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A new normal

It’s not normal to wear a suit jacket and heels on a Friday, but that’s what I had to do because I was scheduled to host and facilitate a meeting to a group of directors, policy experts, and other executives from across the state. That was, let’s just say, a big deal in my work world.  That was Friday, 10/14, and I performed as expected.  With all that’s been on my mind, it was akin to an outer body experience, but I got the job done.  It’s now been a little over 3 weeks since my breast cancer diagnosis and it feels like so much and very little has happened at the same time.  I don’t even know how to explain this, but here we go.

The best analogy I can think of is when I knew I was pregnant with my firstborn, my son, Caleb.  I spent the whole pregnancy learning everything that I could related to pregnancy, giving birth (except I intentionally skipped anything related to cesarean births and ended up having a c-section with each of my children), and the baby’s first years of life.  I was consumed with educating myself.  I watched countless cable network shows related to babies.  Despite all of the real life stories I read about or saw on t.v., I didn’t actually know what it would be like for myself until my baby arrived.  I knew he would impact my life in a major way and that I would never be the same, but I had no clue to what degree.

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My babies-Elise and Caleb

Except for the love and joy that I’ve experienced with my children, I’m having a similar “process” experience with breast cancer.  I’ve been learning as much as I can from my doctors and medical team, through talking with friends with breast cancer and other cancers, and through my own research.  I’ve had to make room for this diagnosis that I know will change me forever although I don’t exactly know how and to what degree.  I know I won’t love breast cancer.  I know I won’t get joy from it.  However, I’m expecting to learn some new things about myself as I take on this fight. I’m expecting to birth something beautiful from this experience.  This is not the end of the world for me. As I’ve written before, no one wants cancer, but I do look at this as an opportunity (as one would say in my work world).

I’ve never really fit into the normal category, but the normal that I’ve established for myself and with my husband, has been temporarily thrown out the window. I’m just now settling down somewhat…I think.  It initially started off with back to back doctor appointments. I now have a team of doctors and staff working with me: a surgeon, oncologist, plastic surgeon, physician assistant, nurses, financial counselors and a social worker.  There may be more. When I worked as a mental health professional, I was a key member of a treatment team.  Although we attempted to convey and foster a partnering relationship with clients, my assessment had great influence on my clients’ lives. Here I am now, the patient, with a team of professionals working on my behalf.  It’s a good thing that I’m a social worker too because I am skilled at coordination.  I’ve made several calls and correspondences through email last week to obtain information on my genetic testing results and surgery appointments. It got to the point where I didn’t know next steps and it’s not as simple as calling one person.  I eventually received the information I needed, however, I admit that this is on another level, even for me.  As I go through the treatment (I haven’t started yet), there may be points where I’m unable to keep up.  A friend with breast cancer recently advised me that she lets the team handle whatever she can’t because that’s their purpose.

Since my diagnosis, I’ve been maintaining some of my self-care “activities” although not to the same degree.  They are healthy habits embedded into my daily routine so I haven’t veered off too much.  I did slow down on the frequency of exercise, I haven’t tracked my food, and I haven’t felt like writing.  It’s partly because of making room for the appointments and information gathering. Another factor is that I have been increasingly more fatigued.  I’m not sure if it’s from the cancer or from the adjustments I’ve had to make to take this all in.  The other part is that nothing puts things in perspective like a serious, chronic, and potentially life threatening illness.  Losing that last 10 pounds doesn’t seem to matter as much anymore.  Work deadlines are amusing and baffling. I was under so much stress the week before last as I was working on deliverables that I realized that I need to restructure stress management while in that environment.

