One Year Later – Cancerversary Post

September 11th was my one-year cancerversary. (pause for applause)

I don’t really know how I feel. And I don’t even know what I’ve covered before and I don’t feel like going back and looking so I’m just going to start fresh here. Some of the things I say might be repeats – just take it that I still feel the same, as opposed to me repeating myself.

Well, first, I had my first post-treatment mammogram yesterday. When I had my pre-treatment mammogram, it was nbd. I mean it wasn’t something I’d choose to do, it didn’t feel good, but it wasn’t awful.

Yesterday was awful.

I don’t know why and I haven’t yet googled it, but the mammo on my right breast (RB, or Ruby as she came to be known) was excruciating. It didn’t help that it had to be done at three different angles and then twice more with a magnifying lens. If you haven’t had a mammo, you probably only have a vague idea about what it entails. Essentially she took a shot of each breast with me sitting and facing the machine, one boob at a time smashed between a plastic tray and a metal tray, which are pressed together by a machine and then given a final hand crank. I then stood for all of the remaining shots, which also involved smashing. By the final shot, which was the very most painful, I started feeling nauseated. As soon as the shot was over I sat down and put my head between my legs so I didn’t pass out. Then I got all whiny and emotional and why me for a second and started to cry before I glanced at the People magazine I had been reading on the counter, which was open to a blurb about how the remains of an 11-year-old kid who’d been abducted at gun point 27 years ago had finally been found. And suddenly I realized breast cancer is honestly far from the worst thing that could happen to me.

Something I know I haven’t touched on before now is that my period came back that one time, but hasn’t returned since. The hot flashes came back with a vengeance and I definitely experienced some real sadness, verging on depression, as a result of the way my body has been affected. It’s hard because the symptoms I continue to experience aren’t from cancer, but from chemotherapy and/or radiation – I had no symptoms from cancer. So there are times when I think, maybe it would have been better if I hadn’t found it. Maybe I should have just let nature take its course and allowed the cancer to do what it was going to do. Of course that’s absurd, but sometimes the physical remnants of the treatment make me a little absurd.

I do wish they had prepared me better for what to expect after, but I suppose that would probably drastically reduce the number of people who would be willing to go through treatment, thus drastically reducing survivorship. My last chemo was March 30, so my 6-months out date will be September 30th – but if you’re really counting when that chemo was totally finished, probably more like mid-October. Six months is significant because the general consensus is that all chemo-related symptoms should resolve between six months and a year post chemo.

Symptoms I continue to struggle with include sore hips, knees, and back, stiffness after sitting, swollen, painful hands and trigger finger in the morning, hot flashes and loss of fertility, digestive issues (enough said), and of course the aforementioned tender right breast. I also have soreness and scar tissue buildup at my port incision site and also along where the catheter was so that when I stretch my head back it looks like the catheter is actually still in my neck.

All these things may sound trivial on their own, but when combined, they have presented a difficult hurdle for me. I was very strong and (I thought) healthy prior to my diagnosis and treatment, so to go from a mom who could do everything with her kids to a mom who struggles to go from sitting to standing has been a real blow. And funny enough, HAHA, I left loss of mental acuity and ability to plan and organize out in the paragraph above because I thought that was finally resolving, but AS I AM TYPING THIS my therapist just called because I was supposed to be at her office at 2 and it’s now quarter past – I completely forgot. So yeah, safe to say my brain is still being affected.

This has been an incredibly whiny post and for that I apologize. I guess the crux of what I am getting at is this: yeah, it’s over, but it’s not OVER. I have hair and eyelashes again, my mammogram was clear, I’m six months out of chemo, but I’m still affected every day, both physically and mentally. So I guess – just don’t expect rainbows and unending gratitude from breast cancer survivors. Getting the cancer out, getting through treatment, that’s a battle. But I’m still fighting the war, and I think in some ways I will be for the rest of my life. Just because cancer didn’t kill me (yet) doesn’t mean everything is back to normal. This is a longer road than I anticipated.

