3 Years Ago

3 years ago today, I heard, ” you have breast cancer.”  The words weren’t delivered by my primary physician, but by someone who was covering for her while she was on leave. While awaiting the results of the biopsy which was done a few days before, I started researching about breast cancer, but the actual words still stunned me.

My life has been turned upside down and sideways since then. I spent the next 17 months getting chemo and radiation, having surgeries, getting lots of blood tests and EKGs. I quit my job, took time off, and got another job. My hair is short and curly; I still have a relationship with diarrhea which just won’t end. But you know what? I’m lucky.

I’m lucky that I have tremendous support from my husband, family and friends. I’m lucky that I have good medical insurance which paid for so much of the cost of my treatment. I’m lucky that my mammograms have been clear the last two times, and that I have doctors with whom I have excellent relationships. I’m lucky to be feeling good overall.

The fact is, breast cancer is part of me now and always will be. The tumor which started me down this path may be out of my body, but I still think about it. Not every minute of the day, but I can’t escape the impact that 1.93 cm of tissue has had on my life. What do I think about now? Recurrence. The more time that elapses, the lower the probability that cancer will recur. During my last visit with my oncologist, Dr. P said that once I hit the 3 year mark from diagnosis that the percent change of recurrence for my type of breast cancer significantly decreases.  So today is a celebration of sorts, and I’m lucky to have this celebration.

 

One Year Down

It’s been 8 months since my last post, but that’s not because things haven’t been happening, both on the medical front and otherwise.

The biggest change these past months is that I am not working. I took the next couple of months off, and then headed to Australia in mid-November, where I was chairing a conference. My husband joined me and we spent almost 3 weeks vacationing Down Under. If going to Australia is on your bucket list, GO. A beautiful country with so much to see, with friendly people and great food. We can’t wait to go back.

As soon as we got back from Australia, I had my port removed – finally.  After having it in for almost 2 years, my body had started to integrate it and it was very difficult to remove. I was sore for a few weeks from all the cutting that needed to be done. Now I have a pretty nasty keloid scar, which occasionally itches and is just generally annoying. I’m thinking of getting my first first tattoo in and around it, just because. What to get….

Since the new year, aside from looking for work, I’ve been busy with volunteer work and trying deal with other ongoing issues from my cancer treatment. Yep, still have diarrhea and take 2 Imodium every night. Yep, still have neuropathy in my feet. Yep, have curly hair – and less of it, too. The muscle aches in my knees are better, and I wonder if it’s because my magnesium is more “normal.” Apparently drinking soda can be a cause for low magnesium, and since I haven’t been working, I’m drinking a lot less Diet Coke. I used to drink 1-3 Diet Cokes by noon, mostly due to stress. My ankle, for which I was getting PT in the fall, is good, and my shoulder is slowly getting full range of motion back. I can finally zip up a dress…with difficulty, but I can do it.

My last chemo treatment was May 6, 2016, and so much has changed since then. Well, really, so much has changed since my diagnosis in December 2014. I had my annual diagnostic mammogram in March (I can never have just a screening mammogram), and it was normal. I continue to see my oncologist every 3 months and my breast surgeon every 6 months. I’ve put on weight because for so long I didn’t care what I ate as long as I could keep it down.  That habit plus not working resulted in the extra pounds, which I need to lose. All in all, though, I’m fairly lucky:  I am feeling well, I have a great support system, I have medical insurance, and my prognosis is good. Life could be worse.

 

Same Old, Same Old…sort of

A lot has happened since my last post, starting with my last infusion of Herceptin on May 6, 2016.  Time to celebrate!

It’s great to hit that milestone, and the clock starts ticking now towards being “cancer free.”  I was aggrieved to learn that the counting doesn’t start until one is all done with everything – chemo, radiation, surgery…so for me that’s May 2016.  So I can’t say I’m cancer free until May 2021!  Oy.

