Cancer SurvivorSHIP – Adapting and Adjusting

An out-of-town friend who is in the midst of chemo now for Breast Cancer, wrote and told me, “I just cannot wait to get my life back.”   I cringed and of course, did not have the heart to tell her that your old life as you  knew it is gone.  She will find that out soon enough as she continues down the path.

My sister, Diann, is discovering that right now.  She is now 6 months out of chemo and 2.5 months out of Radiation.  Her hair is coming back and looks like a cute, short cut.  To outsiders, she looks “normal”.  But adjusting to life after cancer is challenging.  You are not the same person you used to be, you feel angry that you cannot get your old life back, and you have no idea what the Cancer Survivor Life looks like.

While Diann was sharing her feelings with me, I remembered this Blog Post I wrote while I was trying to find my way after treatment.  Diann said it exactly describes what she is going through and was helpful to her, so I am sharing this post below.  If you are not a cancer survivor, it is worth the read as it perhaps will challenge you just a little!

Original Blog Post from 2013– Perhaps you landed here because you are a Cancer Survivor and are having difficulties.   Or maybe a spouse, parent, or loved one had cancer, and you do not understand why they are having such a difficult time adjusting to life after cancer treatment.

Six months into being an “official” Cancer Survivor, I made this realization:  Life is not going to be what it was before the cancer diagnosis.  Somewhere in the back of my mind, I believed that someday, somehow, everything would shift and it would be business as usual, and my pre-cancer life would come back magically.   I kept waiting for it.

This all started because one morning as I was donning my Lymphedema gear, taking my medicine cabinet full of pills and supplements, trying to walk because of the severe pain (side effect of the drug Arimidex), and inserting my prosthesis in place of my amputated breast,  it finally hit me that “this is the way it is going to be and you damn well better get used to it.”

I was praying and asking for guidance about what I need to do so I can move forward and not stay stuck. The big, burly, bearded husband of television  Southern cook, Paula Deen, popped into my head.  Why is he in my head, I wondered? I don’t even know his name!  So I googled “Paula Deen’s husband” and interestingly, I found out his name is Michael Groover and he is a Harbor Pilot.   Hmmm, I thought, what does that mean for me?

I found this definition and explanation:   A harbor pilot, often known as a maritime pilot, is a boat pilot with specialized knowledge of a particular port or harbor. The pilot is needed to direct large ships into a port where there are specific deep water channels surrounded by shallower flats.     Without the services of a harbor pilot, docking ships would become a big hazard. There would be a real chance of running aground and damaging the ship and the cargo.   It’s precision work, and as with the many steps and players involved, safe docking and undocking is crucial to the ultimate success of the voyage. 

HarborPilot2Wow, I need a Harbor Pilot to help me with this part of my journey as I do not have the knowledge or tools to navigate these unchartered waters of Cancer SurvivorSHIP.  While I was out to sea in cancer treatment world, my medical team did all the captaining of my ship.  Now, I needed someone experienced in the hazards of maneuvering my ship into this new port.  And it is okay because I have never been here before, and it is all new to me.

A friend had told me a former pastor of mine from 20 years ago, who was a gifted counselor and a cancer survivor, would be glad to speak with me.   He is a survivor of a rare cancer.  He was not expected to live, but 4 years later, he is still here and celebrating life.  We shared cancer stories.  And when I heard about all that he had to deal with on an everyday basis because of all the damage done because of Chemo and high dosages of Radiation, it was inspiring and uplifting.

He then listened to me and was able to immediately assess where I was on my survivor journey.  “AA” he said, “Adapt and Adjust.”  He told me that the biggest learning curve for him in the past 4 years was adapting to what he can do, eliminating what he cannot do, and adjusting to new, yet exciting ways to live life. 

Two simple words, but because he has been there, he knew exactly what I needed.  He is a Harbor Pilot.    The imagery of my Cancer SurvivorSHIP coming into a new port, with new things, new possibilities, and new opportunities resonated with me.  Sure, in order to adapt and adjust, I have and will have to give up things that I can no longer do, no longer take care of, or that no longer serve me.   But I have, I can and I will. For the first time in a very long time, I felt real hope and not manufactured hope!   There is a big difference.

