Five Year Cancerversary

fiveyearsToday marks the five year anniversary of the day I heard the words nobody wants to hear. “You have cancer”. The five year “cancerversary” is a big milestone for most cancer survivors because, statistically, after five years the chances of recurrence drop significantly. For me, that part no longer applies since my cancer has already metastasized. Despite that, I’m still going to celebrate my five year survivorship. I’m still surviving. Looking back, these five years have certainly had rough spots. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that. 

These five years have also been packed with love, adventure and great experiences. Looking back, these have been some of the best years of my life. I married the love of my life. We bought a house together and built a home (We’re days away from finishing our kick-ass bathroom renovation!). We’ve become a tight family of four. I joined Team Phoenix and gained an entire family of amazing sisters. I completed two triathlons, and encouraged my kids to try it. We took an epic two month long trip (our “Familymoon”) in a vintage RV named Cliff. We camped and explored several National Parks, include some amazing places in the Canadian Rockies. We rode horses to a tea house high over Lake Louis. We’ve come face to face with a grizzly bear and her baby. We’ve ridden motorcycles through these breath-taking National Parks. We’ve slept under a meteor showers in the Badlands. We’ve hiked glaciers, stood on the edge of the Grand Canyon, sat in natural hot springs, jumped off a cliff into an icy Blue Hole, and hike to remote Cliff dwellings. I’ve been blessed. These five years with family and friends have brought me so much joy. 

Our plans for new adventures are always bubbling. We have a couple more trips planned for 2019 already and my bucket list is over-flowing with adventures I want to share with my family. I also have a few applications in for retreats that have been established for cancer patients. One includes the family and one is all about pampering little ole’ me. 

I can certainly say that cancer has changed my life in many ways. It has become cliche, but the diagnosis has made me more aware of the things that are important. It has helped me shed the things that were holding me down. It  has taught me to listen to my body and take care of my health. It has given me a sense of urgency to live fully and pack in the things I want to do and share with my family. It has taught me to say “yes” to the challenges, get-togethers, and activities, in case I don’t get another chance. (Well-except for the “Frosty 5K” race that my friends did in spite of negative 20 degree temperatures- That challenge was not for me…) It has also made me aware of my mortality (a condition all of us share). Not one of us knows how long we have to live, and nobody has an expiration date stamped on them. I now take each day as it comes and do what I can. Some are better than others, but I’m sure that’s not unique to me.

Life has become a tough balancing act, facing an incurable illness. The pains and fatigue and sickness are real. The fear of what the future holds is real. My goal is to not let that fear paralyze me. Fear won’t stop me from planning my future. Fear won’t stop me from pushing my limits. Fear won’t stop me from taking each day for what it is, good and bad. My goal is to stay strong (thank you Team Phoenix for making it a priority to be Strong, Proud, Alive and Re-Defined!!). My goal is to raise my daughters and give them the opportunities to learn and grow and explore the world. My goal is to thrive despite a cancer diagnosis. I’ll always have hope that the good days outweigh the rough days. I’ll always have hope for a cure. I’m taking it one step at a time. Today-I’m celebrating five years thriving with cancer. I hope there will be cake! (Honey-will there be cake?)

Health Insurance Blues

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I have a love/hate relationship with my health insurance company. It is a necessary evil. Without it, I would be way beyond medical bankruptcy. With it, insurance providers control aspects of my health care that should be between me and my doctors. There’s not much I can do about it. In my invincible 20’s, I thought I didn’t need health insurance. I was living a very healthy lifestyle. I ate well and got plenty of exercise and sleep. I was healthy. I still am healthy, actually, except for this one thing….

As I got older, I realized I needed insurance. Now I know how lucky I am to have good health insurance. I also know the frustrations. Insurance issues are a common problem in my network of cancer patient friends. Chemo and surgery are being delay, or worse, denied by insurance companies. I understand that medical costs dictate some things, but it hurts to see women who can’t get the life-saving treatments they need because insurance companies won’t pay. The added stress dealing with insurance issues and finances is the last thing a cancer patient needs. Stress kills.

Medical costs with a life-long illness are mind boggling. I stopped adding up expenses after my first year of treatment. I left off around $600,000. Since then, I’ve had 4 more surgeries, several scans, tests, and shockingly costly chemo meds. I’m guessing that by now I’m a million dollar baby. Luckily, My insurance has covered most of my medical bills without too many headaches. This makes my current argument more frustrating. 