Despite being done with Herceptin, I haven’t had my port removed yet because I continue to need magnesium.  Only once, in May, was my level 1.7; otherwise, my level remains stubbornly at 1.5.  So every 3-4 weeks, when I’d need a port flush anyway, I go in and get some magnesium, usually 2 grams. At my last visit with Dr. P, she wants me to keep my port for at least another 3 months. She wants to make sure my level doesn’t go down, and if it remains steady at 1.5, then I guess we’ll assume that’s my “normal” level. I’m still taking 800 mg a day orally, so it’s pretty amazing that the level hasn’t changed all that much.

A side effect of taking magnesium orally is diarrhea, my old nemesis. I continue to take 2 Imodium every night, and still have diarrhea at least 3-4 times a week.  I still have neuropathy in my feet, but I think it’s slowly getting better. The muscle aches have gotten better, although not gone completely.

I recently had my 6 month checkup with Dr. W, my plastic surgeon, and he says everything looks great. I’m certainly happy with the results of the reconstruction. He says the scars will fade over time. I asked him whether I’d have ptotic breasts again, and he said while it’s possible, he doesn’t think it’s likely. After all, there’s simply less tissue (I lost a breast and cup size in the reconstruction). I guess that’s finally something to be happy about from all this!

As if my body hasn’t been through enough, I had shoulder surgery in July. Pure genetics: I had the same surgery on my other shoulder 5 years ago. My AC joint needed more space, so the surgery is to shave off part of the clavicle to create more space in the joint compartment. I got my range of motion back almost immediately this time, so I’m going to physical therapy to strengthen the muscles.

An unintended consequence of physical therapy was that my ankle started acting up.  I broke both bones in this ankle in 25 years ago, and so I thought the pain might be related to that. The MRI showed no structural damage, though, so the orthopedist ordered physical therapy. Yep, I go to PT 3 days a week! After 5 sessions of PT for my ankle, though, I think that my muscles were really tight from disuse. After all, for 18 months I didn’t have the energy to do anything much. So ankle PT has been to stretch and strengthen leg and calf muscles, and the pain is definitely much less.

The real wake up call though, was last week. I had my 6 month checkup with Dr. C, my breast cancer surgeon…and she found a mass. She thought it might be scar tissue, but wanted to make sure that’s what it was.So I had an ultrasound, and the radiologist suggested a biopsy. I thought, “here we go again.” She also wanted a mammogram to compare with the one I had in March. She put a marker in place just in case.

Fortunately I didn’t have to wait too long for the results – the mass was scar tissue – or in clinical terms “fat necrosis.” I was so relieved to get the news, but this whole incident just reminded me that my journey isn’t over…not by a long shot. It was a stark reminder that no matter how well I feel, how much I might feel like “me,” my cancer diagnosis will never, ever go away.

Almost Done – May 4, 2016

I can hardly believe it…but I’m almost done with Herceptin treatments.  17 months of chemotherapy:  while the last few months have been a piece of cake compared to the early treatments I wouldn’t wish chemo on my worst enemy.  Chemo, quite frankly, sucks.  It changes one’s body in unimaginable ways.  And I didn’t even have the worst side effects – for example, I never had taste changes or mouth sores.  I still lost 15 pounds, but it wasn’t because I couldn’t eat.  I could eat, I just couldn’t keep anything down.

A few weeks ago I had an odd pain on the side of my right breast. Fortunately I had an appointment with Dr. P the next day and I told her about it. She did an exam, and ruled out lymphedema. She poked around my shoulder and thought I might be getting bursitis. She suggested that I see my PCP. The next day during my infusion the chemo nurses asked if I had any pain (they ask every time) and I told them about the discussion I’d had with Dr. P. They suggested that I try acupuncture. I said sure, and remarkably, it’s covered by insurance! Last Friday I had my first session. It’s a bit odd, I don’t mind saying. To look over and see needles sticking out of my shoulder, arm and hand…I don’t know if it was all in my mind, but it felt like my shoulder was cooling down. I have 5 more sessions scheduled; the pain in my breast has pretty much disappeared but I still have some pain in my shoulder, so I’m hoping the additional sessions will help.

