My First Breast Cancer Conference

This past weekend I went to the Young Survival Coalition (YSC) 2015 conference in Houston. It was my first time ever attending a breast cancer conference. And I had mixed feelings about it.

Over the last three years since my diagnosis, there are moments where I still can’t believe this is my life. How am I a breast cancer survivor? How did this happen? I ate right. I exercised. I got enough sleep. I didn’t eat a lot of sugar. I did yoga. I did everything I was supposed to do. Although I now know that my breast cancer happened by a combination of bad genes and bad luck, I am still overwhelmed at times by the feeling that I wish it never happened.

As the conference went on, I met several other young women survivors that were both smart and inspiring. They knew their stuff about breast cancer. And they were there to help each other. Each year, only 13,000 young women (40 years old and younger) are diagnosed with breast cancer. So this gathering is important to us young women so we don’t feel alone. Also so we can talk about issues that are specific to young women, that older women don’t have to deal with.

One of the highlights of the conference was listening to amazing speakers. Two of my favorite were Dr. Susan Love, breast cancer surgeon, advocate and author, and Dr. Don Dizon, gynecological oncologist.

I’ve been a fan of Dr. Love’s since my college days as a women’s studies major. Every women’s health class I took talked about her work. And she did not disappoint at this conference.

Dr. Love spent a lot of time talking about collateral damage from breast cancer – meaning the physical and emotional damage from treatment. Dr. Love went through treatment for leukemia in 2012, so she knows first hand what she’s talking about.

One of the most profound slides from Dr. Love’s presentation was the difference in how doctors see us as patients and how we as patients see ourselves.

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Dr. Love also talked about the bullshit of pinkwashing. There’s nothing pretty about breast cancer and in my opinion, the ribbon should be black not pink. And most of the money that is raised from pink products doesn’t actually go to breast cancer treatment or research. It’s time to move from awareness of pink products to a cure for this horrible disease that kills too many women (and men) each year.

Dr. Love closed her speech by saying, “I want to find the cause of breast cancer and end it.” The room erupted in cheers. No one else should have to go through what all of us survivors have gone through in that room.

Dr. Dizon spoke about breast cancer as a disease and the research, both of which are complicated. There are many different types of breast cancer and many different treatments. There’s no one size fits all.

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We know that 1 in 8 women are diagnosed with breast cancer. But Dr. Dizon reminded us that statistics are irrelevant when you’re the one diagnosed. And breast cancer doesn’t kill because of a tumor in the breast, but where it spreads from there.

Dr. Dizon closed his speech by saying, “We must never stop pushing for what we want. We must never stop pushing for what we can do better. Our lives and our loved ones’ lives are at stake.” So well said.

Another memorable session was on fitness and nutrition. I’m pretty serious about both my fitness and nutrition, so it was great to have all my habits reinforced. Sami Mansfield, an oncology exercise specialist, spoke on these topics.

Sami talked about the importance of good nutrition, and that the Mediterranean diet is the best. No news there, but good reinforcement.

photoSami also discussed how estrogen lives in fat. So since my breast cancer is estrogen positive, meaning my tumor fed on estrogen, keeping estrogen lower in my body is key. Therefore keeping my body fat low is important.

One thing did surprise me about Sami’s talk. She said that a new study came out which showed that breast cancer survivors no longer need to wear a compression sleeve when exercising or flying to prevent lymphedema. This was SHOCKING. My physical therapist was more than insistent on this. So I’ll be following up with him this week. Although I do wear my compression sleeve without fail, it does make me want to exercise less. Wearing that sleeve is just a constant reminder of what I’ve been through with breast cancer. If I could have one less reminder, that would be great!

The last highlight from the conference was the session on advocacy. Of course it included the great Dr. Love. She reminded us that we need more wild ideas if we’re going to get rid of breast cancer. Dr. Love proceeded to tell the story of how the HPV vaccine was discovered at the National Cancer Institute (NCI) while there was a woman as the director. If it weren’t for her leadership, cervical cancer wouldn’t have almost entirely been eradicated. We need the same thing for breast cancer. It just so happens that Dr. Harold Varmus stepped down from NCI earlier this month. It’s time for another woman to head NCI and end breast cancer in my generation’s lifetime.

