Going on Vacation During Breast Cancer Treatment

I decided to leave town since I had two weeks off before radiation begins.  It took courage on my part since I am only 14 days out from last Chemo and still feeling quite weak, but decided I desperately needed a change of scenery.  So I loaded up my suitcase with foobs, boobs, and tubes and headed to the airport.  Before I left, I prayed that God would send His angels to guide and protect me.

First dilemma was getting through security because I have a metal port imbedded in my body.  Plus, I wear a wig because I am bald with what looks like duck fuzz on my head.  And a fake boob.  All those things frightened me about security because 9 times out of 10, I am the one that gets padded down.  Padded down was the last thing I wanted now!    I had a nightmare the night before travel that my foob was lying on the floor as it was cut open with a razor blade, my wig was ripped off my head, and security was cutting my port out of my body.  Thankfully, none of those things happened because God started sending Angels immediately..

There were probably 40 security people on duty at the airport when I arrived in the security area.  I walked up to one security guard and relayed my fears especially about my port.  She smiled and said, “I had one of those for 18 months!  Happiest day of my life when I got it out.  I am a cancer survivor of two years.  I will help and assist you today as I know how frightening all of this air travel security and cancer can be.”   And she did. My First Angel personally helped me, carried my things, and escorted me to the front of the line to a “special agent” guard.  I was through security in a New York minute with ports, boobs and wigs still in place!!

After I get through security, I had to wrap my arm to prevent lymphedema swelling because of the 14 lymph nodes I had removed.  This is necessary when I fly because of cabin pressure changes.  I have been seeing a Lymphedema Specialist, and she taught me how to wrap my arm.  Picture a mummy’s arm, and that’s what I had to do to myself while seated in the boarding area.  I got a lot of strange looks.  I could read some people’s thoughts which were:  “Is this some kind of new terrorist scheme?”  Several people kept an eye on me once I got on the airplane.

As I boarded the plane and sat down, the woman next to me said, “I am a nurse.”  I wasn’t sure why she said that to me other than I figured she was my Second Angel, and I was carrying around a big mummy arm.   Her husband, Third Angel,  was sitting next to her. As the flight progressed, she asked me about my arm and if it was wrapped because of Lymphedema.  She and her husband then told me that he was a breast cancer survivor of 30 years!   He had a Mastectomy and 40 lymph nodes removed and for years had to wrap his arm while flying.  He offered me some sage advice about Breast Cancer and surviving from a man’s perspective.  It was such a special experience.

So last stop, pick up rental car.  The rental agent asked me about my arm, and if it was wrapped due to Lymphedema. Geez, I thought, does everyone in the world know about Lympedema?  I had to look it up in the dictionary when I first heard about it!  She then relayed that she was a retired Oncology Nurse, now supplementing her retirement with Avis.  She asked me what she could do to make my trip easier and asked me what kind of car I drive at home.  When I told her, she gave me the same car I own so I didn’t have the stress of learning the ins and outs of a different car.   It was an upgrade and my Fourth Angel didn’t charge me.  She also offered me some good post Chemotherapy advice!

As I reflected upon my day, travel angels were with me every step of my journey.  I am so grateful as I needed all of their help, support, and encouragement!

Two weeks off from Cancer Treatment

For the first time in 7 months, I have two weeks off from any and all cancer treatments.    When I went to receive my Herceptin infusion this past week, my Oncologist told me I could not receive it because my last ECHO Test showed damage to my heart.  He and the Cardiologist believe it may be temporary and reverse itself, but all drugs are halted for now.  I will get another ECHO in 3 weeks to see my progress.

I wasn’t sure how to feel, but joyful is a good place to start.   This is the first rest I have had, and I must say it feels amazing..  Today I realized that I have been feeling about 10 to 50% alive on any given day.  Today that raised to 75% alive.  I was actually able to stop at a grocery store at 7 pm at night!  This is a miracle for me who has only been able to go to the grocery store 5 times in 5 months and that had to be early in the morning!