Otherwise nothing much else has changed. I still have neuropathy in my feet (wrinkled socks!); I have diarrhea at least 3-4 times a week despite the fact that I take 2 Imodium every night. And I still have muscle aches and headaches. My magnesium level today was 1.7 – tantalizingly close to the 1.8 “normal” amount. I guess I’ll still get magnesium on Friday along with Herceptin, but what else is new?

 

Inching Closer to Last Treatment – April 9, 2016

I had my 3rd to last Herceptin treatment on Good Friday.  While the chemo treatment is usually 3-4 hours, I’ve been taking the entire day off and getting other things done.  This past time was breakfast with my former boss, a trip to the Post Office, a contact lens fitting, a diagnostic mammogram, and THEN chemo.

While Herceptin is a lot less hard on the body than “regular” chemo, I continue to have side effects.  I should have bought stock in Imodium when all this started; I take 2 every night and on some days I take more as needed.  I take Advil for headaches and muscle aches, and added Vitamin D to my regimen to help with muscle aches.  I get stomach cramps, intestinal cramps and the occasional nausea, but nothing is as bad as last year. It’s all sort of manageable.

I still have neuropathy, especially in my feet.  A friend described it perfectly – it’s like I’m wearing wrinkled socks all the time.  In my hands it’s not so bad, but with my feet it can make me a little unsteady at times.  Often upon standing from a sitting position, I have to make sure my feet are truly under me, and coupled with my muscle aches, I have to take a minute before I can actually move.  The neuropathy is still from last year’s chemo; the chemo I’m receiving now shouldn’t be contributing to the problem.  Given that it’s been 9 months since my last general chemo infusion, I’m getting a little concerned that I’ll always been wearing wrinkled socks.

I’ve been spending a lot of time lately reflecting:  reflecting on my work life and my volunteer life.  I think I’ve said before in this blog that life is too short, and while I’ve always had that philosophy, having cancer really reinforces this for me.  And so I’m practicing what I preach.  I resigned from a volunteer position I loved because I discovered that the founders, while perhaps not doing anything strictly illegal, are skirting the line of law, and are most certainly unethical.  It’s disappointing to realize that one’s been duped for 3 years by 2 of the most unethical people I’ve ever had the displeasure to know.  I have to keep reminding myself that I was a part of a lot of good done in those 3 years, but life is too short to spend working for people I can’t respect.

As for work, I’ve been reflecting on that, too – what makes me happy, what doesn’t.  No job is perfect, but some things are easier to let go than others.  I’m trying to decide how much I can let go and what I can’t.  Life IS too short – too short to be unfulfilled or unhappy whether working professionally or as a volunteer.  Life also goes on, and that’s a very good thing.

 

Birthday Week Reflections

It was my birthday on Sunday. I’ve always liked birthdays, but after a cancer diagnosis, I think one appreciates a birthday just a little more. After all, I’m still here, and I’m feeling pretty good.  I remember last year I was determined to have cake (I love cake), even though I knew I would throw it up, I wanted to eat cake. This year I didn’t make Ted make me a cake, but I was lucky enough to get home made brownies and coconut pyramids. Yes, I’ve put back on all the weight I lost in the past year. All in one week. 🙂

I continue to get Herceptin every three weeks. I asked Dr. P yesterday what is the exact date of my last Herceptin infusion, and it’s May 6! That means that I have only 3 more treatments. Inconceivable! Yes, I do believe I’m going to make a sign that says “Last Chemo Session” and have a picture taken with it. Everyone is welcome to come with me to my infusion and help me celebrate!

