Thursday, June 22, 2017

The First Rays of Light

Today is my last chemotherapy infusion. It marks the first positive thing that I can associate with this experience since it all started three days before Christmas, 2016.

It is not the end, by any means. I'll spend the next few weeks feeling crummy and tired. I may lose the last of this peach fuzz on my head and these ever-thinning eyebrows. My energy will be zapped, and just a simple walk will feel like I'm climbing a mountain. 

But unlike the last three treatment cycles, once these after-effects begin to wear off and I start feeling better, it will be for good.  No more looming smack-downs.  No more little voices in my head saying, "Umm, yeah.  Don't get too excited about feeling good today, because that will end soon."  With this cycle I can finally do what I haven't been able to do all year:  Look forward and start to heal.

From the moment I was diagnosed with Stage 1 breast cancer, our lives have been consumed by the present.  We wait for test results, focus on surgery, on my treatment plan, our next doctor's appointment, the next test.  I worried they'd recommend chemo, and I cried and stressed when they did.  Should I do it?  How bad will it be?  What will it do to my body?  How will my day-to-day life be altered?  Can I work?  Can I go out and do things?  How will this affect my family?  It's stressful and all-engrossing.  And embarking on chemotherapy is like walking through a long, dark tunnel.  Many times I stood in the middle, not able to see light at either end and wondered if I'd made the right choice to do it.  But once you enter that tunnel, you can't go back.  You have to just keep moving in the direction you started, feeling your way along clammy cold walls and trusting the people who promise it's the right path and that there really will be light at the other end.

Today, I finally see that glimmer of light up ahead.  The relief is overwhelming.

There's more to do.  I will have radiation next and hormone treatment after that.  But more than one oncologist has told me this period is the worst of it.  I'm at the summit, and once I complete this round, it's all down hill by comparison.  Finally, I can do something I haven't done since this year started, and that is to start focusing on the future with hope, relief, and a determination to make some positive changes in my life.

Today is a good, good day.

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

Why Me?!

It's not a question I dwell on.  I tend to be the type of person who focuses more on what I'm going to do about a situation than why something happened in the first place.  But when faced with a cancer diagnosis, it's impossible not to at least briefly ponder the question, "Why Me?"

There is no history of cancer in my family.  Not prevalent, at least.  And statistically, 70% of people diagnosed with breast cancer have no family history of it.  That alone is a scary thought.  Then add to it the constant bombardment of information about cancer-fighting foods, cancer-causing foods, our environment, plastics, GMOs, hormones, carcinogens....the list is endless.  Put it together and any reasonable person would, at some point, wonder if they've done something to bring this upon themselves.  Yet when I asked my oncologist that very question, her answer was a quick and decisive, "No.  It's just the luck of the draw".

Unless you believe in giant conspiracies, it's hard to reconcile those two.  How can there be so much advice, legislature and information about cancer-causing everything, yet when you get it, your oncologist tells you it's just a random thing and you're just unlucky?  It was my own physician who said that cancer is often a "three strikes you're out" kind of thing.  Most of the time, one thing in and of itself will not give you cancer.  It's usually a combination of genetics, family history, lifestyle, age that come together to create that perfect storm.  And logically, that makes sense to me.

The type of cancer I have feeds on estrogen.  It's the most common type of breast cancer, particularly for women my age, right around menopause, when hormones are shaking things up.  Couple that with being overweight for the last 10 years--another thing that raises the estrogen levels in your body--and that's probably two of my strikes right there.  But what about the third?

Though I can't find definitive scientific evidence of this, I do have my own theory.  And it has to do with over 30 years of birth control.

I started on birth control pills at the age of 18, and stayed on them until I was 30.  At that time, because I smoked, my doctor took me off them due to the high risk of heart attack when combining birth control and cigarettes after the age of 30.  It wasn't a big deal as I had been married a while and we were starting to mumble about eventually getting around to being parents.  And four years later, my son was born.  After his birth, however, I wasn't keen on getting pregnant again, and needed something better than the diaphram and "good luck timing" we were relying on before.  That's when my doctor told me about Depo Provera.

Depo Provera is another hormone-based form of birth control that is still around today.  I loved it.  You go in for a shot every 13 weeks and forget about it.  It stops your periods (BONUS!), has virtually no side effects (for me, at least), and did not carry the same heart attack warnings of traditional birth control pills.  With no reason to stop, I stayed on Depo Provera for 18 years, up until I turned 52, which was the age my doctor typically liked to take women off it.

