Thursday, April 28, 2011

Someone to Walk for - Part 2

One of the people I am waking for in the Weekend to End Women's Cancers is my cousin Pam. Here is Part 2 of Pam's story in her own words, which details her treatment and support network.

The Mammogram Experience
I finally got my appointment for my first of many mammograms, and it truly was not as bad as what I was told. Here in my hometown we have a breast cancer screening clinic with digital mammography machines and they are amazing. To quote Erma Bombeck (sort of), it was NOT a case of open door, insert boob and slam shut! I will admit it was not comfortable but I didn't find it painful.

TIP: Don't look down! Do you really need to see how flat your boob will go? and what you don't see, won't hurt as bad. But regardless, it was a necessary 'evil' in my journey. After the initial mammogram, I was scheduled for an ultrasound, and then a core biopsy of the actual lump (not pleasant).

My Advocate
While all this was going on, my poor mother was dragged into almost every appointment with me to act as my eyes, ears, and brain at times, to listen and question the medical professionals. Being a retired registered nurse made her invaluable to me both as a professional herself, and my mom. I don't care how old one gets....I still needed my mommy through this! I knew myself that I had what I call "trigger words' that would just set my brain off spinning, and by the time I got myself pulled together mentally, I'd missed the next three sentences out of the doctors mouth, so my mom took over for me at those points.

I also had my medical vocabulary vastly expanded which is a must if you are to understand what is happening and going to happen to your own body. Cancer has a language all its own and my mom lovingly translated it for me even though I know she was truly worried from her core for me. But being a professional, she kept the facts clinical, straightforward and to the point for both of us.

I finally got into see the surgeon/cancer specialist and yes there was an anomaly in a couple of cells. I was told that I had DCIS - ductal carcinoma in situ (cancer in the milk duct) and that although what they found was very small (less then 1 cm) it should be removed. I had to make the decision: how much was to go? At 43, I had to decide if I wanted just the lump removed or to have the whole breast taken.

I opted for just the lump and a small section of tissue in the surrounding area removed. Later they would find that there was a microscopic hole in the tumor, indicating that even one single cell could have traveled beyond the breast, so I was scheduled to have a sentinel lymph node biopsy done. Luckily the results came back that all the nodes they had removed were clear of any cancer. Oh Happy Birthday to me. Yes, I managed to have another birthday during all this.

By the time my second surgery was done with the lymph nodes, over six months had gone by. I still had to have 20 radiation treatments just as a precaution to make sure they got all the cancer cells. I was scheduled for my treatments over 5 weeks. Every day I went to the regional cancer centre here in Kitchener, ON, and every day I met with my team of radiation specialists. Somehow with their help and compassion, I managed to keep my sense of humour and my ‘fight’. After my last treatment, I think I ran out of the hospital to the car with a "Get me the hell out of here!" Right after that, I went home and collapsed from emotional exhaustion.

Sweet Freedom
My last appointment with my oncologist was the news that anyone in my position wants to hear. "We got it all! You are cancer-free." And then I was told that because the lymph biopsy was clear, they felt confident that my 'cancer-free' date was May 2009.

During all this, I had tremendous support from my family and my co-workers and a magnificent group of girlfriends. The "Wine Club" girls were my lifeline and they kept me laughing, even during the tough surgical recovery times. My partner at the time was also one of my biggest supporters right up there with my mom.

My Advice
My advice to all women is to be diligent in your own health. Get to know your own body, as early detection is key to your health. The earlier you find anything the better your chances are of a full recovery. And if you do find something, do not procrastinate. Get your butt into your doctor and get it taken care of. Fear could kill you!

I was also loaned a book from the wife of the pastor of my church, Denise Elliott and she herself is a breast cancer survivor. In this book was a single sentence that changed how I was to view myself and my new body image.

"I love my scars. They saved my life."

I do not view them as disfigurement. They are my badge of honour/survival. Without them, I very well might be dead.

In honour of my own journey, I had a tattoo done for myself that is of a wonderful childhood memory: a monarch butterfly. In place of a regular black body is a pink ribbon. On my five-year anniversary of being cancer-free, I am going to have the word "survivor" written alongside my butterfly.

Be sure to check out Part 1 of Pam's story if you missed it. Thanks again for donations to this worthy cause.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Someone to Walk For - Part 1

I am honored to be walking for my cousin Pam (the lady to the left) in the Weekend to End Women's Cancers. She was treated for breast cancer at age 43. Today, she is doing well.