I spent the day with my daughter on Friday because she was out of school and it brought me so much joy.  Later that evening, as I was watching her watch t.v., my eyes watered thinking about how beautiful and innocent she is and how blessed I am to have her. It would be unimaginable for her to grow up without her mommy.  When we had lunch earlier that day, I used that time to see what she knew and how she felt about the cancer. She was unphased. To my children, everything still seems normal. I don’t look sick. I go to work as usual. I still fuss about chores. But I haven’t started treatment yet, so they don’t know what’s coming, not that what’s coming will be so unbearable. But, I’ve been prepping them. More than anything, I don’t want them to be afraid that I will die. I explained to my daughter that the type of cancer I have is treatable. We talked for a while, she said ok and asked to go to the mall. I pushed myself because, at that point, I was exhausted after a few hours at work with her and lunch.  I asked if we could go home first so that I could take a nap. She reluctantly gave her approval. I didn’t take a nap. We went to the mall.

Whatever the reasons for slowing down (self-care), I’m going to respect my limits.  Taking a break (with the exception of going to the mall exhausted) means that I’m doing what I need to do (self-care) and I’m not going to beat myself up (also self-care).  And sometimes, my thoughts do try to beat me up, but I don’t let them win.  I use my tools like prayer and sometimes I have to just tell the thoughts to leave me alone and assure myself that things will be alright.  Last week, I did resume exercising close to my usual alotted weekly time, I’ve been spending time with friends, and I committed myself to writing today. I even agreed to be one of the instructors at a Zumbathon this weekend.

Thus far, by far, the thing that I’m most grateful for is the outpouring of love, support and prayers in all of my networks (family, friends, church, work, fitness, etc.).  I knew that I was loved and cared for, but the support has been amazing.

I am a planner.  At work, we constantly plan for 1-2 years in advance and even longer. As a mom, I’m constantly thinking ahead. Bottom line…my new normal is to take things day by day. This is where my flexibility comes in handy. If I have more of whatever…BONUS.  If not, it will be o.k.

 

 

 

 

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Our family is expanding 

A lot has happened this week and I’m too tired to write about it all right now. I do want to share one of the highlights. Our neighbor moved out of town this week and my husband came home to a note (see picture) on our door from our neighbor asking us to take care of his outdoor cat, Baby, because he couldn’t take him (correction..Baby is actually a “her”, but with the male kittens, I’ve been getting confused. Now, I know how my mom feels when she calls her 4 children by each other’s names. Also, English is her second language and as she’s gotten older, she’s been getting the male and female pronouns confused, so I can relate). There is a back story regarding the cat as my family and Baby have been living in this neighborhood well before the neighbor. In fact, I’ve maintained all along that Baby is my cat because I’ve been feeding and allowing her to stay in the garage when the weather has been rainy and/ or cold and when the neighbor has been out of town during the holidays. Baby had been abandoned by a previous neighbor a few houses down, who has since moved away, and she never left the area. It is true that we both had been taking care of her simultaneously for a while, but Baby is really mine. 🙂

I was so happy when I saw the text from my daughter on Thursday. She was very happy too and asked right away if we could bring Baby in the house. I explained that it was more complicated than that because we already have 2, nearly 5-month old kittens and we’re not sure how they, or Baby, would react to each other in the house. We’ve attempted to stand at the door with the kittens, but once they saw Baby, they would claw themselves out of my arms. Plus, Baby, who is about 5 or 6 years old (or maybe even older), is used to living outdoors. It came in handy spending Saturday afternoon watching about 4-5 back to back episodes of Jackson Galaxy ‘s (I don’t remember the name) show on the Animal Planet network. My coworker had been telling me about this so called “cat daddy”, and from what we’ve seen, he is knowledgeable. We learned a lot. As a result, I have some ideas on how to slowly introduce the cat and kittens to each other.

I fed Baby this morning before church and that was the last time I’d seen her until about 9 o’clock this evening, as my son and I were returning from the grocery store. I was worried and hoping she was okay for most of the day. We had been working in the garage and yard for hours with no trace of Baby. When our garage door has been opened in the past, Baby wouldn’t hesitate to sit down and relax while we were doing whatever we were doing. For example, I exercise in the garage, and if the garage is open, Baby freely lays down near me while I take care of business. She even likes to participate (more accurately, “interrupt”) while I’m doing stretching exercises such as yoga. My husband and I were wondering if someone took her because she’s such a friendly cat. Don’t they know she is mine? My son had been reassuring me that she would return. He thought she might have gone with some other stray cats from her litter. Well, I don’t know if she did, but she was definitely someplace else because I called her name many times to no avail.

