4 Years and Counting….

4 years and countingI recently had my 6 month follow up with my Oncologist, Dr. Elizabeth Tan-Chiu (whom I, along with many others, believe is a genius and real-life Wonder Woman). We were reviewing my chart and were very excited to see that I’m approaching my 5 year anniversary this October.  For those of you who know – and those of you who don’t – 5 years is kind of a big deal when it comes to survivorship.  I’ll be finished with my Zometa infusions, only need to see Dr.T once a year, and, hopefully, be able to stop taking my estrogen blocker, Arimidex. Some ladies have to take it for 10 years – I’m hoping I’m not in that category.  My wonder-woman doctor then told me something interesting – there is a new test called the Breast Cancer Index (BCI) which can help determine how long it will be beneficial for me to take Arimidex. It’s a test performed on the tissue saved from my tumors that were removed and archived – which is another interesting thing I learned – it is mandatory that tissue is saved for 10 years (which was a relief to hear – I thought they had to poke me some more to get breast tissue to test). So, my doc ordered the BCI and it should take a couple weeks to get the results. I’ll keep you posted.  In the meantime, to find out more about the Breast Cancer Index, visit www.answersbeyond5.com.

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Mammograms may be best, but you still need to check your own chest

love life hope

 Johns Hopkins Medical center states,

“Forty percent of diagnosed breast cancers are detected by women who feel a lump, so establishing a regular breast self-exam is very important.”

I was one of those women who felt a lump in my own breast (followed by a chilling lump in my throat).  I didn’t say anything until the next morning, because I went to bed hoping that I would wake up and the lump would magically be gone.  It wasn’t.  I saw my doctor that afternoon, and he assured me that it was “very unlikely” that I had breast cancer.  Boy, was he wrong.  An ultrasound, mammogram and eventual biopsy confirmed my worst fear.  Mammograms are important, but knowing your own body and keeping an eye out for any changes is equally important – I’m living proof.  So, I’m including  information on both self-exams and mammograms in this post.  Please educate yourself and your friends and family – it can literally save your life.

SELF EXAMS

Adult women of all ages are encouraged to perform breast self-exams at least once a month.

While mammograms can help you to detect cancer before you can feel a lump, breast self-exams help you to be familiar with how your breasts look and feel so you can alert your healthcare professional if there are any changes.

How should a breast self-exam be performed?

1) In the Shower 

Using the pads of your fingers, move around your entire breast in a circular pattern moving from the outside to the center, checking the entire breast and armpit area. Check both breasts each month feeling for any lump, thickening, or hardened knot. Notice any changes and get lumps evaluated by your healthcare provider.

2) In Front of a Mirror 

Visually inspect your breasts with your arms at your sides. Next, raise your arms high overhead.

Look for any changes in the contour, any swelling, or dimpling of the skin, or changes in the nipples. Next, rest your palms on your hips and press firmly to flex your chest muscles. Left and right breasts will not exactly match—few women’s breasts do, so look for any dimpling, puckering, or changes, particularly on one side.

3) Lying Down

When lying down, the breast tissue spreads out evenly along the chest wall. Place a pillow under your right shoulder and your right arm behind your head. Using your left hand, move the pads of your fingers around your right breast gently in small circular motions covering the entire breast area and armpit.

Use light, medium, and firm pressure. Squeeze the nipple; check for discharge and lumps. Repeat these steps for your left breast.

MAMMOGRAMS:

Breast Cancer Screening Reminder

The American Cancer Society encourages women to make healthy lifestyle choices such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular physical activity, and reducing alcohol, if a woman drinks. These choices can help reduce their breast cancer risk. The American Cancer Society also encourages regular breast exams and mammograms to find breast cancer early, when it is most likely to be curable. A screening reminder, to remind you to get your breast exam and mammogram, is a free, easy way to help busy women remember to take care of themselves.

Why Get Screened?

Numerous studies have clearly shown that getting a mammogram and a breast exam reduces the risk of dying from breast cancer. Breast cancers found during a mammogram are more likely to be smaller and still confined to the breast. Finding breast cancer early (called early detection) can improve the chances that breast cancer can be treated successfully and with more treatment options, less extensive surgery, and ultimately, better treatment outcomes.

Who Should Get Screened?

The American Cancer Society’s current Breast Cancer Screening Guidelines recommend:

  • Yearly mammograms at age 40 and continuing for as long as a woman is in good health
  • Breast exam about every 3 years for women in their 20s and 30s and every year for women 40 and over
  • All women should know how their breasts normally look and feel and should report ANY breast change promptly to their doctor or nurse. Breast self-exam (BSE) is an option for women starting in their 20s.

How Does Our Breast Cancer Screening Reminder Work?

You fill out a brief form. We will email you a reminder on the first day of your birth month with the breast cancer screening tests we recommend based on our latest guidelines. Breast cancer screening may include breast exams by your doctor, mammograms, and other tests based on your age and other factors.

