome and drug my boots as brakes. Now when the kids go sledding in Strawberry we use inner tubes which work well on the soft snow but there is no steering. Have you been on an inner tube and found yourself looking up the hill, speeding down backwards with very little control? That’s what this month has been like. I can see clearly where I’ve been but I’m having trouble seeing what’s upcoming. I know there are dangerous trees if I don’t stay on the path.

The pathology report came back last week. It was kind of a good news-bad news report. The entire tumor was removed but the final pathology report showed that there were tumor cells in one of the lymph nodes tested. Because of this both the radiation oncologist and the surgeon feel that I should have the rest of the lymph nodes in the area removed. Fortunately, these guys don’t mess around and this second surgery is scheduled for Monday, 11/22. Based on everything we have been told this surgery should be shorter but the recovery might be a bit slower because I’m just barely recovered from the first one.

Now you see why I feel like I’m zooming down the hill backwards. I’m not in control of things and this puts me in a position I’m not used to. I know: Let go and Let God… I’m trying.

In any case, I have had the best post op care possible. I am scolded by my parents when I do too much and they have been super busy trying to anticipate anything I might think I should do… The kids both worry too much and are being especially helpful. Bob has on his super stress hat which means that the garage is organized and this afternoon he is already putting up the Christmas tree.

We have also been blessed with meals and many offers of assistance. And you should see the cards, flowers, and other gifts… You can see one example here. It’s called a butterfinger tree! For whenever I need one of those pick-me-ups… Yum.

So we head into Thanksgiving week with a new perspective on life. We are especially thankful this year for our family and friends. The doctors have been very optimistic that because I am “young” the treatments will be effective and I’ll be good for many more years.

Procrastination and Your Health

Don’t do as I do…do as I say. That’s the lesson I learned this month.

There has been a mammogram request floating around the house since last February but because it wasn’t a priority I didn’t get it done. Then, the first week of October I noticed a lump in my breast. Luckily, I had the order and didn’t have to waste time seeing the doctor but was able to get in for xrays the next day. Films turned out fine (technically anyway) and I went home thinking it was my imagination.

When the office called me the next day though, I was pretty sure things weren’t okay. They needed me to come back in for more xrays and an ultrasound. Years ago I actually worked in the xray department and did mammograms so when I saw the film I was pretty sure what I was seeing… There was a noticeable mass that was obvious when comparing one side to the other. I was fortunate again, and able to see my doctor right away, who first chewed me out for procrastinating. “Priorities,” I said, full of excuses. I am pretty sure my doc was thinking, “BS” but she didn’t say it. Instead she comforted me and recommended her favorite surgeon for a biopsy.

After what was a very long week and a half I saw the surgeon. She is at a center where they only deal in breast surgeries. I expected to see the doc and then return at a later date for more tests. But no, she offered to do the biopsy that very day. Since the mass showed up on the ultrasound they were able to easily snag some tissue for the biopsy. Honestly, it did not hurt and the procedure was interesting to watch on the ultrasound. I can’t say Bob was all that thrilled but he’s tough and I told him that if he passed out they would just push him aside until they were done.

When the biopsy was finished the surgeon made an appointment for my follow up visit with a promise from the surgeon that she would call with results. It was a time to be on pins and needles. It was a time spent on pins and needles. Was it fibrous tissue or a malignancy? Was it a complex cyst (not likely from the US) or or just a thickening? I tried to stay away from too much research but you know me… and things looked a little better when I read the statistics on stellate mass being benign were 75%.

Unfortunately, this hope was dashed when the doctor called, “Is now a good time to talk?” she asked. “I have your results and it’s what we thought it might be…” At this point I know she told me many important things but my brain had stopped working… CANCER was all I heard.

I cannot tell you how many things flew through my mind that afternoon. Facing your mortality is a scary idea. Did I wait too long? Who would take care of Matthew? Would I see my daughter graduate from college? Become a doctor? Marry? What about my parents? They’re getting older…they need me. What about my husband? Can he figure out my crazy accounting system or even find the passwords to get into the checking account??? Then came the realization that I had to now tell people and how do I tell my folks? My sister? My baby brother?

The next week was a blur. We decided to track my parents down where they were gold prospecting in the desert and tell them in person which was a smart move because my brother called them the next day to make sure they had gotten word. I was hesitant to write a non-personal email but ended up doing so because it was less stressful to me and I could more easily catch family and friends. Not only did offers of help and especially prayers start flowing in but also personal stories from friends who were survivors. Their assurances continue to give me strength. The rapid response of email has made this time pass much more quickly.

Last week I had more tests and everything so far looks like the tumor is confined to the one area. I am scheduled for surgery Monday.

Times have really changed from when I was working in the hospital. Surgery will be done as an out-patient and I’ll be home in the afternoon. The tumor and surrounding tissue will be removed and they’ll inject some radioactive dye so that the doctor can trace back to the lymph nodes that feed the area. She will remove only those nodes and if they do not show signs of spread can stop there. After I am healed from surgery I’ll visit the oncologist who will do radiation therapy and most likely chemo.

Whether to write this publicly has been a challenging choice. Can I be an inspiration? More likely I’m a poster child of what not to do… Will sharing these challenges help someone else? Can I stay positive? Since you’re reading this you can see my decision. I promise not to go into gory details, though I will tell you the doc said she is using super glue to hold me together…

So, what have I learned? My parents asked me this the other day. (They are so concerned they have already been here two weeks…which is good as Matthew loves having Grandpa around and I have been able to pawn off Rebecca’s school related questions –like “Can you read this report and tell me the negative and positive contrasts?” to Grandma.) But back to my question… I have been reminded that especially when one is a caregiver it’s important not to procrastinate…even though it’s easy and I have plenty of excuses. The caregiver’s health must also be a priority. And, yes, most importantly, get your mammogram when your doctor tells you to.