My body needs rest and recuperation, short walks and gentle breezes before Radiation begins in 2 weeks and hopefully Herceptin continues.  I will listen closely to my body and do what my body tells me

Herceptin and Her 2 Neu Positive Breast Cancer

I have Her 2 Neu Positive Breast Cancer which overexpresses the protein Her 2 Neu. About 15% to 20% of women diagnosed with Breast Cancer are Her 2 Neu Positive.   Ten years ago, my chance of survival would have been extremely slim with the average of less than a 2 year survival rate as Her 2 Neu Positive Breast Cancer was one of the most aggressive and deadliest forms.  Today, statistically speaking, I have a good chance I will be around for quite a few years.  I try hard not to pay too much attention to those negative statistics because I believe it will influence my thinking!

Herceptin  (Trastuzumab) is a targeted therapy approved for the treatment of people with certain HER2+ cancers. HER2+ cancer cells have more HER2 receptors (a particular protein found on the surface of cells) than normal cells. Herceptin was developed by Dennis Slamon, M.D. PhD  a UCLA research scientist and Oncologist who was tireless in his efforts to get his drug approved.

Harry Connick, Jr. starred in the movie entitled “Living Proof” based on the book by Robert Bazell “Her 2 the Making of Herceptin a Revolutionary Treatment for Breast Cancer”.  The movie was produced by Renee Zellweger about the development and tremendous challenges of getting Herceptin approved by the FDA.  The movie outlined the never-give-up attitude of Dr. Slamon, a fundraiser who saw the drug’s potential and worked tirelessly to obtain funding, and the brave women who volunteered for the Clinical Trials for this pioneering drug.    It is a memorable movie that will touch your heart.

I have been receiving Herceptin since February 28, 2012, first as an adjuvant therapy with Taxol Chemotherapy.  The bad news is I had to stop Herceptin on May 15, 2012 after significant heart damage was discovered.   My Medical Oncologist ordered Echocardiograms every 3 months since I started Chemotherapy.  My Ejection Fraction (EF) of my heart dropped from 65 (which was above normal) to 39 after Herceptin.  It is now October 1, 2012 and the EF has not improved.  I also had a nuclear heart test which showed that I may have suffered a silent heart attack during Herceptin.

Please see my post on Herceptin – Heart Damage, Heart Attacks and Breast Cancer


Last Day of Chemo and Passing out Hope

I did it, I made it, the last Taxol Chemotherapy infusion is still coursing through my veins, but it is finished!  Never did I think I would make it through especially in those darkest days of January and February during Adriamycin and Cytoxan Chemotherapy.  But with the encouragement and love of family and friends and by God’s grace, I completed it!

To celebrate, I took some candy to pass out to strangers who crossed my path, nurses that were important to me, and Chemo Patients waiting in the Infusion Area for their Chemo.  It felt like Halloween.  As I passed out the candy and explained I was celebrating my last Chemo Treatment, everyone was genuinely happy for me!   They knew the pain and suffering.  Truly they were overjoyed for me.  Several people applauded.  It was touching to me.

Two gentlemen in particular stick in my mind.  Both had very rare forms of cancer.  They asked me a lot of questions, couldn’t believe I made it through 5 months of Chemo, told me I looked great,  and we shared our stories.  They asked me what my prognosis was.  I said, “I am alive today!” with a smile.  In separate conversations, both men had the same look of hope as we talked.  Hope being born is a lovely thing to see in another person.  Giving them the cancer cheerleader pep talk felt so genuine and real, because I believe it:  Do not give up, keep up the fight, and you can do it.  Simple yet powerful words.

Passing out hope with a little candy on the side!   What a great mission!