After this session, a petition was created to do just that – nominate a woman to head NCI. You can sign it here.

All in all, it was a great weekend. I’m grateful to YSC for putting on such a wonderful conference. I connected with friends from my support group and made some new friends. Got great reinforcement that my doctors are on top of their ongoing surveillance of me and I’m in good hands. And most importantly, was reminded that I’m not alone.

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A Constant Reminder of Loss

When was the first day of your last period?

That’s the question the nurse asked me at my annual gynecological exam on Friday.

Here’s what I said: I don’t get my period anymore.

Here’s what I wanted to say: I don’t get my period anymore because I had to have my ovaries removed after I went through treatment for breast cancer. I have the BRCA2 mutation, which increases my risk for ovarian cancer. So, no, I don’t get my period anymore and I’m in menopause at the age of 41. I know its not your fault, and I’ve never met you before so you’re probably new, since I’ve been coming here every few months over the last 2 years…but shouldn’t that detail about no longer getting periods be in my chart? What’s the point of having a chart if no one looks at it before talking to me?

Prior to this question from the nurse, I had been sitting in the doctor’s waiting room for 30 minutes with a ton of pregnant ladies. Me with my no ovary womb and them with their big, beautiful bellies. Me empty, them full. Literally and figuratively.

At every doctor’s appointment do I have to be reminded of this? I still see one of my doctors every 3 months – either my gynecologist, my oncologist, my breast surgeon, my plastic surgeon or radiation oncologist. That’s a lot of doctors and a lot of times having to reiterate my history to a nurse: I was diagnosed with breast cancer at 39. I had a double mastectomy. Then 8 rounds of chemo that lasted 4 months. Then breast reconstruction surgery. Then 32 rounds of radiation that occurred every week day for 7 weeks. Then, just when I thought I’d get a break from cancer, the possibility of ovarian cancer crept up during my bi-monthly screenings of my ovaries. So I had to have another surgery to do a biopsy of my ovaries and decided it was just time for my ovaries to be removed.

It’s difficult to move on with my life when, at every turn, something or someone makes my forward progression pause or take a step back. I know I won’t every really be able to put cancer behind me, and I actually don’t want to forget about having cancer and surviving, but does every doctor’s appointment have to bring something up that reminds me of what I’ve lost?

It’s hard enough to be going through early menopause – hot flashes, interruption of sleep, weight issues, achy body. Do I also have to be reminded of what I’ve lost from cancer? I’ve lost both of my breasts, I’ve lost both of my ovaries, I’ve lost the carefree lifestyle that made me believe I’d live to be 90, I’ve lost my patience and my ‘let’s wait and see’ approach to life, and I’ve lost my ability to have biological children and breastfeed them.

So, when was my last period? November of 2013. Maybe the next nurse could just skip this question and go to the next one on the list.

 

Tighter and Longer Hugs

This past week I visited friends in San Francisco I haven’t seen in over 4 years. Everything in my life was put on hold during my year of treatment for breast cancer. Last year I finally had enough energy to think about traveling across the country. But then my stupid ovaries had other plans, and I had to cancel that trip to have an oophorectomy.

Not wanting to jinx anything, I couldn’t seem to rebook my trip in fear of something else happening. Well, after several uneventful months with no health news, I made some plans to finally take that cross country trip.

I was excited but a bit nervous before I left.

Was I going to be overwhelmed by emotions when I saw all these friends?

Was I going to have the stamina and energy to see everyone I wanted to see?

Would it be too uncomfortable for people to hear an honest account of what being a breast cancer patient and survivor is really like?

