Image

What breast cancer has taught me…

Breast cancer awareness month is nearing its end. I often spend September and October reflecting on my life after my breast cancer diagnosis, mostly because I was diagnosed right at the onset of breast cancer awareness month.

About 10-12 years ago, when my mom was attending to her breast cancer treatment, I had no knowledge of the disease. She told me she was struggling with how to proceed in her course of treatment considering how much her breasts meant to her. My mom had a mastectomy and breast reconstruction with an implant. I didn’t think she needed to get a breast implant. Admittedly at the time, I thought it was odd my mom was talking about her relationship with her breasts, considering she was in her late 60’s. I thought she wouldn’t care so much since she was in a different phase of life. Looking back, I was insensitive.

She wasn’t sure what to do and I wondered if she was repeating what medical staff might have told her to consider in her decision making. It’s possible I wasn’t accepting her position because I had never heard my mom discuss how she felt about her own body. The procedures took a toll on her. There was a complication with the breast implant, so she had a repeat surgery. She got through it. My mom is my finest example of a strong Haitian Queen.

Three years ago, I was faced with contemplating what my breasts, and LIFE, meant to me. Upon initial cancer diagnosis, doctors arm you with so much information. In a week’s time, I had met with my primary care physician, two different surgeons (one who would remove the tumor and one who would perform the breast reconstruction), and the oncologist. It was overwhelming. I presume they do this to ensure you know all of the options because of the unknowns about the cancer until the initial surgery to remove the tumor is performed.

There are different regimens of breast cancer treatment – surgery to remove the tumor, plastic surgery for breast reconstruction, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and oral medications.  These activities don’t necessarily occur in this order and one may not need every type of treatment. Characteristics of the tumor, and whether or not the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, determine the course of treatment. The initial surgery to remove the tumor is the main treatment. Tumor pathology results further dictate the course of treatment.

Ultimately, I had a lumpectomy, followed a week later by breast reconstruction of both my natural breasts, then radiation therapy daily for 3 weeks, and finally (I pray), due to my age, I take oral medications for another 2-7 years.

I have a long complicated history with my breasts, but not as long as women who are diagnosed around the average age of 55 years old. I’m an anomaly, along with other women diagnosed at younger ages – twenties, thirties, and forties. We may no longer be anomalies in coming years given younger women are diagnosed every day. Much of that has to do with the increase in breast cancer screenings and earlier detection thanks to breast cancer awareness campaigns.

I developed breasts early. I was around 11 years old. I remember my mom’s friends at times whispering to her while pointing at my breasts. It felt awkward. I was getting the messaging I was developing early.  This caused me to be self-conscious. By the time, I got to high school, I really noticed how the boys reacted to my breasts. They gawked at them, which made me even more self-conscious. I recall my first day as a freshman, waiting on classes to start in the gym. A boy said “hi” to me. We chatted for a bit, then he whispered to his friend (not really a whisper), “Nice cherries!” They both nodded and snickered.

It never occurred to me that I should love or be proud of my breasts. I was conflicted about them for sure. I knew boys and men loved them. They would just stare. I knew this type of attention is what girls are taught is not good attention. Plus, it also made me uncomfortable with my sexuality and how to process the attention I was getting.  Growing up in a religious environment didn’t really address body image issues and sexuality. Sex occurred after marriage and that was it.

Fast forward, I got married and had my two children, both of whom, I breastfed. I loved I was able to breastfeed my babies. I was doing what was best for them. However, breastfeeding two babies left me with sagging breasts. It wasn’t long before I started wishing for the beautiful size C cups of my youth. I was left with some large, lanky size double D’s. I had to double up on sports bars for my workouts. I would complain to my husband, Bryan, I needed a breast reduction. We would joke about it…”one day, when we got a lump of money…”.

Three years ago, I was in my plastic surgeon’s office listening as he explained plastic surgery options. By this time, I had shown my breasts to every doctor/nurse I had seen in a week’s time and this continued for a year. The awkwardness of showing strangers, especially male doctors my breasts can’t be fully explained. I already had a love/hate relationship with my breasts.

If I chose to get a double mastectomy with breast reconstruction, fat could be removed from my stomach to rebuild my breasts. The surgery is 8 hours with a minimum of 1 week in the hospital and 1 month recovery post surgery. I could opt to get breast implants too like my mom. I would need to make a plan for nipples because I would lose them through surgery. But there was a resolution for that too….tattooed nipples. I’m as squeamish as they come, yet he was showing me before and after pictures. I could hardly stand it. My preference with my body is to always pick the least invasive approach.