But I’m walking it, and I’m grateful to be doing so with so many people who love and support me.

After chemo.

Long time, no blog.

I have hair now. I’m doing well. Physically I am getting there – I have lost the chemo weight, so now just need to lose that additional 30 pounds.🙂 I feel good although I still have some joint issues including tendonitis, and I might still have C Diff – need to get another kit to be sure (SO awesome).

The main issue now I would say is my brain. Chemo kinda wrecked it.

It’s getting better – I am not losing words as much as I used to. But nor am I pre-chemo Kate. I forget things – dates, appointments, plans. Just this morning Gregory had a 9:30 appointment to get his hearing checked which we barely made because for some reason I thought it was at 10:30. I used to handle everything for our vacations – from flights to rental cars to checking us in to getting us to the airport – and now I am lucky if I handle half of that correctly. I was obsessively early or on time before chemo, and now I am lucky if I remember to be where I need to be before it’s half an hour past the time I was supposed to be there. It’s embarrassing. I have a hundred things to do today and I just sat and stared at my computer trying to think of them and couldn’t. I have a list, of course, but at one time, I could have thought of half a dozen things before even looking at my list.

One of the frustrating things about this mental impairment is that people don’t know. Everyone expects you to be messed up during chemo, but after, everyone thinks you just recover and go back to yourself. And maybe, hopefully, I will. But it hasn’t happened yet.

When you prepare for chemotherapy, you know all the possible side effects. You know how long your treatment is going to last and what to expect while you’re going through it. You know you’ll be sick. You know things will suck. What you – or at least, what I – don’t (didn’t) realize is how long lasting the effects are. I didn’t anticipate joint pain, but I really didn’t anticipate loss of mental acuity. And other people don’t really realize it either. I look healthy, yes – but every day is a challenge.

That said – would I do it differently? No. Because although I am struggling daily with the little details of life, there are two things I am not struggling with: cancer, or the looming feeling that my cancer will return and kill me. I killed it. And I’m paying the price, but I feel like, in the end, it’s a small price to pay for my life and my sanity.

Doctor Blows the Whistle on Chemotherapy

I am here today to express frustration. I have discussed a similar frustration in a previous blog, but I want to touch on it again after seeing the video referenced in the title of this blog.

Some people prefer traditional medicine, and some people prefer naturopathy. I personally prefer integrative medicine, which is a marriage of the two. I saw a naturopath during my cancer treatment and took various natural supplements to help combat effects. I just finished a cleanse to help relieve pain in my joints. At the same time, as a depression sufferer, I know for a fact that chemicals can help me live a healthier, happier life.

I took all my medical decisions very seriously. I researched each one, spoke with multiple medical professionals, and took time to think about what I was doing and why. So it makes me incredibly, incredibly angry when propaganda like this makes it way into my Facebook newsfeed. If you don’t feel like watching it, I will summarize: A “doctor” by the name of Peter Glidden spends five minutes discussing the fact that chemotherapy does not work and is simply a money-generating scam for big pharma and oncologists.

As soon as I saw the title of the video, I was curious. By the time I was halfway through, I was enraged. I couldn’t even finish it, nor did I want to. I took to the web to find out more answers, and sure enough, found a thorough debunking of this doctor’s claims on Snopes. Turns out the good doctor has based all of his research and claims on research published by another doctor in the 1950s who conducted HIS research in the 1930s. If that doesn’t seem THAT long ago to you, I point you to this summary published by the NIH, where – on the first page – you can see that 5-year breast cancer survival has risen from 60% in the early 50s to over 90% in the late 90s. Chemotherapy testing began in the 40s, so draw your own conclusions about what has led to the astounding increase in survival.

