Last Chemo – Two Years Ago Today

Two years ago today I completed my 8th and final chemo treatment for breast cancer. Some days it feels like so long ago. But most days it feels like just yesterday.

My hair has grown back. It’s short, but no longer looks like I’ve been through chemo.

My energy has come back, for the most part.

My chemo brain still lingers, but no where near what it was during active treatment.

I’ve even gotten used to my new breasts. But I have to say, I don’t think I’ll ever get over loosing my natural breasts. Fake breasts just aren’t the same. For so many reasons.

While I’m grateful that I’m a ‘survivor’ (I hate that word, but that’s a blog post for another time), a day doesn’t go by that I don’t think about all I’ve been through in the last two years. It’s hard to move past a breast cancer diagnosis when you’re reminded of it every morning when you get dressed and see the mastectomy scars.

I do feel like I’m acting more like my pre-cancer self – going out with friends, regularly exercising, taking trips, not completely freaking out every time I feel an ache and pain. But as most people feel who have had a cancer diagnosis, the fear of recurrence is always in the back of my mind. You try to live as much of a normal life as possible, but it’s sometimes hard to quiet those dark thoughts in your head.

In the last two years since finishing chemo, I’ve joined a support group through the Young Survival Coalition. This organization focuses on supporting young women – 40 and under at diagnosis – with breast cancer. It’s so helpful to talk with other women who have gone through and are going through similar experiences as you. It makes me feel less alone and more understood.

I’m also trying to pay it forward a bit. There are newly diagnosed women that come to the support group every month. I remember how I felt at that time – scared, worried, nervous, anxious, etc. So I try not to sugar coat it and to tell these young women that breast cancer sucks. But I also tell them that we’ll be here to help her through it. Sitting and listening was the best help for me, so I’m trying to do the same for these women.

As I mark another milestone of one more year past my last chemo treatment, I’ve noticed that I’ve made other changes in my life too. Some are deliberate, some just happen after going through a traumatic event. I find myself spending less time doing things I don’t want to do. More time with people I want to be with. Going to places that have been on my list to visit. I used to be a person that read magazines cover to cover. Now if there’s an article I’m only mildly interested in, I’ll turn the page. No time for that now. Even if I am lucky enough to be alive for 50 more years, that’s a good life lesson, cancer or no cancer. I just wish I didn’t have to be diagnosed with breast cancer to learn it.

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Welcome Back Freedom – So Nice To See You Again

I love fireworks. Always have, always will. They are not only beautiful and inspiring, but they bring back great memories of summers with my family and at camp.

The last three years I haven’t watched fireworks on July 4th. Since my breast cancer diagnosis in 2012, I was either too tired from my mastectomy and chemo, too tired from radiation or it was too hot for me to be outside to watch fireworks.

But this year was different.

I’ve been staying up later these days – actually able to stay awake until 10.30 p.m. That’s a major accomplishment for me. For the first two years after treatment finished, I could barely stay awake until 9 p.m. So 10.30 p.m. is huge! Small victories, right?

This year was also perfect weather to watch fireworks. It was a beautiful night with temperatures in the 70s. Couldn’t ask for better weather in July.

So I took a walk down to the Washington monument, which is about a mile and a half from my home. That’s another thing I couldn’t do in the last three years – walk for three miles at 9 p.m. I used to get tired after about 20 minutes of walking at night. It feels great to have more energy and stamina.

Over the last three years, it has felt like cancer robbed me of so much in my life – my body changed (not in a good way), my mind got slower and foggier (thanks chemobrain), my energy levels dropped, my insecurities about my future went to new heights…the list goes on.

But this July 4th, it felt like I regained some of my freedom. A freedom to live my life how I used to – going where I wanted, when I wanted, how I wanted. It’s amazing to be able to do that again.

And I’m sure there will be other nights where I’m too tired to do anything or its too hot to be outside, but for right now, I’m enjoying this new found freedom. I often wondered if this day would ever come. So nice that it has.

Fireworks Fireworks

To Scan or Not To Scan

Last week I went for my 6-month check up with my breast surgeon. I’m so grateful that I got connected to her. She’s both brilliant and compassionate with a great bedside manner. She gives me all the time I need to ask as many questions as I want and discuss whatever is on my mind. So I run a lot of things past her and ask her opinion on every medical question I have.

During my check up she did a breast exam and found no lumps or areas of concern. I do get a rash on my left breast, which is my breast cancer side, so that always worries me. Rashes are on the list of ‘red flags’ to talk to your doctor about. My breast surgeon said that the rash looks ok and because of the fact that it comes and goes means its nothing to worry about. Tumors don’t come and go. So she said everything looked and felt good.

HOORAY!!! Let’s take a moment to appreciate that.

Hooray

I still do my monthly breast exams, as my doctors recommend, feeling around my implants for any tumors that might pop up if any breast tissue was left during my mastectomy. But now I have to get to know my new boobs, and understand what feels normal and what I should be concerned about. So at every doctor’s appointment, I ask my breast surgeon about everything that feels unusual. Luckily, everything I’ve asked about she says is normal.

I also asked my breast surgeon about doing scans to see if my cancer has returned. There’s a lot of conflicting opinions about scans in the medical and cancer world. Some people and doctors think that scans can give people cancer from the radiation (ironic, huh!). And some people and doctors think that doing scans are good to be able to detect cancer early, which raises the survival rate. Early detection saves lives, right?

I’m really conflicted about this. Scans bring on scanxiety. What are they going to find when they do a scan? Then what do I have to do when that something is found – more surgery, more chemo? Ugh! But for me, not doing scans means the constant worry of something growing inside me that I don’t know about, which will keep growing until I feel it myself or get a symptom on the ‘red flag’ list for cancer recurrence.

What a shitty choice? Is ignorance bliss? Or is ignorance stupidity? Do the risks of radiation from scans outweigh the risk of not finding cancer early? Or is it the other way around?

I’m leaning toward doing scans. I’d like to know that I’m cancer-free every year. Mentally that helps me continue to live my life and make plans for my future. Not knowing how long I’ll be here is unsettling – to say the least. And I know that I can get a scan one day and then 3 months later cancer could return. Nothing is guaranteed. At least a clean scan lets me exhale and breath for a moment.

My breast surgeon originally said that we should do MRIs every year to watch for a recurrence. But when I talked to her about it last week, she said she usually recommends MRIs every 2-3 years. (I can’t do mammograms with breast implants, so MRIs are the way to watch for lumps. One of the few positives out of having breast cancer – no mammograms.)

We decided we’d revisit the scans discussion at my next 6 month appointment. My breast surgeon said that most health insurance companies don’t cover MRIs every year. How messed up is that! I have pretty good insurance, so I have to check on that. I’m going to pissed if she’s right.

I spent every other month in 2013 doing ultrasounds to watch for ovarian cancer. That much screening was quite overwhelming and difficult for me. So doing a scan for breast cancer every 2-3 years sounds really good right now.

So for now I’m left to decide – to scan or not to scan?