I didn’t want to go through any surgeries. I wanted to be alive for my children. However, the path to wellness was surgery. Also, I was finally going to get a breast reduction and my size C cups back, but this was the farthest from my mind. I couldn’t imagine how I would get through all that was ahead of me, but I did by taking things in small bites – day by day.

When I told my mom I had breast cancer, she wailed, pleaded, and even told me on repeated occasions, she couldn’t accept it. Her reaction was as if she blamed herself. The fact is, I may have quite possibly gotten it through her genes, considering my grandmother, my mother’s mother, also had breast cancer. Genetic testing results came back negative. Genes are a trip. I’m thankful my siblings didn’t get it. It’s the luck of the draw. My children do have a real risk of getting breast cancer.

By the time, I told my mom, I knew I had a positive prognosis and had full faith I would be healed. I think I surprised her with my calm demeanor and positive attitude. I knew I had to get through my treatments to get to the other side. I was determined to do just that. I showed her how brave I was.

There is no question a cancer diagnosis brings you face to face with your own mortality and makes you consider what’s really important in life. You often will hear people who have had a sudden onset of a serious health condition say things like they know what’s important in life now, they don’t sweat the small stuff, they are more grateful, etc.

I agree with all of those things, but I still have a hard time with overachieving and overall doing too much and feeling guilty when I do try to do less. I’m working on it though. It’s takes awareness and deliberate action daily.

Ultimately, breast cancer has taught I can brave any storm and my one body is beautifully flawed. How people process their diagnosis varies and should be respected. Breast cancer has also reminded me of the need to:

  • Fuel my body daily with nutritious food and liquids
  • Reduce stress
  • Move daily
  • Think kind thoughts about myself
  • Have self-compassion
  • Slow down
  • Do things I love
  • Ask for what I need
  • Say what I mean to say

What have life challenges taught you about yourself?

 

 

 

Image

It’s that time again

It’s that time of year again. I have a 3-D mammogram appointment in the morning, just in time for breast cancer awareness month in October. I’m a little terrified; therefore, I’m utilizing the coping skill that has never failed me…writing. I’m also taking you with me for the ride. This post will serve a couple of purposes: 1) to give myself a pep talk and 2) to give you some light lessons on how to cope with life’s beautiful messes.

D-Day

Three years ago on 9/28/16, I was diagnosed with invasive ductal carcinoma (breast cancer) and my life changed forever. Some beautiful and strange things happened in 2016. We had to forego a trip to Jacksonville, FL for my cousin’s wedding in May because my husband came down with an illness we had never heard of (hydrocephalus) that resulted in brain surgery.

In July, I spent my 25-year high school reunion in Ocho Rios, Jamaica with 60 of my classmates, but more EPICly, with two of my dearest friends. Then, my friend and I’s departure flight was canceled so we had to stay in Jamaica an extra night. That SNAFU ended up being the best part of the trip because the airlines arranged for us to stay at a 5-star luxury hotel and we spent quality time together.

My mom visited me in September for two weeks and she didn’t seem to be doing well in that she was very agitated. Later in the month, (the day she flew back to Chicago, IL), I was diagnosed (D-Day) with breast cancer. The treatments in the form of two surgeries that occurred a week apart were in November and included a lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy and breast reconstruction. My mom (my biggest supporter) came back to Austin, TX, a month after she left, for my surgeries. By December, I had started radiation therapy. What a year!

The Mess

You’d think that was the worst part, but it was not. I was prescribed an intense radiation regimen for a truncated time frame because the math said my body could withstand it. I attribute it to how healthy my body was prior to diagnosis. I was very healthy…oh, with the exception of the breast cancer and my compromised immune system (see below). My breast cancer was Stage 1 because it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes and the tumor was small…about an inch, but almost two inches by the time I had surgery (rapid growth per my oncologist). I took my radiation treatment daily, over 3 weeks, like a CHAMP. Radiation treatment is like a slow cooking process. The worst part of the treatment are the days following the last treatment because the radiation has built up over time. The burning was deep and painful.

I slowly got better. My kids seemed to be okay. They didn’t seem too affected. My husband was still recovering from his brain surgery, but seemed to be getting better. However, he got laid off work. My dear friend took me on a rejuvenating spa weekend retreat, which you can read about here. A few months later, I received a promotion. Two months later, my mom passed away. By the fall, I could really see my husband’s health was declining. I tried to work with his doctors, but they weren’t listening to me. The day after Christmas, I took him to the ER and he subsequently spent 17 days in the hospital. Shortly after, he underwent 4 months of cognitive, physical and speech therapy. He couldn’t do much, not even drive.