All of that background is really beside the point, however. The point is this: When things like that are shared with me, it is equivalent to saying two things. One, I am a stupid and uninformed individual who simply allowed her healthcare decisions to be guided by whatever the doctors suggested, and two, that I just wasted 4 months of my life on something that will probably kill me, or at the very least, will not help me. In fact, based on Dr. Glidden’s assertions, I only have a 3% chance of survival now that I have had chemotherapy. Of course, MY doctor says I have an over 90% chance of survival, but surely he doesn’t have my best interests at heart. He became a doctor simply to make money – not because he cares about women’s health. Thank goodness I have people like Glidden looking out for me – and telling me that now that I’ve had chemo, I am basically almost certainly going to die.

If you think, for a second, that I did not come face to face with my own mortality the instant I heard the word “cancer” over the phone, you are badly mistaken. Likewise, if you think that I do not already know and think about the fact that cancer could come back anytime, anywhere, and kill me, you simply do not understand the psychological impact of cancer. After going through chemotherapy and radiation, being told by some quack, and by whoever chooses to spread his quackery, that I am going to die based on my own INFORMED, RESEARCHED, MEDICALLY SOUND health care decisions is at best insensitive and at worst cruel.

If you truly believe the out of date, fear-mongering information Dr. Glidden is spreading, that is your decision. But understand that cancer and chemotherapy are hard enough without being told you’re making or have made a mistake. And do some research of your own before spreading his misinformation to other people, people who might already be scared as hell as it is.

 

Dreams

When I was a kid, I wanted to be an actress. Well, really, I wanted to be famous. But as I got into my teens, I realized that what I wanted to be famous for was acting. So I did drama – more specifically, musical theatre – in high school and loved every minute of it. I went to college and my parents badly wanted me to pursue a career that wouldn’t leave me homeless or waiting tables while praying for a big break that might never come, though, so although I took drama and improv classes in college, I majored in English.

Here I am now, 20 years later. I have worked mainly as a legal assistant and an executive assistant, but have also been a secretary, a bookstore clerk, a case manager at a guardianship office, a tutor to a child with autism, a volunteer CASA, a volunteer teacher’s assistant at a middle school and an alternative high school, and a dog walker. (This is, of course, all after I did many years at the Grist Mill – shout out.) I have seriously considered going back to school for other careers, as well – teacher, lawyer, guidance counselor.

In the end, though, if I think about what would make me happiest, what career I most regret not pursuing, who I really feel I am inside – it’s acting. I want to be on stage. I miss performing burlesque with a passion but even that isn’t it – it’s belting out a show tune, reciting a line with perfect timing, going on-stage nervous and leaving confident.

I’ve defied death. I’m still here. So maybe it’s time I finally pursue what I’ve always wanted to do before my nine lives run out.

Short but sweet!

37 when diagnosed and started chemo, 38 when completed chemo, told my chemopause could be permanent, would probably take at least 6 months to know –

My period came back today.🙂 Weird thing to write about, I guess, but since we really felt robbed of making our own decision whether or not we wanted to try for another baby, this was a super important thing to both Julian and me. Additionally, it makes me feel really positive – my body is becoming mine again, and if I could recover so quickly from chemo, I must be pretty healthy! Other than this stupid cold I am now battling, which came hot on the heels of the stomach bug from last week. In spite of those, feeling pretty good – and this also explains last week’s depression.

Hurrah!

Depression makes its sneaky return?

So for the past four nights I’ve found it very difficult to sleep. I have always suffered from insomnia, but usually Trazodone helps take the edge off, and the fatigue from all the treatment has really kept me sleeping. The last few nights I have averaged 5 – 6 hours, and that’s not solid – that’s on and off. That may sound fine to some but as someone who really needs 8, I’ve been struggling.

Additionally, my appetite has suddenly tapered off to nothing, which is VERY unusual. I didn’t even eat a cupcake at Conor’s birthday! Finally, I have been feeling very lackluster – no motivation, no desire, lots of guilt. Couldn’t get a sitter to go a friend’s event last night and felt terribly about it; have a sitter tonight for plans I’ve really been looking forward to, and now have no desire. So now I’m wondering: is my depression returning?