I asked her if she would mind sharing her story. I anticipated doing this in typical journalistic style. But she wrote it so well, that I'm going to simply post Pam's story in her words.

Here is Part 1 of Pam's story.

Due Diligence

First I have to go back to a little earlier in my life to have anyone reading this understand why it is so important to be diligent in one's own health. Over 20 years ago I switched family doctors and my new doc took into consideration the fact that I was an adoptee, in making recommendations to me with regards to what I needed to do yearly. One of her recommendations was that I have a complete physical at the very least, every other year. I did one better by having it done yearly, and I did so from the age of about 23, up to and including now.

During one of my first physicals, I had my doctor show me how to properly do a self breast exam, and I've been doing them ever since every month. So when I did finally find something, I knew with absolute certainty that it had NOT been there the month before or was too small for me to detect at that time.

In January of 2009 at the age of 43, my life changed forever. During one of my, by now routine, self exams, I found what no woman ever wants to find. A LUMP. That word took on a life of its own. The very next day I called my doctor and was told that I could not get in that day but the next day they had an opening. That was not going to do me any good as I was leaving that day for my vacation in Cuba for a week. So, I booked an appointment for the day after I returned. Cuba was wonderful but I constantly had my future playing in the back of my mind.

The Diagnosis
Upon my return, I went to my appointment the next day, and I got to hear the words, "this warrants further investigation" and see a look of concern on my doctor's face. Sitting there in my gown on the table in the examining room, I could feel my brain goes into self-talk mode with the mantra, "Don’t panic, don't panic, and don’t panic!!! BREATHE dammit!!!!!!!!!!"

So, I calmly got dressed, made my way out to the reception desk, was told that they would call me when my referral appointments were booked, said thank you and left.

I got in my car and proceeded to drive home and on the way, in my medical information haze, I drove through a red light with a police cruiser RIGHT BEHIND ME!!! About two whole blocks later I finally saw the flashing lights in my rearview mirror and realized they were not chasing some deviant criminal. They were chasing me! The officer came to the window and I still had no idea why I was pulled over. I'm not sure why but the officer gave me a stern warning that I needed to concentrate on the road and let me go at that. I took his advice long enough to get home in one piece.

I walked around in a daze for the rest of the weekend, and by Saturday evening, I had my first of many short-lived private pity parties. The pity party would start with just that....self pity (the why me's), which would set off a whole series of emotions, tears included, that always ended with the self talk inside my head, yelling to just knock it off, do what you have to do and get over this.

One thing I do know, is that anyone that has been told they may have or do have cancer, all of us have had that fleeting moment where one has to entertain the thought of dying. I know I did and I hate to admit this, but it was NOT a fleeting moment. I even went so far as to make sure I had a will which until all this happened, was always one of those things I would get done, someday.

Part 2 of Pam's story will be published next week. In the meantime, any donations to the Weekend to End Women's Cancers are greatly appreciated.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Tell Cancer to Take a Hike

I'm sick of losing people to cancer. This past year, cancer has been a particularly giant asshole. Three friends lost significant women in their lives to cancer. They were moms, grandmas, good people.

We lost a dear family friend, Joyce Schwartz, to breast cancer which had metastasized to her brain. The sad irony is she was a pillar of strength when my mother-in-law, Sue Smeltzer, died after a brief but brutal battle with lung cancer. At the time, she lived next door to my father-in-law and checked in on him often to make sure he was doing okay.

A couple years after Sue died, my husband and I moved to the West Coast. We kept in touch, sent Christmas cards along with photos my husband had taken, usually a scenic shot of Vancouver. Joyce had once lived out here and was happy that we had decided to try our hand at life out here.

As it often goes when you move far away from friends, we didn't talk to her nearly enough. Last summer I went home for a visit with our son. My father-in-law picked up his grandson and took his home in the Ottawa Valley for the day. He told me he'd taken him to see Joyce as he thought it would cheer her up. It was only then that I learned that her cancer had come back. She died last winter.

So in August, I'll be taking part in the 60 km, two-day Weekend to End Women's Cancers walk with my friend Chrissy as part of her team, The Juggernauts, to do our part to give cancer the old heave ho. Join us and tell cancer to take a hike. Make a donation, join us for a walk ('cause yeah, I really have to start training) or come and cheer us on. Any support you can give us is greatly appreciated.