If you are a Cancer Survivor, please take time to focus on those simple words – adapt and adjust.  Perhaps, like me, you have been waiting for life to go back to the way it was before cancer.  Unfortunately, it will not go back.   But with some adapting and adjusting, you can be ready to accept the new life that awaits you.  Also, look for a Harbor Pilot to help guide your way to this new port – a support group, a counselor, or someone who has been there.  You cannot navigate these treacherous waters alone.

If you are not a Cancer Survivor, I’m not going to let you off the adapting and adjusting hook!  Perhaps it is time to review your life and see what you are holding onto that no longer serves you.  Oh, there can be many things:   a job, a relationship,  a certain way of doing things, a grudge, old habits, clutter, painful thoughts…the list goes on.  Time to adapt and adjust to new ways, new thoughts, new ideas, and new hope!  And if you cannot maneuver those waters of change, find or hire a Harbor Pilot to help you.




Pity Parties – When to Have Them, How to Stop Them

If you have found yourself having daily Pity Parties, it is time to change it up. If you are in active treatment for cancer, experiencing great loss, or any other devastating blow, Pity Parties are necessary and keep you sane.  But if you have had constant Pity Parties for years, and they are a part of your daily routine, it is time to change it up and do something positive for yourself!

After going through two years of treatment for Stage 3 breast cancer with heart complications and then Lymphedema, I tried to have only occasional Pity Parties.  UNTIL, my 80 year old mom’s diagnosis with Stage 1 breast cancer.  I had to rethink my plan for how often Pity Parties were allowed.  While still rethinking it, my only sibling, my sister, Diann, was diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer!  Three family members in three years about did me in, and I wasn’t sure what to do about it!

pity partyI knew that if I didn’t want to turn into a depressed basket case, I would have to give of myself even more, beyond my Blog and, my online store for cancer patients.  But I knew I needed it to be easy.  I couldn’t take complicated or be over  committed for my health.

My mom, sister and I have been to the University of Michigan Cancer Center collectively over 200 times.  They saved our lives and we have nothing but glowing things to say about our physicians and caregivers.  It is an honor to be a patient there, and we all chose to go there. However, it is a 120 mile round trip so it’s been like driving from New York City to Los Angeles almost 9 times!  Okay, indulge me for a Small Pity Party.  When I hear someone complaining because they had to wait an hour for their general practitioner on their one and only annual checkup appointment, to be honest, I want to choke them.  Okay, snap out of it, Denise, get back to your story!

I decided that I needed a simple attack.  Since I dreaded spending so much more time at the Cancer Center,  my plan was to engage a cancer patient in conversation every time I had to go to the Cancer Center.   I prayed for guidance so I know which person  I should speak with, and often that guidance is just the pick of the empty chair available and who happens to be sitting next to me.

Here are just a few of my conversations:  Herb, a 50 something guy who was told he had less than 6 months to live with Esophageal Cancer.  He changed hospitals, and now Herb was at the Cancer Center for his bi-annual checkup – HE IS ALIVE 9 YEARS and cancer free!!

Then there was Barbara –  She was diagnosed with Stage 4 Breast Cancer out of the gate with bone metastases.  She was in her  50s at the time.  That was 17 YEARS AGO!!  She has never been without cancer that entire time, but she has had treatment after experimental treatment and was now in her 70s!!

Meet Doug, the 28 year old determined and energetic  newlywed with testicular cancer that was in the adjacent chair while my sister was receiving chemo.  He had only been at a new job for two weeks, when he was diagnosed.  His new boss said, no worries, we will make this work.  That made me cry as I hear from so many people who lose their jobs after being a faithful employee for years because of a cancer diagnosis!

Denise the early 50s extremely inspiring pancreatic cancer patient who was living life to the fullest even though she knew her days were numbered.   Robert, the 85 year old melanoma patient on a trial chemo drug because he had more life to live.

Today, I accompanied my sister to her 25th Radiation (she is getting close to being done – hooray!),  and I noticed a man holding his head and sort of napping in the waiting room.  He looked in pain.  I knew he was the one today!

As we began to converse, Tom told me his story that he was diagnosed with an extremely rare sinus cavity cancer that was inoperable.  He was in a clinical trial so he could help others in the future.  This necessitated him to stay for four months away from home at a facility called the Wilmot House in Ann Arbor for long-term radiation patients.  He was receiving radiation and chemotherapy simultaneously.  While telling me his story, he began to choke up and tears rolled down his face.

