At My Table

I sat at a table with three strangers. Three women I’d never seen before; therefore, I’d never met before. Two women knew each other. They talked away to one another. One woman sat silently, reserved, and reluctant. I recognized her inner uneasiness. I felt a connection to her.

At some point in the conversation, mammograms rose to the top of our conversation. I don’t know why. But the shy, quiet woman spoke up. She gave great advice to the two younger women across from us. She actually made a mammogram sound a lot kinder than most women would describe. She over-encouraged these two women to have theirs done even though they were young. One of the women mentions her mom died of cancer when she was 35. This was the bonding moment of four strangers.

Both young women’s mothers had been diagnosed with breast cancer at a young age. The quiet woman beside me had just finished treatment for breast cancer and she fretted about her shorter grey and wavy hair. I actually thought it looked nice and was meant to be styled like it was but I understood her uneasiness about it especially after she said, “My hair used to be long like yours. I don’t know if it will ever be long like that again.” I smiled and simply said, “This hair is only 4 years old. Mine all fell out during treatment too.” Instant connection. Every woman at the table walked in as strangers – walked away connected by a disease we would all rather not have ever known. Yet, here we were reminding one another of our responsibilities to take time to care for our bodies and to remind each other of our many blessings and that good things can come from horrible situations.

Four strangers walked in and sat at a table. We knew nothing of one another. We walked away connected in multiple ways. God works like that!

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Joy in Healing

Chemo is the treatment many breast cancer patients go through in the hopes of entering NED (no evidence of disease). Many of us also take a pill for five to ten years after our initial treatment. This pill blocks the hormones that many of our tumors were using as food to flourish and thrive off of. Whenever you strip away and block hormones, it wrecks havoc on your body. I’m thankful I have no signs of cancer in my body. Trust me, I am! But the side effects of treatment create their own challenges along the way. One of mine is bone loss.

Every six months, I have to wade through my anxiety and enter the infusion lab. I nearly have a panic attack every time. I have to tell myself a million times that I’m not going through chemo today. Each time, I am able to convince my brain a little more that I’m telling it the truth.

This shot goes in on the right side of my stomach the first of the year and the left side the last part of the year. It’s a very cold shot, so I always have to sit and wait for it to warm up. While I sit there, I look out into the infusion lab. Some days it’s full of people stuck to IV poles and other days there are only a few, but there is always someone in there. I pray for the day they are empty. This last time a woman was nearing the end of her treatment. Her hair had grown back enough that she had stopped covering it up. I recognized the fine, salt and pepper look. She looked up at me and asked, “Are you here for chemo?” This began a conversation of hope for her. She looked at my long hair after I told her I had my last chemo treatment in the summer of 2015 and smiled, “I hope mine grows out too.” “It will,” I assured her.

The nurse politely interrupted our brief conversation and sat down to slowly push the fluid of the shot into my gut. It stings but it doesn’t really hurt that bad. She puts a bandaid on it and sends me on my way. I’m quick to exit this room. I’m thankful I don’t have to sit and wait for hours for the infusion to drip into my veins. I’m grateful this part of my journey has ended and I pray I never have to walk that path again.

By the time I’m back to my car, my stomach is cramping and my lower back begins to tell me it’s a bit uncomfortable. At home, I help my husband make dinner. There’s this ache that keeps reminding me something was injected into me my body doesn’t necessarily like so much. Within the next hour, I ask Jon, “Do my bones always hurt this much after this shot?” He smiles as he assures me I say this every time. I suppose it’s a small price to pay for being alive.

I stayed up late and it paid off. I was able to sleep without much difficulty. This morning my lower back cries out in pain as I move around and sit. By tomorrow, it won’t be so bad. By Friday, I probably won’t even notice anymore. My bones will thank me for added strength, so the next time I fall down (which is guaranteed to happen because I haven’t stopped living) hopefully, I won’t break anything.

I’m reminded nearly every day of some joyful moment that reminds me why God had me live another day. Finding the joy in all things isn’t always easy, but I’ve learned it is always there. I’m living life with my eyes wide open in search of things to be grateful for – even if it’s a day of thanksgiving for getting out of bed and walking to and fro or for long hair to untangle or for the sun shining on my face. Each day has a blessing waiting on me.

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If You Knew Five Years Before . . .

At MIT, they are using artificial intelligence to predict breast cancer five years before it is currently being diagnosed according to a story here. I’ve really stopped to think about this story a lot over the past couple of days since reading it the first time.

What would have changed for me?

Five years before I was diagnosed, I wouldn’t have been asked to get a mammogram. I would have been 34ish years old – too young to worry about breast cancer according to most. (That’s a lie by the way. Always check your breasts regardless of your age) I doubt anything would have prompted my doctors to look into this AI test either because prior to having cancer I didn’t know I carried the BRAC2 mutation nor did I fully know my family’s history with breast cancer.