Bold, bald and battling breast cancer

shaved head 2011

That was me in 2011, the day that I shaved my head after my first chemo and my hair had started falling out.  I was actually at a restaurant, having a bite to eat on the outside patio.  Initially, I was wearing a hat  – the wig I had bought in preparation for this day was way too hot to wear in South Florida in July – and I was feeling extremely self-conscious with my newly naked noggin.  But, the South Florida heat got to me, and I sheepishly took off my hat, thinking everyone would turn my way at once with a collective gasp of horror. Guess what?  No one did. Not one person.  It actually felt good – I felt a little breeze and I also felt a little empowered – like, screw you cancer – I’m not letting you embarrass me.  So, I ditched the wig for good and either wore hats throughout my treatment, or went “commando”.  I felt a little like Demi Moore in G.I. Jane – a warrior battling for her life against a vicious enemy. That attitude, of fighting for my life, helped save my life.  So, to all my lovely ladies who are losing their locks or have already, know that you are beautiful and brave.  Wear a wig if it makes you feel good or don’t.  Wear a beautiful scarf or a funky hat.  Or, just go commando.  Whatever you choose, do it to make yourself feel good, and don’t worry so much about how others are seeing you.  In my experience, when people saw my bald head, they actually were drawn to me and offered words of encouragement and support, and that felt good.   You will get through this, and your hair will grow back.  Mine did :

birthday beach

Be Bold, y’all!

Frozen (post #13 in my 30 in 30 series)

shoulderNo, kids, this is not a post about Disney’s smash movie (although I’m anxiously awaiting the sequel! ).  This post is about a very painful condition that I developed after my mastectomy, and upon doing some research, I found I’m not alone.  I experienced some of the more common side effects right after my surgery, such as numbness in my arm and chest, limited range of motion in my arm, and some fluid retention.  Nerves had been cut and damaged as part of the surgery, and I had multiple lymph nodes removed.  I was told the nerve damage would take anywhere from 6 months to a year to heal (actually, I finally have full feeling in my arm and underarm after 3.5 years) and the fluid could be a sign of Lymphedema. My Oncologist sent me to a specialist for evaluation and education.  WebMD defines Lymphedema as “an abnormal buildup of fluid that causes swelling, most often in the arms or legs. The condition develops when lymph vessels or lymph nodes are missing, impaired, damaged, or removed. The lymph nodes are part of the lymphatic system which helps fight off infection and clears debris from the body.”   Fortunately, with massage and physical therapy, I was able to eliminate the fluid build up and did not develop Lymphedema (although I will forever be at risk of developing it and have to take some precautions to avoid it, which I will explain later).  However, the stiffness just seemed to get worse and a tendon underneath my arm became extremely tight, like a taut, steel wire.  It became increasingly more painful and difficult to move my arm.  I couldn’t raise my arm much higher than my waist.  One day, I attempted to wave goodbye to my kids, and a terrible burning/shooting pain ran from my shoulder to my fingertips. It literally brought me to my knees.  I couldn’t take it anymore.  I was referred to an Orthopedic surgeon, who diagnosed me with “adhesive capsulitis” – better known as a frozen shoulder.  We tried a different course of physical therapy in an attempt to restore range of motion in my affected arm and break up scar tissue that had formed and was restricting movement.  The last resort, my doctor explained, was surgery – Manual Manipulation Under Anesthesia.  Sounds like fun, right?  It would be too painful to move my arm in the way she needed to and break up the adhesions, etc. while I was awake, my doctor said, so I would have to be knocked out.  I really hoped the physical therapy would work.  Turns out, it wasn’t enough.  I ended up the having the surgery and am so glad I did.  My arm will never be 100%, but it’s so much better than it was.  I can lift my arm above my head (although it’s still a bit stiff) and can wave goodbye with no threat of crippling pain.  I still have to be careful, however, not to put too much strain on my arm.  I have to avoid having my blood pressure taken on my affected arm and have to get my blood drawn on the un-affected arm.  Anything too tight or restrictive can affect the flow of lymphatic fluid and pin or needle pricks can increase my risk of infection, which can all lead to Lymphedema.  When I fly, I wear my compression sleeve because the change in cabin pressure can affect my circulation and increase the risk of swelling.  I have to be mindful everyday, for the rest of my life, of how and how much I use my arm.  But, I’m thankful to report, today I am frozen no more and, with a little knowledge and self-care, I can keep it that way.

* For more information on Lymphedema, please visit  http://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/lymphedema

* For more information on frozen shoulder or adhesive capsulitis, please visit  http://stlhealthandwellness.com/adhesive-capsulitis-or-frozen-shoulder/