It has made such a remarkable difference in my attitude when I have to go to the Cancer Center yet again, as I now think how blessed I am to hear all these amazing peoples’ stories. Hopefully, I can bring them a tad bit of hope just because I am a Cancer Survivor and have been there!!   I carry these precious people in my heart every day, so whenever I start sinking into Pity Party Mode for whatever reason, the thought of them snaps me right out of it!

I challenge you — if you are engaging in ongoing Pity Parties long after your pain, you must change it up or it will consume you forever.  Here are some tips to help you move forward:

  1.  Write down what the chatter in your head is constantly saying.  Sometimes you can overlook it, as playing the negative has become such a habit.  Write as many pages as you need to and look at the reality.
  2. After looking at the cold, hard facts, make a list of 5 things you could do to change your life in a positive way.  For example,  my friend, Linda, took immediate action when her only child went 1,000 miles away to college.  Linda was devastated, but she knew she would sink into a great depression so she began to work full-time with autistic children.  Linda had not worked full-time in over 18 years, but she knew it was time to take action.  Gone are the Pity Parties from Linda’s life as she is so much enjoying her new rewarding and very fulfilling career.  Linda is thrilled her daughter is thriving in college.
  3. Ask for help – if it is all too overwhelming and you have no idea what to do first, seek the immediate help of a licensed counselor, Psychologist or Psychiatrist.  Just relaying your story to someone who understands will help move you forward.

Take action, make that change – you know what it is – just do it!  I guarantee your life will be better because of those changes!


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Inspiration from the Chemo Ward

Chemo Ward is rather a 1960s phrase — Infusion Area is the new, modern term.  But if chemotherapy is involved, I think it should be in the title.  So I will call it Chemo Area to blend the old with the new.  Going to the Chemo Area is inspirational.  Now I say that as a Cancer Survivor, not as a Cancer Patient!  I did not find it so inspiring when I was the patient.  But now that my sister is the patient suffering the horrid consequences of Chemo, and I am along for moral support and unsolicited advice, I can be more relaxed to realize all the inspiration that is transpiring.


Inspiration comes in the form of the patients who are gathered for the same objective on any given day: receiving toxic drugs to kill cancer or prevent cancer from recurring.  It seems to me fate has a role in deciding who will be your chemo “neighbors” on infusion day.  Somehow, they are always inspiring and just what you need to hear.  Like the woman who was in her mid 50s sitting next to my sister.  As she told us what her diagnosis was, my sister and I simultaneously tried to suppress gasps when she said “pancreatic cancer” as our father died of that horrible cancer.  But we were both so uplifted after talking with her.  She has been alive over a year, her tumors are being managed with chemotherapy, and she is hoping to live quite awhile.

The following week, the woman next to Diann was also receiving Chemo for pancreatic cancer.  Her husband said she was a “walking miracle” – and she was!   It was healing for both Diann and I to hear about great breakthroughs they are making in pancreatic cancer.

Then there was the 34 year old young man, diagnosed with testicular cancer.  It was so uplifting to hear his story and hear about all the people who were helping him make the several hour journey to the cancer center DAILY for 5 hour infusions!   He told us he had been with his employer only 2 weeks when he was diagnosed.  How marvelous to hear that his employer has been behind him all the way.  That made me feel so good as I get letters from cancer patients whose employers fire them with a cancer diagnosis after many years of dedicated service.

The Chemo Nurses are a special breed all their own!   Chemo Nurses are definitely at the top of my list for those people whom I admire!  One nurse who has 7 months to retire, has been an Oncology nurse for 40 years.  Talk about dedication!!

And anyone who reads my blog knows that as a result of going through chemo and seeing a need, I began selling Chemo Hats and created my online store at    As a result of constantly searching for new and different hats, imagine how I am around a bunch of cancer patients many with hats on.   I start staring at their hats – and I mean staring!  The other day a gal had on a darling sequined cap.  I get sidetracked and don’t realize there is a person under that cap – until she finally asked me, “Can I help you?”    I started to laugh and apologize at the same time.

Spending the day in a Chemo Area isn’t anyone’s first choice of how to spend a day.  But if you have a chance to accompany a friend, family member or stranger, get beyond your fears and do so.  Not only will you make a difference in their lives and do the cancer patient a kindness they will never forget, you will come away inspired by the amazing people you meet!