The Come Back

Despite my husband’s brain condition, he is a fighter. Who am I kidding? I’m a fighter too. In the midst of taking care of everyone, I maintained my appointments with two oncologists, two surgeons, my primary care physician, my endocrinologist, my gynecologist, and my urologist. I did have to let my neurologist go. He treated me for optic neuritis, which is an autoimmune disorder that happens to be a precursor to multiple schlerosis. I had been seeing him, but he never diagnosed me with multiple schlerosis. He had me on a regimen of a high dose of Vitamin D. I had more pressing health issues anyway…cancer. I also maintained all my husband’s appointments with his therapy team and doctors (neurologist, neurosurgeon, and primary care physician). Not to mention our kids appointments with doctors and school.

My husband has been slowly getting better, but his symptoms fluctuate. He was eventually released to drive again. He’s taken more control of his health by exercising every day and eating better. I’m not the only health guru in the house anymore, which I like. My number one priority is to keep my health in top shape because I have people depending on me. I can’t afford to get sick and I rarely do. I now even get flu shots (please don’t send me articles).

Although I still see my oncologist every 6 months, my primary care physician annually, my gynecologist annually, and my endocrinologist (just saw her today) annually, I no longer see the radiation oncologist (no longer required) , surgeons (no longer required), or urologist (she was a luxury in the list of priorities). As you can imagine since our diagnoses, we have incurred massive medical bills, so I’m only seeing doctors who are absolutely necessary.

Again, our kids have been TROOPERS! My son did have some difficulty his senior year, but he graduated high school. We’ve all been through so much and we have each other. Just by writing this post, I can appreciate our progress because things are getting better.

So how do I manage my beautifully messy life. Here are a few pointers that I think you will find useful:

  • Rein in
  • Lean on your support
  • Don’t be so hard on yourself
  • Ask for what you need
  • Eat and sleep well
  • Move every day
  • Do things that bring you joy
  • Do nothing
  • Pray

These are my go to strategies that immediately come to mind. You may have more or others.

Something about cancer is that once it’s in your life, it never really goes away despite the treatments. There’s always the underlying fear of re-occurrence, no matter how positive of an outlook you have on life. Once you’ve had cancer, you become more susceptible to other cancers and illnesses. I take an oral medication to prevent the re-occurrence, but there are risks.

Going through the mammogram exam takes me right back to the day I learned of my diagnosis. It was traumatic hearing the words from my doctor. I had a scare in 2017 where they found some scar tissue on a mammogram they weren’t sure about, so I had to get not one, but TWO biopsies! I was mortified, but got through it.

My faith tells me I will be fine. For reassurance, I’m leaning on my support and have asked my husband to accompany me so I won’t be alone. I’ve also mentioned to at least two other people that I’m nervous about it. I’m also sharing my story with you.

Light Lessons

The light lesson here is life is a beautiful mess. Joy is interwoven with pain. Life is also short. It’s too short to spend time worrying about things that don’t matter. It’s too short to not enjoy the little things. It’s too short to not fulfill your dreams. It’s too short to wish you had somebody else’s life. It’s too short to spend trying to be perfect because there is no such thing. It’s too short to not take charge of your health and demand the best care for yourself and your loved ones. It’s too short to not love on yourself and the people you love ALL day, EVERY day.

What tools do you use to manage life’s beautiful messes? I’d love to hear from you.

If you haven’t already, feel free to follow my site to learn more about how I navigate life’s beautiful messes.

Image

Product junkie

Over the years, I’ve been making a conscious effort to buy products free of harmful chemicals. This was prior to my breast cancer diagnosis in 2016. Since then, I’ve amped up my efforts to live a healthy lifestyle by way of foods I consume and products I use to take care of my body.

On my social media page, I post a lot of my healthy food choices. There’s a push for buying all organic, but that can get expensive. I would love to get to a point where I can buy organic meat, but it’s not cost effective for my family. I find myself considering when I’m at a place like Costco. However, I end up going conventional when looking at my budget. What I do buy organic is produce noted as the dirty dozen. I need to add to my routine to go to a farmer’s market on the weekends. I’ve heard this is another cost-effective option for buying organic.

Dijon dressing ingredients. LPC

I’ve gotten more vigilant about ensuring my physical environment is free from harsh chemicals. In my quest to be healthy, as much as I work to control the things I can, I don’t believe any of us can control everything. Just in our home, it can be overwhelming in considering all the possible places of chemical exposure: carpet, paint, insulation, toilets, new clothing, etc. However, one small thing I’ve done is make a commitment to refrain from purchasing any more scented oil warmers and refills.