And two years later, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

At first, I hadn't considered a connection, until I started seeing things about my type of cancer being caused by hormone replacement therapy.  In fact, the risk of breast cancer is so high that doctors don't even treat women with hormone therapy unless the case is extreme.  So I started looking up Depo Provera, and what I found on the internet was a lot of contradicting information.  One study found that Depo Provera raises the risk of breast cancer by something like 200%.  It also said that risk remains high within 5 years of stopping the injections. However, that study is considered controversial and other studies show Depo Provera has no impact on breast cancer at all.  In fact, you can still walk into your doctor's office and get the Depo shot for birth control.

I asked my surgeon about it and he reiterated what I'd read:  That there is a debate, and right now, no one knows for sure.  In defense of Depo, it is not an estrogen-based hormone.  But it is a hormone.  And when someone has been adding artificial hormones to her body for almost 30 years, you have to wonder.  Add to that a diet that includes a lot of hormone-fed animal products.  In my perpetual effort to drop 50 lbs, I've been stuck on a high-protein, low-carb diet seemingly forever.   And with a boy at home that won't eat anything that didn't once "moo", our dinners have been centered around meat and chicken for a long time.

So there you have this intersection of many different things all coming together to put me in this spot.  At least in theory.  Decades of hormone-based birth control, a diet filled with too much hormone-fed animal products, a BMI too high, and an age that is ripe for developing breast cancer.  I may be wrong.  It could be just the luck of the draw that my oncologist says it is.  But if I were to lay odds on lifestyle choices that may have played a part, that would be it.

It may sound surprising, but there is actually comfort in thinking that I had somehow contributed to my situation.  You see, if you believe you did it, then you can undo it.  It's a matter of control versus no control.  And if you know me, you know I always opt for control.  I am, after all, the person who stupidly said a mere 4 weeks before my diagnosis:  "Man, I need a health scare to whip me into shape [to eat better, exercise more and lose weight]."  Yes, I really did say that.  I will never say it again!

On the Depo front, even the controversial study included some positive news.  It found that the increased risks taper off after a few years off of the shots. So even if that study is later supported by more research, it seems I haven't sunk myself for life.  And in the meantime, when I am watching daytime TV and hearing those class action lawsuit commercials (mesotheleoma anyone?) I will keep my ears peeled on the topic of Depo Provera.  You can bet that!

But short of that, it's where the "Why Me?" pondering ends.  In my opinion, the best way to ruin a life is to spend too much time obsessing over what might of been.  And I have no interest in doing that.  But these are definitely things that will shape my future.

Next Thursday is my last chemotherapy treatment, and I can't wait.  Not only because chemo sucks and I'm officially sick of being sick.  But I am looking forward to getting this treatment behind me so I can start really focusing on what my post-cancer life will look like.  I intend for it to be a healthier one.  Hey, I asked for that health scare, I got it, so I better damn well do something with that. But even if losing weight, eating a more plant-based diet, eating clean, exercising more and building up my strength doesn't prevent me from getting cancer again, it will definitely improve the quality of my life in between.

I can also attest that if you are faced with having to go through cancer treatment, the healthier you are going in, the easier it will be on your body to get through it.  Trust me on that.  It's a win-win no matter what.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Three Down, One To Go

I just finished my third infusion, and knowing that I only have to do this one more time is the second best feeling, behind never having to come back!

The upside of this visit was talking to a different oncologist (mine is on vacation). Not that I think one is better than the other, but it's nice to hear things from different professionals.  Sometimes they state things differently, they might throw in something the other guy never mentioned, etc.

For one thing, after telling him about the horrible aches, headaches and migraines I got from the booster shot they gave me last time, he is switching me to another booster which doesn't hit you with it all at once. Instead of one big shot that is supposed to take you through two weeks, I'll get 7 little shots over 7 days.  They will also monitor my reaction to them, and if I am in bad shape, they feel I can quit them after as few as 3.  That is a really, really great thing, and I'll tell you why:

Chemo infusions are kinda like getting into some sort of accident where you are injured and feeling horrible for days and then, thankfully, you recover. The difference when it comes to chemo is that you know what day that accident will happen. It's the dread and anticipation that is almost as bad as the experience itself. So even if this switch in booster shots doesn't improve my situation, today, it is giving me the hope that it might not. I don't know it will be bad, and not knowing is a bonus I'll take.