Scanxiety, Mammograms, and Cancerversaries

This week was my yearly mammogram and also my 6 month checkup with my Oncologist.   This week marks my THREE YEAR cancerversary from diagnosis of Stage 3, Her 2 Positive Breast Cancer, very large tumor with 9 positive nodes.  So often I hear from women who wonder if there is something wrong with them that they have so much anxiety before scans, mammograms and tests!  Absolutely not!  It is all NORMAL!!

As I was driving the 70 minute drive to get the mammogram this morning, I once again realized just how normal it was. .  That anxiety never gets better, but at least it is more familiar as the years go by.  Like an old acquaintance that you have a meeting with and walk away thinking, “Oh, that’s why we were never friends!”   Today when the anxiety arrived, right on schedule, I thought, “Well, here you are again.  Okay, what if it is breast cancer?  You know what to do, you know what to expect, and you know you will either get through it or die.”  And the other thoughts also arrived on time:  “Why didn’t you just get that breast cut off – no breast is worth this much anxiety, just turn around and go home, call the Breast Cancer Center and tell them you had a flat tire, and then finally as you get closer, the hell with it, I’ll just get it over with today!”

My nerves were kind of under control as I put on the oh-so-familiar teal gown (why haven’t they gotten new gowns here yet?!?) after I stripped to the waist.  I’m much more vocal now in the waiting room than the previous years.  I start asking who the survivors are, and they are eager to talk!  It is 90% of the waiting room because we are in a Cancer Center.  It makes the reality of what we are waiting for seem less frightening and there is an instant bond without too many words.

When my name was called, the nice technician talked to me and then told me her best friend was just diagnosed.  She began asking questions, and I began giving her tips to tell her friend as she plops my breast on the machine.  Silly thoughts go through my head — like after the first squeeze I remembered to lift my breast up rather than pull it off the platform because the skin sticks!  I’m applauding myself for remembering from last year!   Soon it is over, and I try to read the tech’s face.  But all I remember is the face of the technician from 3 years ago whose mouth literally dropped when she looked at those cancer-ridden pictures, and though she tried to recover in a professional manner, her face is still is embedded in my head.

Back to the waiting room…I start talking to myself and bargaining. This time without quotation marks!  Okay, I won’t worry for 10 minutes.  They usually have the results in 10 minutes.  If it is longer than 10 minutes, then I will worry.

Kelly Ripa is on the television in the waiting room doing something ridiculous, and I wonder why anyone really likes her.  Then I chastise myself because my old and dear friend, Cathy, loves her, but I think: how can she watch this TV show?  The 10 minutes are up.  OH Lord, please help me, and His peace descends upon me.  Really.  I felt it.  The door opens and a solemn-faced woman about my age calls my name.  In my head I think, gosh, I need to smile more so I don’t get like that and then she says, “I can’t tell you the results in the hallway because of HIPPA” and I’m thinking it is BAD news because last year the woman blurted it out in the hallway.  But we get to the room and her face broke into a smile and she said, “All is well” as she handed me the “ALL CLEAR” letter signed by a real doctor.   I always grab the letter and look at the signature to make sure it says “MD” after the signature! I immediately just grabbed and hugged her and hugged everyone coming down the hallway.  Then I think, Denise, you do that every year, you need a new routine, then I think, who the heck cares – I can’t help it.  Then I tell the techs gathered in the hallway that this is the worst day and the best day of the year all before 9:45 am.

When that paper is handed to you and you hear those words, it is like God is handing you a beautifully wrapped present and in it is your life for another year as you hear a choir of angels in the background.  You think of the magnitude of that gift, look at that package, and tell God, “Thank you for my life.  I don’t want to screw it up.  Tell me what you want me to do this year, and I will do it.”

And I enter back into the waiting room.  Kelly Ripa is still on the television and this time I think:  Kelly is friendly, cute and she is kind of zany.  I understand why people watch her.

Check-ups, Anxiety and Breast Cancer

So I had this nice, tidy, cut and dried blog entry ready to post about how to prepare for breast cancer check-ups post treatment.  It had all these specific little things to do, make a plan, do things differently, go to lunch beforehand at a new restaurant, drive a different way, numbered 1 through 7 – blah blah blah.  Well, guess what?  I tried it, and I do not think it helped me one bit for my breast cancer check-up.  So I cannot tell you what to do or how to prepare!  I flunked. It sure did not work for me!