Scented Oil Warmers. LPC

I’ve read how harmful scented oil warmers can be for the environment because of inhaling harmful chemicals. I’ve collected so many oil warmers over the years and don’t want to waste them. I found a hack on Pinterest where I replaced the liquid with essential oils, but it hasn’t worked for me. The oils and liquid won’t diffuse, so I may end up trashing all my oil warmers anyway. Bummer!

When I shop for soaps, facial products, and hair, I purchase products free of parabens, sulphates, mineral oils, and other harmful chemicals. I look for products that have essential oils, shea butter, and other healthy ingredients. As part of my self-care routine, I love to give myself facials, so I’m always on the lookout for affordable masks and scrubs. I’m the type of shopper who loves to take my time reading ingredients and touching the product. I do online shopping on occasion, but I prefer to go to my favorite specialty stores to buy what I need.

We’re all going to die at some point, but I don’t see anything wrong with living a good quality of life. In the quest for health, I think we all just need to keep things in perspective, control what we can and let go of what we can’t, and make healthier choices that make sense for our budgets. As my husband says, you’ll either pay for it now or pay for it later in poor health and medical bills. Again, I want a good quality of life, so we’ll do what we can to pay for it now.

Image

Never too busy to go to the doctor

I’m back. Listen, this lady (ummm…me) has been busy! What else is new? You know that about me already. Despite my busy life, I really strive to be as grounded as I can by doing the things that bring me joy, make me relax, calm my nerves, and bring me peace. As an introvert, I need to recharge often. Yesterday, I got in the bed as soon as I got home and stayed there for the rest of the night. My husband was kind and warmed up my dinner (I’m on a 21 day vegan cleanse). I ate, scrolled through my email and social media, drank tea, and pretty much stayed in the bed until it was time for “bed”.

For the past month, I’ve had a couple of health issues that have been begging for my attention. The first had to do with my teeth. I’ve decided to schedule the appointment to get my 4 wisdom teeth removed. I had another flare up that I couldn’t ignore. As I was discussing my pain with my team members one day, one of my employees kind of jokingly said something to the affect of “You, of all people, should be attending to this as part of self-care”. The blogger who writes about self-care has been putting off dental work for a year. Touchet…touchet, mon frere!

The thing is I’ve always hated going to the dentist. I’ve never really needed anything major done to my teeth. It’s a miracle that I’ve kept up with teeth cleanings all these years. Last year, I started getting some specialized cleanings as a result of some wear and tear from low levels of calcium.. probably as a result of getting older (as “they” like to remind me). I had been able to get away with keeping my wisdom teeth because they rarely bothered me, but one got inflamed last year and I was told then, to get it removed. I did not.

Next week, I have an appointment to get all four wisdom teeth removed. I’m not excited about it, but I’m proud of myself for finally making it a priority. I’ve had another health issue creep up that resulted in me calling my gynecologist yesterday and leaving work a little earlier. I’ll spare the details, but let’s just say my menstrual cycle has gone “rogue”. I have to be careful because as part of my breast cancer treatment, I’m on cancer medication that may increase my risks for other cancers. It could be the medication. It could be perimenopause. It could be my uterine fibroids. It could be stress. Whatever the case, I’m not taking any chances. I have an appointment to see my gynecologist and to do some testing next Tuesday.

I admit I don’t necessarily like that my work takes up a huge space in my life, although my job is rewarding. I mostly work long days. I don’t have as much time to do simple things like check my personal emails and voice mail like I used to. I don’t talk to my family/friends as often as I want. I usually have to spend my whole Saturday recovering from the work week. However, I have limits, especially when it comes to my health.

I will continue to take care of myself by eating well, exercising daily, praying, and socializing with the people that mean the most to me. I’m on the vegan cleanse for the health benefits and I enjoy participating on the Facebook group. My health is very important to me and my family, so I’m not going to ignore it. I’m never too busy to go to the doctor when I need to.

Image

Awareness

For the past couple of years, I’ve become inundated with a flood of emotions this time of year for two main reasons: 1) I was diagnosed with breast cancer two days before Breast Cancer Awareness month and 2) my mom’s last visit to Austin was in late October 2016 when she came to support me through my two breast cancer surgeries.

October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, so there’s so much attention on breast cancer on my social media and elsewhere. I like reading the informative articles and the personal experiences of those affected. I’ve also been sharing information about my personal experience and have made small donations to the grocery stores and other places collecting funds for the cause. I like to say I’m a “thriver” rather than “survivor”, but I don’t fully subscribe to the language of how I move through this disease.