As a side note to this, I will add that after each infusion, I've been keeping a daily log of what I ate, how I'm feeling, how I slept, etc.  This has been a HUGE help, and if you ever find yourself going through something like this, DO IT.  I'd logged the first week after my last infusion then put the log away the moment I started feeling better.  When I picked it up today before my appointment, I realized how much I had forgotten.  Without it, I would have told the oncologist that "I just had one bad night of migraines."  The log helped me remember that I didn't have one bad night of migraines.  I had 5 days of aches and pains, headaches bad enough to keep me out of work for 3 days, a bad heartburn-like feeling in my sternum which they think was caused by the booster, and a slew of other things I'd quickly wiped out of my memory banks.  I'm not sure if the doctor would have recommended the change in booster if I hadn't been keeping this log and had understated my reaction (it's amazing how quickly we erase bad experiences from our memory once we are past them).  So if you are ever in a situation like this, log, log, log!

The second thing he did was reaffirm what I've been told many times, but I just need to keep hearing it again from as many people as possible, especially oncologists who do this every day. He confirmed that yes, chemo really is the worst of all my treatments when it comes to fatigue and feeling like my body is 80 years old, and the fitness I'd worked so hard to build up is all gone, and I'll have to start from square one when I'm done, and...and.... Like so many of my wonderful friends have reminded me, it is TEMPORARY. And more to the point, I really will bounce back more quickly after this than it took me to build up the fitness in the first place. I will help myself to keep walking and swimming on days that I can, even if it's depressing and hard.  But I will keep up with it for that goal of bouncing back faster at the end.

Hearing that (AGAIN) made me happy. It all made me happy.

So here we go. Infusion day and the day after I'm always feeling good because I'm amped on steroids. The train will hit me over the weekend, and I'm hopeful this time, it's just a little Thomas The Tank train instead of high speed rail.   Today's doctor joked, "We learn from every infusion, so I'm confident that by Infusion 4 [my last] we'll have this nailed."  Haha

But no matter how this goes: I'VE ONLY GOT ONE MORE TO GO!!!

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

Battling Fatigue

Before I started chemotherapy, my morning exercise routine was to get up early, head off to the gym to enjoy a 30 minute swim.  Once home, I'd follow that up with a 1.5 mile walk with my husband.  I did this without much effort.  In fact, before my cancer diagnosis, I was thinking I needed to add something more challenging to my regime.

Boy, have things changed.

I learned the hard way that swimming and walking are an either/or choice now.  I tried to do both a while back and barely made it through the day, I was so tired and exhausted.  And it's only gone down hill since then.  Lately, I've skipped the pool and opted for the walk with my husband, and increasingly, even that has become hard.  Though it's just an easy walk through our neighborhood, I huff and puff as if I were climbing Mt. Tam.  And when I get home, I'm making a bee-line to my office chair to get off my feet and rest.

Today, I went for a swim instead, and it's as if 5 years of swimming fitness is gone.  I'd gone back to the easier swim routine I did when I first started at the pool, and even that was a challenge.

And it's not just exercise. This long Memorial Day weekend, I felt good enough to take on the project of creating a decorative area for the fountain my husband bought me for my birthday.  I spent two days making the wooden backdrop for this and putting together the plants.  Hubby did all the hauling and placing of the stone pavers--I knew better than to even try to help.

While I love the outcome and enjoyed getting out and "being my old self" for a couple days, I definitely paid the price.  I spent Memorial Day in my recliner, barely getting up to take a shower, and I was still tired and beat on Tuesday.

It definitely feels as though my days of being fit and active are behind me, which is an extremely depressing thought.

My oncologist continues to tell me that all this is temporary, but my psyche doesn't believe it.  Chemotherapy has knocked me on my ass, and I know that fatigue is the primary side effect of the radiation therapy that comes next.  I've also read that the hormone therapy that will follow radiation therapy for me can also drag you down.  Add all this up and I will be over 60 years old before I'm done with all this cancer treatment--and that's if the cancer doesn't come back.  Now, I know that 60 is hardly considered old these days, but when you're 55 and already feeling like your body is 80, thoughts of finally getting my energy back after the Big 6-0 does little to perk my spirit.

So is there an upside to all this?  I really don't like putting up a post that serves no purpose other than to bitch and gripe about my situation.  So in the spirit of ending on a high note, I need to remind myself that all won't be as bleak as it seems today.  Most people who went through it all say that radiation is far less taxing on the body than chemotherapy, and I hope that is my experience also.  I'm only at the 1/2 way mark through chemo (something that feels more daunting than good right now), but after my last infusion, I will have 6 weeks off before I start radiation.  I'm hopeful that I can start some sort of recovery in that 6 week period, and that any recovery I do accomplish won't get wiped out once I start rads.  Unfortunately for me right now, only time is going to tell!