Last night, I tossed and turned. I was hit with a panic attack. I don’t know who dropped the ball. Somewhere between my cancer center, the pharmacy, and the insurance company, my chemo meds did not arrive on my doorstep in time for me to start my current cycle. My loving husband is much more calm and cool than I am.  He’s better at handling long waits on hold and repeated conversations that go nowhere. He has spent hours on the phone every day this week trying to get my pills for me. For some unexplained reason, the pharmacy claims we had a change of insurance and did not approve my meds. Our insurance company did not change. We did upgrade our plan as of the first of the year with a lower deductible and co-pay (still trying to avoid medical bankruptcy). The pharmacy already sent one round of pills in January, so I don’t know what the issue is. I’m angry because nobody informed me that there may be an issue with my pills. It’s my third cycle of pills, nothing new or unforeseen. 

I was supposed to start taking them on Sunday. Now it’s Wednesday, and I’m still waiting for the hospital to get a pre-authorization for the insurance company. (And my cancer clinic is closed today due to weather). In the overall scheme of things, missing a week of pills should not have a profound effect my health, I’ve been told. That’s hard to wrap my head around, though. I’ve had a rapid, positive response to this new med after only two cycles, and the delay is messing with my head. Friends have said that I’m lucky to get a nice break from side effects. True enough. Side effects suck. But I can’t help but fear that the delay is giving cancer a chance to regain a foothold. This is not something I should have to stress about. If everyone had done their jobs and got my cancer meds to me on time, or at least informed me early enough that there may be a problem so we could have started leaning on them sooner, I wouldn’t have a problem. 

I’ve had a rough seven months dealing with the effects of cancer metastasizing around my lungs and abdomen. The first line of treatment did not work and my symptoms were coming back. By fall my shortness of breath and cough started up again. The fluid around my abdomen worsened, and I had pain and a loss of appetite. Over the holidays, I lost weight that I didn’t want to lose. I was exhausted, and generally feeling ill, weak, and frail. After two rounds with my second line of treatment (the pill I’m currently waiting on), these symptoms started to improve. The cough went away. My gut no longer felt like I had a bowling ball in it. My appetite improved. The meds are working. I want my meds. I want my health.

Maybe I’m just cranky because the windchill is 55 BELOW zero.  

This Phoenix Will Rise Again

This Phoenix Will Rise Again

The fire and ashes are building all around me. I’ve been through this cycle of burning down and rising up from the ashes before, and I will do it again. Metastatic Breast Cancer. My current set-back.  As a breast cancer survivor, it’s not an unexpected hurdle. Sadly, I’ve witnessed my peers going through similar difficulties. All I can do is take it day by day, trust my treatment plan, and do my best to redefine myself once more.

I haven’t been feeling well for some time. I wrote it off to my slow recovery from the knee injury, and the fact that I have not been able to get back into a regular exercise routine. This spring, I generally felt weak and out of shape. About a month ago, my symptoms were getting noticeably worse. I had shortness of breath, and I developed wheezing and a cough. I have to say, this is the worst cough I’ve ever had. And I’ve had all forms of bronchitis, pneumonia, etc. This is definitely worse.

On July 23rd, I went to the ER with sharp pain in my ribs along with the severe cough and shortness of breath. I knew something was not right with my lungs. After a number of tests, I ended up being hospitalized overnight. They found that I have pleural effusion (fluid in the lining around both my lungs). They did a thoracentesis (stuck a catheter into the pleural cavity via my back- yes, I was awake…) on the right side to drain the fluid and sent it for analysis. The left side was more complicated. The fluid was loculated, hardened into multiple, fibrotic pockets, therefore, not free flowing nor able to drain. I was told at this time that surgery would be the only way to clear the gunk from my left side.

Over the next week or so, I did several other tests, X-rays, CT scan and blood work. And coughed and coughed. 

On August 1st, I saw my oncologist to try to make sense of the results and develop a treatment plan. The fluid in my pleural cavity (space around my lungs) contains cancer cells that had spread from my original breast tumor. All of the other scans are clear, though, and the cells have not formed any tumors that could be detected. Of course, ILC, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma is known for being extremely difficult to detect via scan, so there’s that grain of salt. 

The cells have changed slightly from the original tumor (ER/PR+HER2- to ER+PR/HER2-), but not enough for me to need to go through chemo again. My doctor will put me on hormone therapies (Ibrance and Faslodex) which attack the cells directly. In her experience with other patients, the cells are quite responsive to this therapy. 