I fed her again, rubbed her a bunch of times, laid down a pillow near the rocking chair on the porch, and said “good night”. Our little family is growing: 2 children, 2 kittens (Cannoli and Beignet), and 1 cat (Baby). It’s become painfully clear to me, especially since my breast cancer diagnosis (you can can read about it here), how fragile life is, so I welcome love in all shapes and sizes.



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Breast Cancer: The Journey Continues

I studied her every move and expression as she walked into the office where my husband and I had been waiting. The nurse who took my vitals indicated that the doctor had been running behind every since the first patient showed up late. I wondered if that were really true or if that was a ploy to prolong telling us the inevitable. I’d been consumed in research and investigation for about a week now. With every appointment and test since 9/8, I had been studying the body language of the technicians, nurses, and doctors for clues. I had also been in utter anguish since I had gotten the voice message from the nurse that the doctor requested that I come in to see her the next day. I already knew the inevitable, but still hoping, I watched her face – her eyes and her mouth. I watched her hands as she slowly pulled out the papers from the pocket of her white jacket. She said they were the pathology results. I could sense the hesitancy. I braced myself. Finally, she said the words as her eyes welled up. It was on Wednesday, 9/28/16, that my doctor told my husband and I that the test results came back positive for breast cancer – invasive ductal carcinoma. Tears poured out of my eyes. My husband held his head down. 

Her final words before we would venture off into the unknown was to not google everything in the pathology report and to follow the “science” not the homemade “other” stuff you find on the internet. Too late…I had already become familiar with most everything on the pathology report. I had been following the science. My husband laughed and said, “You must know my wife.” Our laughter lifted the dread for about 2 seconds, then we left the office with instructions to see the surgeon that same afternoon. I cried as my husband held me as we walked to the car. I wanted to vomit. 

Three days later and I’m at a much better place. That day was so surreal. I didn’t expect to cry that much because I had made peace with it already, or so I thought. The words were just hard to hear and made it oh so very real. I’m not a doctor, but I had a very strong suspicion based on my own research on the 4 or 5 charactertics of the mass that was found on my left breast as seen on the mammogram and ultrasound. When I suspected malignancy, I didn’t want to pray to God that it not be cancer because I thought if this was His will, then so be it. I honestly didn’t know what to pray for initially except that I be healed. I remember at one point saying out loud that I was already healed, even though I didn’t actually believe it like I do now.  Up until the diagnosis,  I had been talking to my two older sisters, who have each gone through the call back process and ended up with benign cysts. They kept reassuring me that it was likely benign and to refrain from the internet. My husband wouldn’t entertain me either and said the same thing.  I didn’t listen.

Over the summer, I noticed a dimple of sorts on my left breast. I didn’t know how long it had been there and it turned out to be the only noticeable symptom of my breast cancer. I would share a picture to educate other women, but that area is still slightly swollen from last Friday’s biopsy. You can do a google search to get more information. I thought to myself, and told my husband, “this is weird looking…I wonder if this change in shape has to do with getting older? I should make an appointment with my primary care physician.” I didn’t think that it had anything to do with cancer, but it caught my attention. I saw my pcp on 9/2, but forgot to mention it. I’ve been getting mammograms since I was 35 due to a family history of breast cancer, and most recently had one last year, so I knew she would request another. I had the initial on 9/8. I had the diagnostic mammogram and ultrasound on my 19th wedding anniversary, 9/20, since I had scheduled the day off. I had a biopsy on 9/23 and was diagnosed on 9/28. September 2016 will be forever remembered.