Well, at least it will be my last chemo infusion. My magnesium continues to be low. While Dr. P thinks it’s due to the Herceptin, she will probably continue to monitor it, and I may receive magnesium infusions for a while yet. My level is slowly creeping up – for the longest time it was 1.4; 3 weeks ago it was 1.5 and yesterday it was 1.6. (Standard range is 1.8-2.4)  Dr. P would like me to take more orally; I currently take 800 mg and I’m going to try taking 1200. It’s a balance, because taking oral magnesium causes diarrhea, and I still have a problem with that from the Herceptin. The low magnesium could also be causing the muscle/joint pain I have. I’ll just be glad when all this is behind me and the joint pain I have is the “normal” pain I have from having had 4 knee surgeries.

I’ve said for a long time that “Life is too short.” Now more than ever, as I look back on the past year, life is too short. Take time to tell those close to you that you love them, and tell them often. Hug your kids, furry or not. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Don’t stay in a bad situation – whether it’s a bad relationship, lousy job, or unfulfilling volunteer work. Do what makes you happy. Because you can’t take life for granted, and life is too short.

 

 

A Year Ago Today – January 29, 2016

A year ago today I had my first chemo infusion.  Little did I know that day what my year would be like.  It’s a little surreal to think about all that’s happened.

After last week’s infusion, I stopped to talk to a young woman who was just starting her chemo treatments.  She and her family had a lot of questions, which I hope I was able to answer.  What I found interesting was that I’ve actually forgotten the names of my chemo drugs, except for Taxotere, Perjeta and Herceptin.  I had to look them up to remember what I got and when.  Honestly, I don’t think I’d wish chemo on my worst enemy.  And I don’t think I had it as bad as some folks.

It’s been a while since my last post!  The holidays were nice; my whole family was able to gather for Christmas Eve.  Our dryer broke (it’s okay, it was over 25 years old) so we ordered a new one, but that meant cleaning out a path in the garage so it could be delivered and installed.  That took up much of what free time we had over the holidays. And then we left for Anaheim and the Rose Bowl – a little vacation with friends.  We went to California Great Adventure, Disneyland, and, of course, the Rose Bowl, where my beloved Cardinal destroyed the Iowa Hawkeyes to win its 2nd Rose Bowl in 4 years.  We drove back on the 3rd, and when we got home, I was feeling off.  I thought it was just the busy vacation.  I took the morning off and then headed for chemo on the 4th.  I was running a little fever, 99.1 degrees.  Well, that was just a precursor to the worst flu I’ve had in years.  I got a flu shot, but apparently it wasn’t very effective this year.  With all the people at Disneyland/Great Adventure and the Rose Bowl, I’m sure I picked up the flu bug there.  I had a fever of 103.3 for a night, and over 101 for several days.  And then I got a cough which I still have, although it’s getting much better.  Not the way I wanted to start 2016!

When I was finally able to go to work, it was to unpack my office – my staff and I moved locations while I was home sick.  I’m finally starting to feel settled at work, and we love our new space.

At my appointment with Dr. P last week, I asked her if taking Vitamin D would help with my muscle aches.  I also asked if I should contact my PCP about switching out one of my high blood pressure meds, as was suggested by Dr. S’s consult with the nephrology doctors, to help with my low magnesium.  So now I’m taking Vitamin D and I’ve changed one of my meds.  This week I’ve had my usual bout of diarrhea.  I also had a terrible headache on Monday, and I’ve had terrible muscle aches.  I know the Vitamin D, if it’s going to help, will take a few weeks to kick in.  But I decided to look up the side effects of Herceptin again, because I’ve obviously forgotten.  First 3 side effects?  Diarrhea, headache, muscle aches!  So I guess this will continue until at least May.  I think I’ll take Imodium every night for a week after my next infusion to see if that helps with the diarrhea; I can take Advil for headaches and I’ll hope the Vitamin D helps with the muscle aches (Advil helps with that).

Here’s to 2016!