Originally, my oncologist felt that the surgery would be too invasive, and that the treatment would clear up the fluid. However, at my next appointment, on August 9th, when I told her that the cough was becoming unbearable, she called the lung specialist. He advised that since the left side is loculated, it will be difficult for the hormones to get into the fluid to do their thing, and he recommended the surgery. With that, he and my oncologist called a lung surgeon immediately and I got in for an appointment the next day. Yay, the perks of having a dream team of connected super-doctors.

Yesterday, August 10th, I met with the lung surgeon to discuss a robotic surgery, called thorascopy (no, I will NOT be awake this time). He will make a small incision and insert a camera, and several other incisions for the surgical instruments that will be used to “break up” the pockets and scrape out the goo. After that, there are two possible outcomes. Either my lung will re-inflate and he will put talc in the cavity to make the lung stick to the pleural lining so that fluid can’t re-fill the cavity. Or, my lung won’t re-inflate, due to damage or tumors or other bad stuff, and he will need to leave a catheter (chest tube) in so that the fluid can continue to drain. This could be for a matter of weeks or months. I’m pulling for option one! But, at this point, I’ll do whatever it takes to relieve the cough and get the cancer cells out. If that means a chest tube, then that means a chest tube. Depending on the outcome, I could be in the hospital for one night or for several nights.

Wasting no time, surgery is scheduled for this Monday, August 13th. This is the least amount of time I’ve ever had to prepare for surgery. My pre-surgery nesting mode is kicking in to high gear, but I don’t really have the energy to do the things on my “to-do” list, so I’m just going to have to accept that stuff isn’t going to get done before surgery. Surgery and healing are my number one priority right now.

This is not a hurdle I wanted to face, but it is the hurdle in front of me, so I have no choice but to charge at it and jump it. Overall, I am very positive about fully recovering from this. Right now, I am laying low and resting as much as I can (and did I mention, coughing…). I look forward to getting some relief soon with the surgery. I will keep everyone updated as new info comes in. 

Cancer-versary, Take 4

Cancer-versary, Take 4

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Four years ago today, I heard the words “you have breast cancer” forever changing my life and challenging my limits. I’ll never forget that day. My time on this planet became more precious that day. My future became more fragile. Looking back brings a flood of emotion as I recall the experience of that moment in time, now altered by the lens of time and new perspective. I now count every year that passes as progress towards the goal of so many survivors – stay on the right side of the percentages to become a 5-year survivor, a 10-year survivor, and on and on.

Amongst cancer survivors, this date is known as a Cancerversary. There is some debate regarding which date truly represents a Cancerversary. Some choose the day they were diagnosed. Others choose the day surgery removed the tumor and they became cancer-free. Others count their anniversary as the day they complete all active treatment. For me, there are several dates that will forever stand as milestones on this journey. I mark January 31st as my Cancerversary, the day I learned of my diagnosis, a day I will never forget. I consider February 24th as my Cancer-Free Versary, the day I became cancer free with surgery. Other dates also are permanently etched into my mind; the first day of chemo, last day of chemo, end of radiation and active treatment, reconstruction surgery.

As much as I’d love to put it all behind me, being a cancer survivor has become a part of who I am. As time goes on, it tries to fall into the back recesses of my memory. Unfortunately, there are always reminders that pop into my day unexpectedly. My latest surgery is a big reminder. Pain is a reminder. Limitations on the things I am able to do is a reminder. The friendships I’ve made, the women who have touched my life in ways I never imagined, and, sadly, the friends I’ve lost serve to keep cancer’s ugly presence in my life.

January 31st never comes and goes without my thoughts turning to what cancer has taken from me, but also what it has given to me. Each year, when I reflect on the impact cancer had on my family, I’m thankful that I’ve been blessed with another year to watch my children grow. I’m thankful that my children have grown to be strong, amazing girls. I’m thankful for every year that I have with my husband. I’m thankful for each new adventure and the ability to plan new adventures for my future.

I honor this anniversary as a day that changed me deeply. I honor this day with respect and love for all of my fellow cancer survivors. Here’s to one more spin around on this amazing planet.