Once I arrived in San Francisco, I caught up with a lot of dear friends and this anxiety quickly faded away. I’ve been very lucky in my life to be surrounded by caring, thoughtful and kind friends. And this trip only emphasized this fact. I don’t know if its our age, or my cancer diagnosis, but conversations with these friends this past week were deeper and more heart-felt than ever. Everyone wanted to know how I was doing. How I was really doing.

How does my body feel?

How does it feel to have breast implants?

Is my chemo brain still lingering?

Is my energy level back?

How is my mental health?

Is my life getting back to ‘normal’?

Is it possible to get back to ‘normal’ after a breast cancer diagnosis?

I had dinner one night with a dear friend who is also a breast cancer survivor. We were friends before either of us got diagnosed and now we’re even closer, having both gone through the trauma of breast cancer. I told her that although life is getting back to somewhat normal, I live with what I like to call the ‘new shitty normal’ because of breast cancer. My life changed, and not because I wanted it to but because of cancer. And these changes were not temporary, but permanent. No more explanation was needed for this friend. She understood what I meant.

All of the conversations last week with friends meant so much to me. There were lots of teary moments. Nothing in life is guaranteed, and we all know that. But when it hits that close to home, you really get it. My friends all really got it too.

So while I left for San Francisco feeling nervous and a bit anxious, I returned home feeling so grateful to have amazing friends in my life. And when I said goodbye to these friends after our visit, we hugged each other a littler longer than usual and a little tighter than usual.

And that felt great.

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.

And Now … Osteoporosis

I’m 41 years old and have already gone through a double mastectomy, 8 rounds of chemo, 1 reconstructive surgery, 7 weeks of radiation and an oophorectomy (the removal of my ovaries). All because of my breast cancer diagnosis and having the BRCA 2 mutation.

That’s enough for a lifetime, if you ask me.

I went to see my oncologist in May for my 6-month check up. She wanted me to do a bone density test, mainly to get a baseline, she said. Having my ovaries removed and taking tamoxifen, my body is not producing or getting any estrogen, which helps keep bones strong. So I figured I would be at risk for osteoporosis, but not for a while.

Last week I finally did my bone density test, which, by the way, was the easiest test I’ve ever done. No IV, no drugs, no fasting. You lay down, they scan your spine, then they scan one hip. Then you’re done. In and out in 15 minutes. Best. Test. Ever.

Two days later, I got the call from my oncologist. My spine already shows signs of osteoporosis. DAMN IT!

So now she wants me to be given a drug called Zometa. Zometa is a bone strengthening drug, which also has shown to prevent recurrences of breast cancer. Both good things.

Here’s the good news – I will only have to be given Zometa once every 6 months (twice a year). It only takes 15 minutes to administer the drug.

Now the unsettling part – Zometa is given through an IV. That kind of sucks. But the worst part – I have to go to the chemo area of the hospital to get the infusion.

I never wanted (or want) to see that stupid chemo area again. When I said goodbye to those lovely nurses who helped me through chemo two years ago, I said goodbye. Not see you later. Goodbye. Have a good life. I’ll never see you again.

But here I am, being told to get an osteoporosis drug administered in the chemo area of the hospital.

Now, I know I should be grateful that I’m only going there for osteoporosis, and not because I have a recurrence of breast cancer or some other cancer (fingers crossed that’s always the case). And I should be grateful that my oncologist is aggressive and assertive on my behalf with any health issue. But that somehow isn’t making the tears stop flowing when I think about walking into that chemo area. Having to see all those people, who I used to be one of, get chemo – that’s going to be hard. Talk about PTSD.

I guess the other upsetting part is that this is just one more thing I have to do now because of stupid f*$%ing breast cancer.

I see at least 1 doctor every 3 months, I get blood work done every 6 months, I go for scans every year, and now I have to go get this drug pumped into me every 6 moths. It’s just one more thing that I have to do in a hospital with doctors. And that just sucks.

It reinforces the fact that you’re never really done with cancer. There’s always something.

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

This Roller Coaster Is No Joke

When I wrote the tagline to this blog – navigating the roller coaster of being a breast cancer survivor – I had no idea how true it was.