Emerging from the Chemotherapy Tunnel

Chemotherapy began for me two days after Christmas.  It is now May 12th, 3 days before my final Chemotherapy infusion. I have such mixed emotions about Chemotherapy – truly a love/hate relationship.      Chemotherapy takes your life away as you know it to help you stay alive for the life you don’t know.  You exist and you function, but the highly potent drugs make you forget who you were on an emotional level.  At the same time, you are glad to have drugs that makes you feel so bad. You know it is killing any cancer cells in your body because you watch it kill other things!!

I have been living in an underground tunnel with very little light for 5 long months, and soon it will be time to emerge.  Some other words to describe life in the tunnel are isolation, fear, pain, hurt, anger, and dread with alot of hope thrown in.  It will take some adjustment as I once again come into the light.  Having always been a person that tried to see the bright side of life, this living in mostly darkness has been extremely difficult.  Certainly, I have lived through many a dark time in my 55 years of life, but this was very different.  The darkness was more intense and penetrating with a sense of finality and urgency.

Today I attended the Making Strides for Breast Cancer event, a fundraiser for research by the American Cancer Society.  A local television news reporter interviewed me.  He commented that I look so healthy and vibrant he would never know I was going through Chemotherapy.  I told him I am a good actress!   We both laughed.  And then I told him without my family and friends I could have never made it on this journey as it has been so difficult.  Then I cried.

But here is the good news!  Someone on the Breast Cancer Discussion Boards posed the question, knowing everything you know about Chemotherapy, would you make the same decision to go through Chemo?  Almost 100% of the women responded a resounding yes, including myself.  We all wanted to know that we threw everything possible at the cancer!

For me, the other things that were invaluable life lessons of Chemotherapy are the following:

1) Appreciation for family and friends

2) Clarification of relationships

3)  Deeper understanding of what Cancer Patients endure

4)  Emotional maturity

5)  Looking at self with greater awareness and honesty

6)  Increased knowledge of cancer treatments

7) Reality of the fragility of life

8) Dealing with your own mortality and preparing to die while fighting to live

9) Learning to TRUST GOD as everything else is stripped from you.

10) Appreciating each day of life

So Chemotherapy drugs – Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxol, thank you.  It has been an encounter of a lifetime, but you have done the work you needed to do –kill cancer cells.  Not an easy task, but you were up for the challenge.  Will I miss you?  Maybe a little.  You have played an important role in my life.  Forever, I will be grateful to you for extending my life. We have become friends even though I’ve said a lot of bad things about you.  I respect you and admire what you do.  But I sure hope I am never forced to have you visit again.

Mood Swings During Chemotherapy

Chemo not only destroyed any and all cancer cells, it took my mouth filters away.  It is difficult to hold back anything.  Before Breast Cancer and Chemo, I was tactful at least some of the time, even during Menopause!!  Not any more.  It just comes out of my mouth.   I shock myself, scratch my bald head, and say, “Wow, did I really just make that comment?”    Some of it is freeing, I must admit.  Some of it is funny.  And some is downright rude.   I cannot sort it all out at the time it is happening.

Recently I determined there is a pattern.  I receive Chemo on Tuesday.   My mouth filters are gone on Thursday, Friday and Saturday!  They come back a little on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday.   I asked my Chemo Nurse what was going on.   She said it is the steroids. It is mood swings.  Oh, mood swings.  I’ve always heard about that but never knew what that meant!   Sometimes you just swing at whatever is in your path!

Chemo Nurse Lynn has 35 years experience!  She has been the recepient of many mood swings.  “It is normal”, she said. “Be patient with yourself.  It will go away.”  Yippee, I thought!   It is temporary!   She made me laugh about it!  “Take advantage of it,” she said with a chuckle!  “It is the drugs talking!  Some people need to hear what your mood swings have to say,”  proclaims Lynn.