 

 

Perfect 10

Perfect 10

perfect 10

Okay, the image of Bo Derek from the movie “10” has nothing to do with this blog post, but it came to mind when I wrote the title, and I thought it was humorous, so there she is…. On a more serious note, this post is about re-defining what my own “perfect 10” means after the last few years and, of course, after turning 50 (loud and proud!!!) I’m also rounding out my surgery count at a perfect 10.

I didn’t learn from my last blog post, because the first big thing I’m tackling on my “50 after 50 List”, exactly one week after my 50th birthday, is surgery number TENcheck. I’m aiming for a perfect 10. I’m quietly hoping that the nice, round number 10 will symbolize my last time under the knife, but I’m not holding my breath. If I’ve learned anything in my 50 years on planet earth, it’s that life does not fit into the neat little, predictable boxes we may envision for ourselves. I won’t waste my energy worrying about how many more surgeries I might have in my future. I’m going to focus all my energy on the present surgery.

January 26th will be  surgery number ten. Guess what? It’s not the knee surgery you might have anticipated due to my recent accident, rather I’m back at it with the plastic surgeon in Chicago. A lot of people have asked me what this surgery involves. They say, “I thought you did that surgery last year.” It’s complicated, so let me try my best to clarify why I am traveling to Chicago once again for surgery – Andy and I are calling it a “destination surgery”. I know, it is exotic. We did the same thing last January, and Andy still doesn’t let me count it as a honeymoon.

I’ve had a year to recover from Phase One. I’m not gonna lie to you- I’m still not fully recovered. It was one of the tougher ones, and I’m a bit of a connoisseur. My recovery goal was to build my strength back up and get as close to “normal” as possible before Phase Two. My method for recovery was volunteering with Team Phoenix, and completing the Tri-Ing for Children’s Triathlon, and (almost) the J-Hawk Late Bird. As you know, I never made it to the Late Bird, thanks to my rendezvous with a Jeep.

By September, I was feeling strong and setting my sights on a late fall surgery, leaving time to come back in 2018 for the Madison IronMan. My surgeon in Chicago knew that I wanted to have surgery after the September 24th triathlon. Ironically, they called me just after my accident with an opening – October 13th…. With the Honor Flight on October 14th, there was no way I was going to take that date. Anyway, I needed more time to let my knee and bruising heal before going through more trauma (I’m guessing the fat grafting won’t be coming from my thigh with this bruising). It would have to wait. Next available date would be January 26th. I’m so good at hitting “new year, new deductible….

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ouch!

Now, I am more than ready to get on with it. So, back to what this surgery is all about. This is Phase Two DIEP Flap breast reconstruction. If you look back at my post called “Ninth One’s a Doozy”, you will get a little more background on Phase One of this process, which I completed a year ago. In a nutshell, Phase One is the major “relocating” of tissue from my abdomen to my chest to reconstruct a breast post-mastectomy. That surgery included a Lymph Node Transfer in an effort to control my Lymphedema. This is the reason I am traveling to Chicago for surgery. Very few surgeons do this surgery.

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Phase Two involves sculpting and tweaking to try to make my DIEP flap match my other implant side. I’m not going for a perfect 10. I am hoping to be done with the awkward 4.5 I’ve been since the double mastectomy, though. People “in the know” will recognize terms such as “Ken Doll”, “Dog Ears”, and “Fat Necrosis”. These are some of the unsightly, and painful issues that can be fixed in phase two. For more on that, go ask Dr Google (actually, don’t! I just did a google images search, and it ain’t pretty). The fat necrosis is the worst. It causes me pain every day. The other stuff is just embarrassing in a locker room.

Phase 2 will also involve a lymphovenous bypass in my arm as a further attempt to alleviate the swelling caused by my lymphedema. It involves micro surgery in my arm to re-route the lymph vessels into the veins, so that the veins can carry the excess lymph fluid out of my arm. Sounds pretty cool, in theory. I’ll let you know how it feels next week.

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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, “wish me luck….no….wish my surgeon luck-I’ll be sleeping.”

50 After 50

50 After 50

I’ve been working on a “50 after 50” list for over a year now. I suppose you could call it a bucket list, but I’m not planning to kick the bucket any time soon, so I prefer not to use that term. I’m keeping a list of fifty big things that I want to achieve after I turn 50 years old. My original idea was to do all fifty things in my 50th year on this planet, which would have been an amazing accomplishment, but what’s the fun in rushing. I’m here for the long haul. I am going to aim high and enjoy each and every experience on my list. Today I hit that 50 year milestone (hooray!!) That means it’s time to start checking things off my list.