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Infusion 2 of 4: Hellraiser Returns

After the first infusion, I'd said I set the bar low.  If figured it I could just stay out of the hospital, this next infusion would be an improvement over the first one.

I take that all back.  I didn't end up in the hospital, but thanks to the injection I'm getting now which stimulate marrow growth and (hopefully) prevent the loss of almost all my white blood counts, in exchange for a hospital stay, I got two days of severe migraine headaches that made me want to put a gun to my head and pull the trigger.

Migraines run in my family.  I'd never had one before.  I hope to never have one again, but unfortunately, I have two more infusions to go through which will no doubt bring them back.  I am not looking forward to this.  I had 2nd my infusion last Thursday, it's now Tuesday (it is Tuesday, right?) and I'm only now just emerging from the fog.

This has all been made worse by the fact that Al is now sick, and the doctors have been taking samples trying to find out what's wrong.  We thought he'd caught one of the infections I came home with from my hospital stay, but that test came up negative.  Now, we are waiting for more test results.

So, pretty much since Saturday, this house has been a giant tomb of misery.  No one sleeps, no one eats.  We are all patients and no care-givers.

On the upside, I think I am beginning to come out of my fog, at least.  But I will tell you this:  Chemotherapy can NOT end soon enough.  And if I should ever be put in this situation again, I will not immediately agree to it.  It will be a very hard sell for the next oncologist. 

My only hope is there will never have to be such a thing as a "next time"!

Friday, May 12, 2017

A Slice Of Normal Life!

Oh what a glorious day, I got to go back to the pool, even though it's just for a few days.

You see, there are two things good about Infusion Day.  One, I get my blood work done, and yesterday I got the a-okay that all my counts were good, my immune system is strong, and for the next few days, at least, I am safe to operate as a normal human being.

Second, they put me on 3 days of steroids surrounding the infusion to prevent allergic reaction, and to generally hold back the worst of the side-effects.  If you've ever had reason to be on steroids, you will understand why athletes are drawn to them.  You feel pretty strong and invincible.  It's a short-lived high that leaves you with a big crash after, but when you're grasping for a little bit of feel-good normalcy, I'll take it!

So the first thing I did was get up early and get my butt to the pool!!  It was my first swim in 4 weeks and it felt WONDERFUL!  I was also blessed to meet up with two of my favorite swimming buddies, Diane and Jill, who were gracious enough to take a swim cap selfie with me to commemorate the occasion.

I am safe to go back in the pool tomorrow too, and maybe Sunday if I am up to it.  I plan to get the swims in while I can.  After that, I'm back in danger of my blood counts going down, so I will probably sit it out again until I know I'm in the clear. My doctor keeps telling me that, since the pool is chlorinated I shouldn't have to worry.  She knows how good it is for my mind and body and she encourages me to not stress so much about catching a bug in the water.  But after that hospital stint, I think I'd rather play it safe than sorry.

But ohhh was today wonderful.  The pool is my zen.  I love getting there early, before the sun comes up if I can because it's so calm and serene.  Today I was jumping in at an ungodly 5:20 a.m. (steroids also keep you amped up and awake).  But it was great.  I'd do it every day if I could consistently get up that early.

In the pool, I am thin and fit and in shape (a concept that always reminds me of Shelly Winters in the Poseidon Adventure, heh). Physically, it's a great workout for me because it's low impact, but it also forces heavy rhythmic breathing. My body gets a good dose of oxygen. Throw some music on my waterproof iPod and it's my favorite way to start my day.

Right now, I have a lot of upbeat music on my swim shuffle, happy "life is good" kinda music. It's a great reminder to me that even though I have been finding The Dark Side lately, life really IS worth this fight, and before I know it, I'll be able to enjoy many more of these simple pleasures I used to take for granted.