Shortly after I finished chemo in September 2012, I mustered the energy to attend my first support group for young women with breast cancer. My mastectomy and reconstruction surgeries were behind me and I was about to start radiation. I finally felt ready to start talking to other women about what I was going through.

At my first support group meeting, one of the women said that she found being a survivor harder than being in active treatment. She said life as a survivor is full of ups and downs. Tears streamed down her face as she explained her range of emotions. I kept looking at her, then looking down at the floor, thinking she was out of her mind. How could being a survivor be harder than being in active treatment? Chemo, surgeries and radiation, having doctors appointments every week (if not multiple times a week), loosing your hair, chemo brain, nausea, depression, exhaustion … the list goes on.

Well, now I’m a survivor (I hate that term, but that’s another post for another time). And now I get what she was saying.

I’m happy to now be cancer free for 2 years, but the fear of a recurrence is something I think will be with me forever. Worrying about the aches and pains that used to just be a passing thought, now leads to sleepless nights and anxious days.

About a month ago I started feeling some soreness in my pelvic area. I wouldn’t say it was pain, but it was definitely not a normal feeling for me. The rule in cancer world is that if something feelings wrong for two weeks, its time to contact your doctor.

Since completing treatment, I’ve been exercising more. I have gotten back to swimming 2-3 times a week. And I started running again, after a 2-year hiatus since my cancer diagnosis. So I was hoping that it was just my body getting used to more physical activity with my new body. But there’s always that little voice in my head that says, “Oh fuck. Here we go again.” Its hard to quiet that voice down.

So after two weeks with the soreness persisting, I emailed my gynecologist to ask her about it. I was hoping she would say it was nothing to worry about, but because of my history and my BRCA2 mutation, she always errs on the side of caution. It’s one of the reasons she’s my gynecologist. She doesn’t make me feel crazy for wanting to check out an ache or pain. She’s just as worried as I am when something doesn’t feel or seem right with my body. Well, maybe not just as worried, but you get what I’m saying.

I called my mom to tell her what was happening and I totally lost it. I just couldn’t stop crying. The fear was really bubbling to the top. I could barely get the words out of my mouth to explain to my mom what was going on. My mom was so great. All she said was, “I’m here for you and we’ll get through this together.” It was exactly what I needed to hear from her.

As you can imagine, the night before my appointment was a long one. Could this really be happening?

I went to my gynecologist and did an ultrasound. As I lay on the exam table, in the stirrups, starring at the image on the screen, I couldn’t help but go to that bad place – ovarian cancer, more surgeries, more chemo. Would I survive this?

The technician said that she didn’t see anything of concern but I should wait to hear the official word from my gynecologist. She even said I had a beautiful uterus. That certainly made me laugh and calmed me down a bit. A beautiful uterus – ha!

My gynecologist quickly came into the room and said everything looked fine. But she wanted to do a pelvic exam just to double check. Nothing showed up there either. She told me everything looked good. She said it could be tamoxifen that’s making me achy. Or it could be the exercising that I’m doing. I haven’t used a lot of those muscles this much in 2 years. So my body might be adjusting. Then she said, “It might be just because you’re getting old.” I should be so lucky to have aches and pains from getting old.

So I left her office and immediately started crying. I felt like I dodged a bullet. Still cancer free. Saying I felt relieved is an understatement.

Life as a cancer survivor is rough. Every ache and pain is a concern. That little voice in my head never goes away. There are moments of being happy that I’m alive and grateful to have so many wonderful friends and family members that I love and love me. But I also have lots of moments where I’m scared to not be able to live a full life doing all the things I want. Every week I hear about someone who’s died from cancer. Not that dying of cancer at an older age is any easier, but hearing of young adults dying really hits home. It’s hard to silence that little voice in my head that wonders if that’ll be me in the near future.

Two years after my diagnosis and I’m still learning how to navigate the roller coaster of being a breast cancer survivor – taking it one day at a time.