My kids tease me, saying that I don’t understand what a bucket list is supposed to be. This is perhaps because I sometimes joke around, saying things like, “Cancer – I can check that one off my list”, “getting hit by a car-check”, and “one more surgery-check that off….” I know that a bucket list is supposed to be the things one wants to do during one’s life. I realize it should not contain “things that could have knocked me off”. Yet the way I look at it, all of the things we experience in this life add to who we are and what we are capable of. I’ve faced things that could have killed me, but didn’t. That’s a big deal. So, as much as I would prefer to not have to check these things off my list, they are the things that have made me strong. Moving forward, I’m certainly not going to intentionally put things on this list that might make me kick the bucket (though, I guess kite-surfing falls into that category). If they come up, I’ll check them off, nonetheless, and move on.

I thought of the idea for a 50 after 50 list after my first triathlon, back in 2015. Being a part of Team Phoenix taught me that I could re-define my life after some significant obstacles. Before that tri, I had feared that I would have to alter my goals, settle for less in life due to these setbacks. I know now that I can still aim high if I’m focused and work hard to reach my goals.

The first thing on my list is to complete an Ironman. I’m going to need to be in good shape to do some of the other things on my list, so why not start big. Ironically, the day I was riding my bike through Grant Park, I was thinking about the Madison Ironman. I was going to sign up for the 2018 race after my ride, until my ride ended unexpectedly. Then plans changed a bit. As it stands, it is uncertain if I will be able to do an Ironman, but I’m keeping it on the list for now. Maybe I’ll wait until I have a bionic knee.

In the name of keeping myself accountable, I’m going to share the first few things on my list:
◦ Complete an Ironman
◦ Show my daughters the beauty in this world
◦ Live in a warm climate
◦ Visit all of the National Parks
◦ Learn Spanish
◦ Hike the Inca trail to Machu Picchu
◦ Travel the World by Motorcycle
◦ Kite-surf
◦ Play Bass Guitar
◦ Scuba dive the Galapagos

That’s a glimpse of my list. Stay tuned to see the rest….

Honor Flight

Honor Flight

Dr Gordon had told me to call him if my knee still hurt after the swelling went down and he would order an MRI. After a couple of weeks, it was clear that my knee was not going to heal quickly. It was still swollen. I was wearing the brace, and struggling with pain, lost range of motion, and a limp. I was determined to be ready to walk all over D.C. with my dad for the Stars and Stripes Honor Flight on Oct 14th, but I wanted to know what was going on with my knee before the trip.
I had the MRI on Oct. 3rd and scheduled a follow up with the doctor on Oct 11th. Dr Gordon came in to the room and told me that my MRI “threw him for a loop.” He pushed and pulled on my knee again, just to make sure it still felt stable and that “he wasn’t an idiot” (his words). He said he never misses this type of injury upon physical examination. Yet, the MRI told him quite a different story from the physical exam. The MRI showed that I had a complete PCL (posterior cruciate ligament) tear in my knee. That can’t be good. I have experience with complete ligament tears (elbow and rotator cuff), and I know that they do not heal on their own. My first sinking though was, “one more surgery.” After all, the PCL is the strongest ligament in the knee. How can I get through life without a PCL? He did not suggest surgery, though. Instead, he said I should do six weeks of physical therapy to see if I can heal without surgery. That blew my mind a little.

While we were there, Andy took the opportunity to ask him about his foot. Right away, he told him that Andy had his least favorite injury. He said that if Andy was his patient, he would put him in a cast for 6 weeks. For now, he advised that Andy wear the boot 24/7. Andy decided to schedule his own appointment with Dr. Gordon.
Before we left, I asked him if my knee could handle a day of walking around D.C. He was fully supportive of the trip, and told me to thank my dad for his service.
By the 14th, I was feeling strong enough to go on the Honor Flight. I figured I would be able to keep up with 150 WWII Vets. I might have been wrong about that assumption, though. The day was very fast paced and we did a ton of walking. We saw all of these memorials in one day!


Arlington National Cemetery
Air Force Memorial
Pentagon Memorial
Korean War Memorial
Lincoln Memorial
Vietnam Memorial
WWII Memorial
FDR Memorial

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I’m so glad I got the chance to go on the Honor Flight. It was one of the most memorable days I’ve had with my dad. We were pretty tired out by the end of the trip, but the homecoming at the airport gave us a boost of energy. I’ll always treasure that day.