I find it interesting to read of people who have or will “beat” breast cancer. Have I beaten breast cancer? My oncologist told me I’m cancer free, yet I will still undergo hormone treatment (through oral medications) for up to 10 years. The reality is once you become intimately acquainted with the disease, you learn it can return. With every doctor’s appointment, blood test, and mammogram, there is a looming fear. This is a fight I didn’t sign up for, but I don’t feel sorry for myself or regret it. I’m simply doing what I do best: adjusting to life’s roller coaster, being strong, and making the best out of it.

I do need to be careful because I’m in a very vulnerable space. Upon receiving the confirmation that I had breast cancer, it was an extremely emotional experience, which I attribute to coming face to face with my mortality. I have children and a husband who need me. I have family and friends who love me. We all know we’re going to die, but when you know you have a disease which has killed many, it does something to you.

I am also vulnerable because my main source of support, my mummy, passed away 8 months after her last trip to Austin to come support me during my breast cancer surgeries. I can still hear her cries when I told her the news over the phone. Breast Cancer Awareness month reminds me my mummy was by side during the most difficult time in my life. I’ve been coping and have grieved her death, but there are moments where I simply miss her and feel sad she’s gone.

So here it is. Through blogging, I’ve uncovered this nagging, unsettling feeling that’s been plaguing me for the past couple of months. I thought I was just tired. Breast Cancer Awareness has triggered some emotions in me. What do I do now with this awareness? It starts with me being patient with myself and removing all judgments. I will extend myself some grace. I will rest. I will embrace myself with an imaginary hug.

Light lesson: Self-love is being kind to oneself in thoughts and actions. I hope you do the same for yourself.

Image

Cancer Strong

Although breast cancer awareness month is not until October, I’ve been thinking a lot about my journey lately. The incisions have healed and I can feel the scars from breast reconstruction surgery extending from under both my left and right breast bones. The breast reduction and lift does not hide the dent from the lumpectomy on my lower left breast. September marks two years since I was diagnosed with breast cancer. On September 28, 2016, my life changed forever upon learning my fate. You can read about my reaction to the news here.

I’ve been breast cancer free for about a year and nine months and have gone on with my life. Breast cancer is not at the forefront of my thoughts anymore. In reality, I’ve had no choice but to shift my focus because my family needs me considering my husband’s health issues. Back in the fall of 2016, I was totally consumed with researching everything about my disease. The follow up medical appointments that occur mostly every 6 months (medical oncology, radiation oncology, mammograms, primary care) and the medication I’ll take for another 3 to 10 years, remind me that it’s not entirely out of my life or that far behind me. However, it’s a part of my life and I’ve learned to live with it.

The thing about having a cancer diagnosis, at least for me, is it makes you keenly aware of how short life is, which can be a good and/or bad thing. I’d like to say because I’m keenly aware of how short life is that I don’t let things bother me, or say I don’t worry, but that’s not true. Things do bother me and I do worry…after all I have responsibilities. However, I work to put things in perspective daily and practice not being so hard on myself.

I’m physically, mentally, spiritually and emotionally strong and that’s what will get me through this journey.

Image

Health is wealth

In the last 2 weeks I had a health scare…two more tumors showed up on my mammogram and ultrasound, but the biopsies came back BENIGN. Praise God! The results confirmed my commitment to healthy eating. Now, I’ve completed my lunch prep. A big part of my weekend is spent preparing meals for my family and vegan/vegetarian meals for my work week. I’ve found a sweet spot of being mostly vegan/vegetarian during the week day, then eating meat in the evenings and weekends. I may deviate from time to time, but I don’t deviate from my daily green smoothies. 

I was tired today, as usual, but I went ahead and prepped my lunch bowls. I could easily not do this because it’s time consuming. However, I care about my health too much and enjoy eating healthy foods. I haven’t decided if I’m going to have a smoothie as an afternoon snack in addition to having one for breakfast, but I blended two pumpkin green smoothies. Yum!

Pumpkin green smoothie ingredients

Lunch prep: one down, three to go

Lunch bowls: quinoa, sweet potato, egg, sauteed peppers

This week I plan to work on this sweet tooth I developed after returning from Chicago after my mom’s funeral in July. I’ve been on a cookie habit…one or two every couple of days.  I’m trying not to be too hard on myself, but I went months without eating sweets aside from fruit. 

Roasted Garbanzo beans & spices

All in all, I make healthy food choices. Health is wealth and a large part of being healthy is eating well.  Thank God my latest tests were benign. My oncologist again told me I’m healthy and to keep doing what I’m doing. For a while I have been slacking off a little, but I haven’t veered off course.  The recent health scare reminded me of what’s important in life and reconfirmed my commitment to take care of myself.