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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.

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This is what breast cancer looks like

I’m actually starting to feel normal again…my brand of normal.   I listened to my doctors and rested for the most part.  Over the last few weeks, I gradually started doing housework, cooking, getting organized, primping myself with mani/pedi’s, and have completed a week at the office.  I’ve been exercising for a week via DVD’s from my vast exercise DVD collection.  The desire to do more things has been a sign that I’m getting better…stronger. It’s been 4 weeks post breast reconstruction and I am healing beautifully.  I have to admit that I am beyond pleased with the results…stitches and all.  My breast cancer is Stage 1 and I’ve gotten test results indicating that chemotherapy would not impact my survival rate very much.  Therefore, I will not take part in that treatment.  I’ve since met with the radiology oncologist and had a CT scan last Monday.  It’s just a matter of days before I get a call to discuss my treatment plan which will determine how many radiation sessions I will receive.  After radiation, there’s a minimum 5 years of hormone therapy since my cancer is responsive to estrogen and progesterone.  I’m anticipating living at least 30-40 years once all of my treatment is over. To think that three months ago, I wasn’t even thinking about my life expectancy. I couldn’t be at a better place considering the circumstances.

I intended to write a sarcastic comment about how all of this has been a breeze, but who am I kidding?  I don’t want to bring anyone, or myself, down for that matter, but I want to tell the truth.  My strategy has been to do what I have to do to get better. Period. It hasn’t been a traumatic experience, but it certainly hasn’t been easy.  After the first surgery, I thought “this wasn’t so bad”.  A few days later, I began dreading the second surgery (scheduled a week later), and rightly so, because that was the more intensive one of the two. Post op, I felt like Frankenstein because of the drainage tubes sticking out of my body for a full week. My husband emptied the tubes for me every day, twice a day, helped me take a shower, gauzed up my breasts daily, opened my pill bottles, uncapped the pen  (amazing what strength you lose after surgery) so I could log the fluid amount, brought me food, etc…all because I could not.  The anxiety of waiting on test results, especially those that take 2 weeks to get back, can be overwhelming. There were forced adjustments such as sleeping on my back, dealing with the pain and discomfort, not being able to shower for a period, logging the fluid from the drains, having to expose my breasts at every appointment (still doing this), and not being able to exercise (my preferred form of therapy). This is the reality.

The reality is also that I received a flood of support from my family, friends, coworkers, and acquaintances.  I never thought I’d say this, but I’m on a few prayer lists. People who I don’t know personally, yet know me through my family (i.e., my mom) have sent kind words.  In an age where texts can be impersonal, I’ve appreciated them all because it means that someone has been thinking about me.  I received a lot of texts.  Even a text requires some level of effort, and honestly, at times, I didn’t want to speak to anyone anyway because talking made me tired. The calls and visits to my home with food have been a blessing. One dear friend from Chicago surprised me with a visit.  Another dear friend sent me some coping tools.

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Fxxx Cancer

I’m thankful that my children have witnessed people being kind and personal in a world where it doesn’t seem like such people exists. My doctors and medical team have been wonderful as they’ve eased my mind so many times.  I appreciate their expertise and care.  When I worked as a mental health rehabilitation specialist, I thought about how my client’s lives were in my hands (figuratively speaking) and I didn’t take that lightly.  I do believe that my medical team has the utmost respect for my life and are vested in improving it so that I can have the best prognosis.

I’ve been told that I look great, whole, and healed.  I’ve been told that I don’t even look like what I’ve been through.  Sometimes, I can’t believe that I have cancer. I’m usually focused on plugging through my day, yet every now and again, the thought hits me that I have this disease, or I think about my children’s risk, and tears stroll down my face.  For the most part, I feel great physically, mentally, and spiritually, albeit a little tired since going back to work.  I don’t want to let how I look get to my head.  I think the way to get through something as life changing as this is to: 1) take things day by day; 2) be open to receive the love that people (even 1 person) are so eager to share; and 3) to listen to your body.

I’ve had people remind me to take things one day at a time and I needed to hear it.  Overachievers like me have issues that can impair progress. Also, if it were not for me being vulnerable enough to share my diagnosis, I would not have had so many people expressing their concern, love and support.  As I’ve indicated before, 10-15 years ago, my pride would have prevented me from being so open, but I’ve grown since then.  One of my coworkers wrote in a card to me to let the love that others have for me carry me through this journey.  That resonated with me so much and I followed her advise.  I do understand that some people are private, but I still recommend entrusting a select few with what you’re going through.  God puts people in your path for a reason. And listening to your body is so key. I have overdone it at times.  For example, yesterday I did 2 tracks on my exercise DVD instead of one.  At the time, I felt energized and thought that I could do more. I should have known better since I didn’t sleep well the night before, but as I indicated, overachievers like me have issues.  As the day went on, I started to feel it in my hips, and therefore, we decided not to go to the Austin Trail of Lights because I didn’t think I could do the walking required.

Something so fascinating about sharing that I have breast cancer is that I’ve discovered that there are so many people who have cancer.  When you share, you give others permission to share.  I think the prevalence of cancer is an epidemic.  I don’t know…that’s for another post, but what I do know is that people…people you may know are going through all kinds of challenges.  It’s not easy to judge a book by its cover.  My face is of a person who has breast cancer and although it has made a significant presence in my life at this moment in time, it’s doesn’t define me.  It hasn’t taken away my joy.  It’s not who I am.  However, it has certainly taught me some things that will ultimately make me a better, kinder, more loving and thoughtful person.