4 Years Later (post #9 in my 30 in 30 series)

me and girls 2011I was reading through the journal I kept when I was in treatment this afternoon, and I was struck by the fact that it was 4 years ago when I was in the middle of all my cancer craziness.  I read entries dated July 2011 that talked about the side effects of my chemo, my feelings of fear and loss, tough decisions to be made, and sweet entries about my daughters’ birthdays (my youngest, Kayla, was born 7/9 and my oldest, Jada, was born 7/26).  In the summer of 2011, they had just turned 3 and 6 – they were 2 and 5 when I was diagnosed.  In one of my entries, I wondered how my illness and struggle would affect them in the long run, so I decided to ask them about their memories of it.  My little one could only remember that I was bald and wore hats a lot.  She does not remember that I had cancer and doesn’t even know what cancer is, she says.  She apologized for bringing up that I was bald and started giggling at the memory.  I told her it didn’t bother me and I read her my journal entry from her birthday 4 years ago.  That made her smile and she gave me a big hug and skipped out of the room.  My oldest, however, had more memories of that time.  She said she knows I had cancer, but couldn’t remember what kind, and that I spent a lot of time upstairs in bed.  She also remembers coming to check on me each morning and evening before and after school to make sure I was ok.  She has good memories of going to the kid’s support group at Gilda’s Club and said she can’t believe that 4 years have past – it feels like just yesterday, she said with a bittersweet look on her face.  I asked her if the experience had changed her and she yes, but her answer was not what I expected.  She said, “I learned that even in the worst times, something good can come out of it.”  I was so relieved that it hadn’t  scarred her for life!  I read her my journal entry from her birthday 4 years ago and she buried her head in my chest and cried a little.  I hugged her and thanked her for helping me through the toughest time in my life and told her I was proud of her.  Tomorrow, she will turn 10 years old – earlier this month my youngest turned 7.  4 years ago, I wasn’t even sure I would be around to see them reach their next birthday.  What a difference between then and now – thank God.

A Prayer for the Newly Diagnosed (Inspired by Bill) – part 2

May your fears be made less

by the love of

family and friends

May the healers who

treat you

be skilled as well as kind

May you be able to

ask for and accept help

without shame or regret

May you have guardian angels

lighting your way

in the darkest of times

And may God bless you

with courage

strength

and faith

to face

whatever lies

ahead

Amen.

I’m reposting this in honor of a good friend and co-worker of mine who was just diagnosed with breast cancer.  According to the Susan G. Komen website, every 19 seconds, somewhere around the world, a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer; in the U.S. a case of breast cancer is diagnosed among women every two minutes; one in eight women in the U.S. will be diagnosed with breast cancer in her lifetime.  I am one of those women and blessed to be one of the 2.9 million breast cancer survivors alive today in the U.S.

I originally wrote this when my friend Bill was diagnosed with stomach cancer.  He is still fighting it and going through treatment.  Please continue to pray for him and all those touched by cancer around the world.

For more information on Susan G. Komen or the statistics in the above post, please visit http://ww5.komen.org/uploadedfiles/content/aboutus/mediacenter-2/bc%20facts%20-%20082712.pdf

Implants, Expanders, Tattoos, Oh My!

After I made my decision to have a single versus a double mastectomy, it was finally time to visit the plastic surgeon.  I honestly didn’t know what to expect and felt really awkward sitting in the waiting room.  I was not “well endowed” and, although sometimes I wished I had a little more up top, I had long ago come to the conclusion that this is how God made me – who was I to mess with that?  Well, thanks to the big “C”, I had no choice now, did I? Actually, that’s not entirely accurate – I did have a few choices.  I could choose not to have any reconstruction and use inserts in my bra to even myself out, or I could have reconstructive surgery with breast implants.  I decided pretty easily that I wanted reconstruction.  Until then, I had resisted the urge to google mastectomies and breast reconstruction because, frankly, I was terrified of what I would find out.  I had all these crazy ideas of how they would remove my breast and what I would – or would not – be left with. So, the first visit was pretty overwhelming.  Lots of information about options, sizes, and building a new nipple (what?!)  My breasts were measured and photographed (which, I must say, was pretty creepy) and I learned about silicone vs. gel implants, expanders, and areola tattoos (again, what?!)  My doctor recommended an implant in the affected breast, accompanied by an augmentation and lift for the “healthy” breast, so I would have a matching set. Down the line, I could have nipple reconstruction (“an easy little procedure”, said my doc) and get my areola tattooed back on.  I was informed I would be numb in the affected breast.  For how long?  Forever.  So, for all those well meaning ladies who said things like “ooh, you’re so lucky, I’ve always wanted a boob job!”  and, “now you can go bigger!”, I say this is not the type of breast augmentation anyone should be envious of.  I went home with a lot to think about.  At my next appointment, I told the doctor that I actually didn’t want to be bigger, I just wanted to look like my old self.  He asked me  – several times – if I was sure about that.  Had no one ever said that to him before?  I said, yes, I was happy with my size and how I looked before.  He said, “we don’t carry implants that small, I’ll have to special order them for you.”  Ouch.  I also decided against the breast lift for the other side and said no thank you to the nipple reconstruction and tattoo.  Again, the doc was taken aback. I told him I was tired of all the poking, prodding, and painful procedures (nice alliteration, huh?) and just wanted to be left alone.  So, I ended up just having my “special order” implant put into the one breast and left it at that.  I’m happy with my decision and feel like I stayed true to myself.  I’m not knocking my sisters who choose to go bigger with their new “girls” – I think everyone should do whatever they feel comfortable doing.  So, while bigger might be better for some, I’m just fine with what is mine.

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