But . . . let’s pretend that I was screened with this new technology back then and a doctor told me, “You might get breast cancer in the next 3-10 years.” What would I do?

What would my options have been? Have a preventive mastectomy? Yeah, I might have done that. I had already decided my family was complete, so I might have agreed to this invasive surgery having no idea what I was really getting myself into.

Would they have asked me to go on chemo? Probably in some form or fashion. I think they would ask me to do that or radiation. I would have said “No”, and I seriously don’t think anyone would have tried to talk me into it if cancer was only a “probably” and not a “you have cancer”.

Would I have lived my life differently? I’d like to say I would have, but the truth is sometimes it takes going to a really dark place or through a really tough time to really change you, so I’m not sure how much would have actually changed to be honest.

Would I have shared my story on a probability diagnosis? No, I don’t think I would have. I would have probably let it live inside of me and allowed it to become the actual cancer that would have eventually eaten me alive with stress and anxiety. The fear of what might be is often way worse than the fear of what is. It’s crazy but so true.

Do I want advancements made in medicine? Yes! Do I want others to be proactive in their self-care? Yes! If this new technology would have been used on me at that point in my life knowing what I knew back then instead of what I know now, would I have made different choices? I honestly don’t know.

But knowing what I know now if I could have rewound my life to five years before diagnosis, would I have done things differently? I’d say – Yes! I already knew something wasn’t right. So having better technology that could have possibly pinpointed what was wrong earlier would have been nice. Instead, doctors took me down a much different road which might have masked some symptoms of breast cancer and actually delayed my diagnosis. If I could have been given a chance to save my breasts, I would have done it in a heartbeat! If I would have been given a chance to balance my hormones instead of them feeding a tumor, I would have done whatever anyone told me to do to make that happen to save me from cancer and early menopause. Would I have probably still gotten cancer? Maybe. But maybe not.

What if’s are a slippery slope. Unfortunately, I can’t go back in time. I can only change what I’m in control of changing in my now. Yesterday is over. I’m thankful for today. And I’m glad I get a few more tomorrows. But with new technology comes hope for the next generation of women who might, or hopefully might not, get breast cancer. All of us who’ve walked this road, we all hold on to hope that breast cancer becomes a curable disease and not just a treatable one. So keep searching for the cure – I have to believe there’s one out there.

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The Downside of Reconstruction

After my double mastectomy, I couldn’t wait to have boobs again. I can’t even explain what it was like when the bandages came off and I stared at the aftermath of surgery. I remember staring at the reflection in the mirror and the tears streaming down my face. I had to remind myself that this was temporary. That it would all be worth it in the end. And in a few years, it would all just be a faded bad memory.

Well, there are the resemblance of boobs on that flabby, flat chest. The scars have faded but are still visible but no longer bother me. But the pain has a way of sneaking up on me from time to time as I’ve learned the pectoral muscles were never meant to take the place of breast tissues. If I catch myself during a fall, if I scrub the shower walls too hard, if I reach above my head too many times, if I spend too many hours at a keyboard, or if I workout a little harder than I should have, I can cause havoc on my chest. My pectoral muscles will spasm and start to burn – like feel like they are on fire, which is very uncomfortable coming from an area of my body that has been left with little to no feeling after multiple surgeries. So after a few sleepless nights, I called my chiropractor, Dr. Hawkins, at Body Works Chiropractic to work her magic on me.

After an adjustment, cupping and dry needle work, and some stretching, I might be able to sleep a little tonight. Who knew how painful the appearance of boobs would be. Some days, I wonder if they are worth it. I’ve thought about having them removed from time to time. Today was one of those times.

Some pieces of this journey are hard to share, hard to be open and honest about, and have taken a long time for me to say, “This really sucks! Is it really worth this?” And some days, like today, I honestly regret having implants. Tomorrow or a few days from now when I put on a certain top or dress, I’ll be glad they are there, but today, I’m not a fan.

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May 2019: Abundant Blessings

What IF at the end of every day each of us stopped for a brief moment and did this? On the way home from a stressful day at work, I’ll turn off the radio and won’t call anyone, and I’ll run through every single great thing that happened during the day. I’m thankful there are many. There are always more positive things than negative ones, yet it’s easier (for some really odd reason) to focus on the negative. And it’s exhausting! So I try to end each day by counting my many blessings one by one to remind me of just how many great things I have going on in my life.

Remission is a blessing in and of itself. When you’re first told you have cancer, hearing “no signs of disease” becomes the goal. A cure would be even better! Living a lifetime without every being told you have cancer again is the hope I hold on to each time I return for a checkup too.