My swim song list, in case anyone is wondering:

Sunday, May 7, 2017

Voices From The Dark Side

All of this will be for nothing.  This cancer is going to come back, I'm sure of it.  I know this because, ever since I had that stupid mammogram back in November, 2016, not a solitary thing has gone my way.  They said, "Don't worry, we caught this early and it's teeny tiny small!"  As if that mattered one iota.  It didn't save me from chemo, and chemo has been The Shit.  Everything bad that could happen has happened.  So why expect a big shift now?  The radiation will go badly too.  Then the hormone pills will completely fuck me up.  They'll make me gain 50 lbs and I'll never sleep again thanks to heart palpitations and night sweats.  I'll be a sleepless, sweating, bloated alien with no body hair and one red boob.  And maybe, if I'm lucky, by Christmas 2017 I will have a short peek at what my old life was like before the next mammogram is due and they find a new spot.  Basically, my life has been summed up like this:  There was a good healthy confident life before the mammogram.  Now there is a shit life after.

These are the Voices from The Dark Side.  And they are nasty and mean.  On bad days, they even have me resenting my oncologist for trying to cure me.  Is she even competent?  Is she just making me do all this to rack up fees?  Is she getting kick-backs from all these pharmaceutical companies?

I really hate TDS.  It's destructive, it serves no purpose, and it creeps up on you when you least expect it.  It makes a hard time even more difficult than it has to be, and sucks the joy out of the day or night.

I'm fortunate that I don't go there very often, but staying away doesn't come easily.  I've had to distance myself from the negative--or just ill-witted--people who try to drag me in there with their doomsday comments.  The people who, for reasons I will never understand, seem to think I need to be told about all the bad cancer shit, instead of working to keep me focused on the positives.  (I promise that if you or a family member are ever diagnosed, you can talk to me because I will NEVER do that to you.)  Seriously, if there is ever a time in a person's life when they need to stay focused on the positives, this is it.  And it's a fucking hard thing to do.

And then on the flipside are the wonderful people who do keep it positive, who come around often and make sure I'm okay.  I torture those poor people, because I flip between needing to get out of the house and needing to stay home and decompress in solitude.  And that need changes day-by-day, hour-by-hour.  I don't expect anyone to anticipate my current mood, and will never fault any of them for getting it wrong.  I'm a hard person to figure out right now.

But what ultimately works against me is that I can so easily become a couch potato.  And now that I'm working fewer hours and have doctors telling me to rest, I could pretty easily get up in the morning, sit on the couch, eat almond milk ice cream, chips and guacamole and watch TV all day.  From early childhood, it was my tendency to lean in that direction (growing up in rainy Oregon helped).  But too much of that isolation sends me over to TDS.  So unless it's a day when I'm feeling physically bad, I'll have to stop that no matter how much the Itty Bitty Shitty Committee in my head tells me I have every right to sit and do nothing but watch TV and eat sugar. 

Because, of course, the best cure for TDS is to get up, move around, breath air and do something constructive with at least a good portion of the day.  That really is the answer.  You've got to stay busy enough that you don't have time to sit down for hours and start living in your own head.

From the time I took off work at 3:00 on Friday until the time I went to bed Saturday night, I couch potatoed for no good reason.  My stomach is feeling better, so I used it as an excuse to eat crap all day.  And what I got for it was a night of insomnia filled with Voices From The Dark Side.  It's why I'm up at 3:21 a.m. writing this post.  I had to get up and do something that would start me moving in the other direction.  The Voices want me to feel sorry for myself, be sad and depressed, but the rest of me can't tolerate that kind of existence.

So I'll start tomorrow with new rules designed to keep me out of TDS.  From now on, Couch Potatoing is for those crummy-feeling days when I physically can't do much more.  There will be enough of them in my future, so I don't have to worry about missing my favorite shows.

Days like this beautiful Saturday we just had, when my body is feeling good and the sun is shining, are not the days to sit around and be lazy.  Those are days to get out and go shopping, or get on my orange and white Cruiser (I call it my Creamcycle, heh) and go for a bike ride.  This last week I worked from home (more isolation=bad) but I'm back in the office on Monday and will be happy to be there.  I love my coworkers and enjoy being around people and talking about non-cancer things like work and hobbies and other people's lives.

It won't be easy because I really do like to sit around and be lazy and have the house to myself to do what I want.  Give me the option of sitting on the couch with ice cream or sitting on the weight machine in the garage pumping iron, the couch will win every time.  But I've got to muster the will to change that going forward, as the price I pay for it is too high.  I've got WAY too much more shit to go through to have my psyche derailed on me now.  I'll never get through it if I stay on this path.

So, sorry Itty Bitty Shitty Committee, but you will have to go back to your Sith Lord and tell them The Force is too strong with this one.  I've got my army of Jedi Knights've seen the movies.  With the right plot, the good guys always win.

(Gosh, I guess I shoulda posted this on May the 4th. :) )