It was my first 6 month checkup with my Medical Oncologist (prior it was every 3 months for the first year post-treatment), and I totally fell apart.  I erroneously thought I would be fine and anxiety would not get to me.  WRONG!  To coin a phrase, I was a basket case.  It was worse at the 6 month point because in 3 months you think “Oh, nothing much has changed.”

Every memory I did not even know I had came rushing forward.  Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was in full swing yesterday!  The day I took my medical records to the Cancer Center for the first time and my knees buckled when I saw the bald women.  Then the MRIs and scans, Mastectomy, the bone scans, all 16 chemo treatments, Neulasta shots, Herceptin, heart attack thank you Chemo, and God only knows what else came flooding back to me in one big WHOOSH!  Never had I felt anxiety that strong.  It was awful.  The memories kept pounding me.  Then in the exam room, I remembered how many times I had been in Exam Room 12!  How does my brain even know?  But it did!  Instinctively I knew that it was in Exam Room 12 where I first learned I had Stage 3 Breast Cancer.

Now 18 months out from active treatment ending, I look back from the perspective of time and think “How did I make it through?”  While in the midst of it, you have no choice but to go through it.   Maybe you are in the midst of  “IT” right now.  You will be given the strength to get through it, but later you will wonder how you did it!

The great news is after a thorough examination, my Oncologist said I was doing well, no tests needed right now, come back in 6 months.  It feels like you are in the electric chair and you just got a reprieve from the Governor!

While waiting to be called back, I met a woman with a chemo cap on in the waiting room.  We got to chatting.  She had a Stage 4 recurrence 7 years after initial Stage 2 diagnosis.  I gave her some of the hopeful stories I have heard from many of you who have found yourself in that same situation.  She was grateful.   Then we discussed anxiety and how you never get over the fear and how non-cancer survivors often think we are hypochondriacs and how we hate it all.   She said when she was first diagnosed with breast cancer, which she never thought would happen to her, it made her realize just how vulnerable she is.  And she said it is that vulnerability that causes her fears.  That certainly made sense to me!

So Sisters of Breast Cancer, you gave me the strength to get through it yesterday.  All of you who write to me, share your stories with me, and tell me your fears, you were there with me yesterday.  THANK YOU!  I’m sorry I do not have any easy answers for you on how to get through checkups.  I do not.  As a woman who prays, I could not even pray!

One last thing I was eager to share with all of my University of Michigan medical personnel yesterday was how Breast Cancer has changed me in positive ways – like this Blog and Hello Courage, my online store.  I told every receptionist, nurse and doctor I could find about Hello Courage and passed out my cute post cards to them.  They were thrilled to hear about it (or at least acted like they were – LOL) and everyone said they were eager to go to their computers and look at my new Spring/Summer line of Chemo Caps!   I would NEVER have worn a wig if I would have had Chemo Caps like these!  Here is the preview for you – click on caps to get to











Breast Cancer – How to Feel Sorry for Yourself and Complain

As a breast cancer patient and survivor, do you feel guilty on the days you feel sorry for yourself or when you have a pity party?  I know I do.   Usually, I bring solace to myself by saying, “Oh, at least you are alive” or “So many people have it so much worse than you do, then I let those individuals flash through my mind.”  Plus, I say, “Denise, you are supposed to be a role model and an inspiration, get over it.”

Recently, my mom, sister and I went away for the weekend to a place we used to frequent before my breast cancer diagnosis 2 years ago.  This was my first time back.  When we got to the hotel, it hit me what a different person I was now than the last time I had been there.  I felt very sad, but gave myself my usual “don’t feel sorry for yourself” pep talk.

After a busy day, back in the hotel room, my sister looked at me with much compassion and said, “You have so much to handle and go through.”  I started to cry.  It was the first time someone actually witnessed me for a 24 hour period since diagnosis.  My sister had been observing me quietly.   She witnessed the hassle of my breast prosthesis, the 16 pills and supplements I have to ingest, the Lymphedema compression garment struggles and the countless and constant limitations Lymphedema causes, the food allergies that I now have including gluten and dairy that developed during chemo, my heart issues, and the excruciating joint pain I have on most days from Arimidex.  (Thanks for listening!)  Her compassion and observations rather than a quick “You look good” made me realize it isn’t my imagination that I do indeed have much to deal with that prior to breast cancer I did not.