After meeting with the surgeon and oncologist, they’ve assured us that the prognosis is very good and this type of cancer is treatable. No one wants to hear that they have cancer, and despite having a family history, I never thought that I would get it. However, there has been much progress in treatment and huge efforts in early detection. There’s a lot of information on breast cancer on the internet. I’m so glad that I was aware of changes in my body and I acted on them. I believe in prevention, so I’ve made it a priority to follow up with my doctors. I’m actually relieved to know what has been going on with my body. I’m thankful that I have good insurance and that my doctors have acted quickly to get me seen so that I can have a plan for treatment. Truth be told that I am not looking forward to treatment, which requires surgery in the next month, and possibly radiation and/or chemotherapy, depending on the genetic testing results and what’s found in the lymph nodes after surgery. It’s also possible that I may be placed on hormone therapy. There are still many unknowns. 

Once the breast cancer diagnosis was confirmed, I contacted the people who I can rely on for support (except my mom although she is also my support…a different post) because I recognize that I will need it. Ten to fifteen years ago, I probably would have gone on pretending that I was superwoman and would care about the appearance of being weak. I’m at a different place now. I sent texts to my supporters asking them to pray for me. I was too emotional to talk to anyone except my husband and my siblings. I notified my boss and some of my coworkers. They have been amazing.  My boss told me that she and another manager will offer their sick time I need it. One of her texts indicated that God is making provisions for me at home and they will make provisions at the office. When I spoke to her the next day, she said I will get to add “breast cancer survivor” to my list of many accomplishments. In 3 days, I learned of  3 other women that I’m connected to who have some form of cancer. I would not have known this had I not reached out to let others know what I was going through. The support has been phenomenal and I couldn’t ask for more.

On Thursday morning, I awakened rested and at peace. Even though I have a rough road ahead (considering that I am squeamish and don’t like needles), I can see that I have support and a good prognosis. Although my boss told me not to come in the rest of the week, I was scheduled to provide a presentation to a group of directors from across the state. The meeting was scheduled for Friday, but as it turns out, that was an error. It was taking place on Thursday, as in that day. My boss sent me a text indicating that they were looking for someone else to fill in for me, but I offered to do it as planned since I was only waiting to hear back from the oncologist. I’m so glad I made the presentation because for that hour and a half, I was in my element, and it took my mind off of breast cancer. I was told that nobody would have been able to present the information like me. In all humility, I knew that, which is why I went. Afterwards, my director told me that she couldn’t believe I was there, but she was glad I did it and directed me (as directors do) to “go home and take care of yourself”. The picture below is of me at home after the presentation. 

There are many unknowns in my breast cancer journey. I’m not going to lie, it’s scary, but not as scary as when it was initially confirmed (3 days ago).  Plus, I’ve had my supporters praying over me and offering encouraging words. My friend’s mom practically breathed life into me with her soul stirring words. She pointed it all back to God and reminded me to PRAISE Him for everything. I am strong and look at this as another temporary life challenge and opportunity for growth.

The main points here are to pay attention to changes in your body no matter how small. Regularly see a doctor for preventative care. If you don’t like your doctor or clinic for whatever reason, choose another one (I’ve done this in the past). Let a few people that you trust know what’s going on with you. It’s beneficial to educate yourself by exploring reputable resources, but recognize that if it’s not your area of expertise, that you likely won’t have the full picture. Maintain healthy lifestyle habits such as exercising regularly, eating more whole foods, and getting plenty of sleep (I’m still working on this).  Avoid smoking and minimize alcohol consumption because research shows that these lifestyle factors are huge cancer risks (google it) although these were not my risk factors. My plan is to incorporate more strength training in the next couple of weeks to have an even better surgery outcome. And finally, pray and praise. I left this out in the initial version of this post, but the spiritual really does supercede everything else.  I posted a message on my Facebook page on Thursday indicating that I was floating on other’s prayers for me. 

My pcp said to stick with the “science” and avoid the other questionable stuff. For the most part, I plan to do that. I’ve already been to Barnes & Nobles and picked up a breast cancer “smoothie” recipe book. It was written by a nutritionist and there is some science in it. Update: the book indicates that it has researched based science to support the recipes. I’m not sure if this what my doctor had in mind, but I couldn’t help myself because I love green smoothies so much and consume at least one daily. I can’t wait to try the new smoothie recipes. In the coming weeks, I plan to research foods that help relieve symptoms and/or prevent cancer. More blog posts to come.