My friends and family have been fabulous to me!  The nicest thing anyone said to me when I was telling them about my unfiltered mouth, “You are going through hell.  Of course you feel that way. I like that you don’t hold anything back.”    Ahhhh, validation.  And another comment that meant so much, “I love you without mouth filters!”   The old unconditional love.  Works every time!   And another one that helped, “You are still your fun self–you are sick and busy right now.”   And another friend always tells me, “Loving you through it no matter what.”    I have the most wonderful friends!

Today at Chemotherapy infusion, Chemo Nurse Lynn asked me if I would speak to another patient who was having a very difficult time on Adriamycin and Cytoxan.  Of course I was eager to speak with her, told her she was going through hell (that worked for me), that no one can possibly understand going through Chemo no matter how much they love you unless they had been through it.  I told her it would get better.  It is okay to feel like dying, and she is receiving poison.  It does not feel like the flu, it is much deeper on a cellular level.   She started crying and told me I was the first person who understood how she felt.  She and I both found meaning in our encounter.  Her husband seemed relieved that someone had gotten through to her.  This was my “no mouth filters” working in a positive way!   Before Chemo, I would not have been that direct.

Next time you are at Wal-Mart, and you hear a woman making a scene, telling the manager how to run the store, demanding Sam Walton’s phone number, oh he died, then get me his son’s number, that will be me.  I am obtaining a discount for the inconvenienced customers because the person at the head of the line has 243 items in a 20 item lane with a price check and an expired credit card.   Accept the discount graciously and run out of the store before I tell you just what I think!

When You Are Diagnosed with Cancer You Move to Planet of the Cancers

The day the words, “You have Cancer” are spoken is the day you are transported to Planet of the Cancers.  It happens immediately. You don’t have a bag packed, nothing is ready, and when you get there, you cry to go home to the familiar.  Of course, you have heard the stories of people who have been abducted by aliens.  That is exactly what happens.   An alien illness has taken over your body and as a result, you are forced to live in this painful and bleak habitat.

You will not be prepared in any way for life on Planet of the Cancers. Your life as you know it is over. On Planet of the Cancers most people are bald, they are a lethargic group, and their life revolves around medical appointments and poisonous medicines that drip into you.

Many, many wonderful family members and some amazing and treasured friends will make the journey with you to this isolated planet. Time and time again, they will help you adjust to your new life and make sacrifices for you.   Also, some acquaintances and friends from your distant past may absolutely shock you by showing up on Planet of the Cancers!  You certainly did not expect them to arrive.  They will bring amazing comfort to you when you need it the most, stay awhile, and help you adjust to this foreign lifestyle. You will never forget the heroic acts made by family and friends and all the energy it took them to visit you on Planet of the Cancers to bring you comfort and hope.

Unfortunately, just a few that you think might visit you on Planet of the Cancers, will make a choice not to make the trek.  There will be excuses from these previous adventure travelers,  but finally after a lot of disappointment, you learn that their journeys usually involve more pleasant destinations.   Planet of the Cancers is anything but joyful.  A few may deny that you have even moved to this new world as they want to believe nothing has changed.  You will get over these losses, however difficult, move on, and become stronger as a result.

As with anything else, after time, you start to adjust to life on Planet of the Cancers as much as you deplore it.  You learn to endure.  Many amazing residents of Planet of the Cancers will inspire you, bring you strength and hope along the way.  The inhabitants of Planet of the Cancers are an amazing group!

Along the way, you finally surrender control as you meet up with The Person in Charge.  He tells you that while you are here on Planet of the Cancers, you will not understand why you had to make this difficult journey.  But some day, you will understand.  Then He tells you that in the meantime, He will be taking care of all of your needs, you just have to trust Him.  Is that ever a challenge.  You thought you knew who The Person in Charge was in your previous environment, but on Planet of the Cancers?  This is a whole different reality.

The Person in Charge alludes that one day I may be able to go back to my previous existence as I am being healed while on Planet of the Cancers.  But He prepares me that life will never be the same.  Planet of the Cancers will forever change me.   It will change you too.

To be continued….