My hair is a blessing. I loved my hair before I lost it. It didn’t come back in just like the hair I lost. It’s a weird texture, a whole lot straighter, a bit darker, and there sure are a lot of grey and silver strands mixed in now. I couldn’t wait for it to grow out of the awkward stages. I even tried to dye it at first. And then I stopped. Why fight it? Why not let it grow all naturally? How long would it take to get it long enough to curl again and be satisfied with the style? It took over four years. It was worth the wait. I’m thankful it’s long and can hold a curl again, but I’d also be totally okay with shaving it all off and starting all over again. It’s just hair. It’s not who I am! It’s not who I was! And it doesn’t define me now. It’s just hair. It’s okay to pull it up, to pin it back, to wrap it up in a bun, to let it blow in my face (even though I don’t like it to), and to even let it be messy because it’s there and it’s mine and in the end – it doesn’t even matter as much as I used to think it does.

Peace is a blessing. I used to worry way too much about everything. Things that wouldn’t matter in an hour much less in a month or a year or even longer than that. I’d love to tell you I’m cured of worrying but that would be dishonest. I still worry about things I probably shouldn’t. I just don’t worry about every single little thing I have absolutely no control over.

Cancer taught me a very important lesson and it has so much to do with God and control. He taught me to let go of a lot of things and have faith in Him. To trust Him. And to be still before Him. It’s not easy. I still fail. But I’m so much better.

Being okay with being imperfect is a blessing. Perfection is an unattainable and unreachable goal, and I’m finally totally okay with that. It’s taken me a very long time to be okay with being “less than”, but I finally realize that my imperfections are like scars – they come with some pretty amazing stories. They have made me stronger and more real than I’ve ever been. Think about it: A fairy tale is just a made up story. A messed up fairy tale is real life.

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April 2019: It’s Time To Write Again

Somewhere along the way between healing from the aftermath of cancer and learning to live again, I stopped writing. Or maybe I just stopped completing pieces of writing. I used to write and publish. Then I started writing to delete. Lately, I haven’t even completed a blog before I wiped it away with select all delete. Why? Perhaps because with remission comes this sense of completion. Why would someone want to read about cancer from the perspective of a person who doesn’t have it anymore? Why would someone want to read about the fallout that came with the aftermath of treatment? How could I possibly share the struggles I’d rather keep hidden behind grown out hair and a sense of normalcy? Or the blessings I’ve experienced when someone else reading might be in the fight of their life? What if, it’s exactly part of the story that needs to be told? And so today, I decided I’d try to start again. Write to share and not delete . . . here’s to rebooting.

Living in the aftermath of cancer is a blessing and at times very difficult. It makes me feel guilty to even write that. How can it be “difficult” when I’ve lost friends to breast cancer and I have friends fighting Stage IV breast cancer right now as I write this? What about the ones fighting for the first time? Surely it’s less difficult than that? And yet there are times when surviving cancer has been just as tough. It’s a constant reminder that everyone is fighting a battle.

Remission has filled me with many “stop and smell the roses” moments. I constantly ask myself if things that initially upset me will really matter in five years. If not, I try to let those things go before I allow them as an excuse to lash out and hurt others or even to eat at myself. It’s a much freer way of living life. I regret not living my entire life this way to be honest.

“Sorta been there, sorta did that” has allowed me to reach out to other women and serve them in some form or fashion. Women fight cancer in many different ways and no one person’s experience is exactly like someone else’s, yet it’s a kind of glue that has a way of bonding strangers together like super glue. Yet, it amazes me how many women still feel ashamed of or embarrassed by their diagnosis just because it has the word “breast” in front of it. This is exactly the reason why some women don’t talk about it, put off going to the doctor, and end up fighting breast cancer at later stages. I’m thankful for women before me who were brave enough to speak out and pave the path for women like me to come out of the shadows without our heads hung in shame. It saddens me that not all women feel this way though.

The fight doesn’t end at remission. The battle plan just changes.

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October 2018: Pink Matters

It’s the month of the year where pink floods the stores. Millions of products turn pink or have pink ribbons on them. I’m sure for many it is annoying. But behind all the pink is a message. For 31 days women are reminded to pay attention to their bodies and to make those dreaded doctors appointments. And it also carries the message that pink tissue is healthy tissue. It’s what we all should be hoping for, yet some of us don’t get that. Behind a lot of that pink that’s for sale are some great organizations, many of them backed by survivors themselves, that are trying to reduce the number of breast cancer patients, help them recover, or research better ways to care for them. I want to encourage you to go pink with us this year. Research a breast cancer organization, and throw some cash their way. Many of us truly are helping others.

If you’d like to give to my nonprofit, please go to Courage to Conquer Cancer. We help many women each year.

Courage to Conquer Cancer

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