Of course, it could be all the chemicals still in my system, or my hormones readjusting. (More on that later, actually; hard conversation with Dr. K on Wednesday [re hormone treatment] that could be contributing to the blahs). It could also be that I have been battling a cold and am now having GI issues. Or, finally, the insomnia could of course be causing me to feel depressed – it wouldn’t be the first time.

Regardless, I am nervous, and in that curious depression quandary of feeling desperately lonely but not wanting to talk, of wanting company but not wanting to interact. And I’m just trying all the while to act normal in front of the boys because I don’t want them to be children who grow up remembering “When Mom had one of her spells!” I’ll just try to stay aware and if things degrade I’ll talk to a psychiatrist about my meds.

As far as hormone treatment, we met with Dr. K Wednesday and of course he strongly recommended I do the once monthly Lupron shots. I told him no, and he was – I guess probably just concerned, but of course I felt it was disapproving. He asked if I could tell him why, just so he knew, and I started crying as I described the hot flashes, night sweats, wrinkles, roughening of the skin around my jaw, weight gain – all of which happened while I was on Lupron during chemo. I told him I had no problem with growing old, no problem with turning 45, but that I’d like to do it in seven years, when I turn 45. He understood and was supportive, and we agreed to talk about it again down the line. Complicating things for me is the fact that a friend’s mother had breast cancer roughly ten years ago, and she did the full course – chemo, radiation, and hormone therapy – and it has now metastasized. So it’s all a roll of the dice anyhow.

After we left I realized it’s not just the symptoms I don’t want – it’s the daily reminder of those symptoms. That I had cancer, that I can have it again, that it could kill me. I mean it’s always going to be at the back of brain anyhow, but I don’t need to be reminded three times a day when I take the Gabapentin to combat the hot flashes (which by the way I am now off of, yay), as well as every fucking time those hot flashes occur.

The other day I went in to get sugared and it was an aesthetician I hadn’t met before, as mine is out sick. She asked me about my cancer and treatment and when she found out I was through, she remarked, “So you beat cancer.” Which, I am sure she was trying to be nice, but no. No I haven’t and honestly I can’t help but think that I won’t really have “beat cancer” until I die of something else. On the plus side, I told Julian this and it’s led to all sorts of great jokes, like me on my death bed and my last words being, “Suck it, cancer! Heart disease wins again!” (Julian’s: “Yes! Hit by a car! Take that, cancer!”)

Starting Monday, Julian and I are going to try to do a 10-day green smoothie cleanse. I am doing it to get rid of all the poison left in my system and to try to be healthier – I’m hoping it might also help with my joints (which are terrible, and contributing to my depression). He is doing it because he is supportive and amazing. Dr. K gave it the thumbs up so I’m hoping for the best.

This turned out to be a long, rambling post, but I guess I had a lot inside me. Happy Saturday – get out there and live.

Radiation Tips, Tricks, & Tools!

SO I’M DONE! And as such, I thought it might be helpful (maybe?) to post a few things I learned along the radiation brick road.

First of all, expect the worst. I don’t mean this in a pessimistic way – hear me out. Everybody told me, “Oh, it’s so easy! It’s a walk in the park compared to chemo!” Dude, that was NOT the case for me. With chemo, it was a week and a half bad, a week and a half good. The alternation made it easier for me to take – there was always a quickly approaching light at the end of the tunnel. With radiation, it was a six-week, cumulative slog, and it SUCKED. Now, radiation for YOU may very well be like it was for the people who told me it would be easy-peasy. But I’m just trying to prepare you better than they did me – it might not be. Still, it WILL end and you WILL survive it!

Now, onto my favorite part: shopping! Here are some items that helped me and I think might also help you! I think I might also make a video of these for those who pick things up better that way.