After I got home, I pondered it all.   An idea popped into my mind.  On Fat Tuesday, the day before Lent begins, people eat, drink and be merry because they are facing fasting and abstinence.  So I decided I was going to have a customized Fat Tuesday of my own and allow myself to complain as much as I wanted within a 2 hour period – no more no less.  Then I would be back on abstinence from complaining.

So I complained up a storm, felt sorry for myself, got angry, and had a solo pity party.  Honestly, it felt good to release some of the pent-up frustration and breast cancer toxins.  After the 2 hours, I went back to thinking, “I am well”  and expressing that sentiment to others when asked.

Something happened that I wasn’t expecting.  I felt energized in a new way.   Giving myself compassion and allowing myself to complain about the realities helped move me forward and  accept yet again that things aren’t the way they used to be.   New ideas, dreams and goals have come to me over the past week after I experienced this catharsis.

I would encourage you to give yourself a window of opportunity to allow yourself to feel the pain, anger and frustration of breast cancer.  It will help propel you to a new place!  And if you are not a breast cancer patient but dealing with absolutely anything, try this.  It will help!

If you have not checked my store, Hello Courage, please click the picture and take a look!  I so much appreciate all the love, support, and orders I have received.HC-CollageSign


What Kind of Gifts are You Giving This Year?

After cancer treatment is over, you can decide what kind of Cancer Survivor you wish to be.   At this point, I believe a conscious decision is made.   For years, it has been a hobby of mine to talk with strangers.  Now I talk with Cancer Survivors because that is who hangs around the three cancer centers I frequent!   I’ve noticed one thing from my talks with hundreds of Cancer Survivors:   Cancer Survivors usually fit into one of the following three categories, at least  in my mind.   As Cancer Survivors, we all move in and out of these categories, but we tend to frequent one more than the others.

1)    Normal Nancy or Not Me Norm  – These Survivors briefly admit they had cancer, say it doesn’t define them, try to forget everything that happened during treatment.   If I ask them a question, often I get this answer:  “I don’t remember.”   Usually they  fill their lives with so much BUSY trying to fit it all in because death may come quicker than you think. Often, they do not want others to know they ever  had cancer.  It is not unusual for them to have moved to a  different city or get a new job where no one thinks of them as Cancer Guy or Cancer Girl.  They try to fly under the cancer radar.

2)  Inspirational Inez or Transformation Ted – You sit down next to this person and you are immediately transported to a higher level of thinking.  You are amazed at the depths of their soul, the transformative nature of their conversation, and go away amazed and inspired by their story.   They have accepted their plight and inspire everyone they encounter.  Their story is not all about them.  They have an uncanny ability to help you see good.  Often these are the people who were given 3 months to live and have now survived 20 years.  It feels providential that you encountered them as they give you just the pep talk you need when you need it.  Sometimes it feels as if you have met an angel, and you wonder if you have because once you encounter them, you do not forget them.

3)  Cold Cathy and Frigid Fred – These conversations are usually very draining if you are even able to have a conversation with this person.  These people are often very distant, don’t want to talk about  you, and if you get them to talk it is always, “Why did this happen to me?”, “I’ve been a good person”  “I’ve done the right things”,  and “I know I am Going to Die Soon so I might as well quit living.

Certainly, I know I have been all of these people.  But at first glance, I would certainly prefer to be Inspirational Inez.   Because of  my encounters, I am very careful what I say to cancer patients going through active treatment.  I remember the words of other Cancer Survivors who helped me through – courage, strength, determination, adapt, adjust, keep going, never give up, you can and will do it, and there is life after cancer.   Never have I forgotten the words or the people who spoke those words to me.  Survivors who had been there but were willing to reach out to give the great gifts of encouragement and hope.

This applies to everyone we meet, not just cancer patients, doesn’t it?  And often we take for granted those we live with, care for, and family and friends.  This Christmas and New Year, please consider giving the greatest gifts to others – encouragement and hope.  You can never go wrong with that gift!

Speaking of gifts —  be sure to check out my online store at