  1. Boiron First Aid Calendula Cream – Okay so this was my biggest, biggest error. The nurse told me to use calendula cream, so I went on Amazon and searched for calendula cream and went by the nicest, most expensive ones with the highest star ratings. I also watched a widely circulated video where the narrator repeatedly advises women undergoing radiation treatments NOT to use any alcohol or alcohol-based products on their treated skin, and the first ingredient in this cream is alcohol. IGNORE HER! IGNORE RATINGS! This is the cream your nurse was recommending – it is just called Calendula Cream and it’s good! It’s non-greasy and it works. I could have saved myself a lot of pain and suffering if I had just bought this stuff to start with. You will use this and/or Miaderm 3 or more times a day. I did this morning after shower, afternoon after treatment, and evening before bed.
  2. Miaderm Radiation Relief – After I started experiencing skin breakdown, I got desperate and began googling for the best possible radiation skin treatments, and this cream came up again and again, so I bought some. After I started using this in conjunction with the cream mentioned above and the compresses I will discuss later, I took my skin from open, raw, and bordering on moist desquamation to completely healed and just pink in a matter of a week IN THE MIDDLE OF TREATMENT. When I mentioned to my technician that I was using it she said at her previous job, which was at a very well-respected breast cancer radiation center, Miaderm is the ONLY thing they recommended to their clients. It’s expensive and there is a reason, trust me.
  3. Carrasyn Gel Wound Dressing – I will explain how to use this below, but be sure to ask first if your doc has some they can give you – I got mine for free.
  4. Aquaphor Healing Ointment – Exact same info as #3.
  5. Telfa Non-Adherent Bandages – This will go with #s 3 & 4, and it will kind of be up to you what size you’ll want (I’ll explain below).
  6. CarraDres Clear Hydrogel Sheets – This is an expensive product, and one you will probably only get value out of if your skin breaks down and you’re in bad pain (as I was), so I’d wait on purchasing this. You might also be able to get a few free ones out of your doc. However, it was invaluable to be when my skin did break down. You could also try a less expensive but comparable product, like the ones made by Medela.
  7. Avocado Oil – Great if your skin gets very dry (again, as mine did). Obviously it’s an oil, so be prepared for it to get on your clothes. (And remember, if it does, some Dawn dish liquid on oil stains prewash will take them right out.)
  8. Prescription saline wash – Obviously you can’t get this on Amazon, so ask your provider – they were able to give it to me free. You keep it in the fridge (it’s non-perishable, but that helps keep it cool and soothing) and put it on a washcloth, which you then use as a compress on raw or broken skin. Made a big difference for me – I did it at night before bed.

All right, so again – my biggest error was getting the wrong damned cream for my radiation rash. I highly recommend the two listed above – if you use them early and often, you may never even need this other stuff. BUT IF YOU DO…

The nurse told me fairly early on about using #s 3, 4, & 5 together, but I tried it during the day. The idea is you take a Telfa bandage (she gave me a few long ones, but I used both long and short and kinda preferred the shorter ones) and put a line each of the aloe wound dressing and Aquaphor healing ointment down the center. You then slap it over the problem area and smush it down and there it stays. Except it doesn’t. It slides around all over the place, so using it during the day was both messy (Aquaphor, as the word “ointment” suggests, is greasy) and inefficient. I then discovered using it as a night dressing and it changed my world. My skin healed so quickly and so well my techs and I literally could not believe it. Typically when your skin opens in the midst of radiation they really don’t expect it to get better until well after you’ve finished, but between these compresses and the Miaderm, I finished radiation with fully closed skin.

The CarraDres pads are a similar idea but less messy, so better for daytime use. However, they also do not adhere well and will not adhere at all to lotioned skin, so be prepared to tuck one into your bra and adjust it constantly.

Avocado oil was what my doc pushed for dry skin caused by radiation. I did apply it fairly often, especially when my skin was at its worst, but did not prefer it because it stains. It can be gotten fairly easily and cheaply, however, so that is a bonus!

I also lived on Advil during the time my skin was open, and even took a few leftover prescription painkillers when it got tough to sleep because of the pain.

That about does it! If you have any questions, or if you want to endorse a product that worked especially well for you, feel free to comment below!