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

How Do You Tell Someone Those Three Words: I Had Cancer

A couple nights ago I went for dinner with a friend from college. She was one of my best friends at the time, but I hadn’t seen her in almost 20 years. We’ve stayed in touch through Facebook, but I don’t share the intimate details of my life on there.

I was excited to see my old friend, but was pretty nervous about sharing with her that I had breast cancer. Sure, I’ve told many people about my diagnosis and treatment. But how do you share this with someone you haven’t seen in 20 years. When she says, “How are you?” Do I automatically say, “Well, I spent 2012 going through treatment for breast cancer.” It’s not really something you just blurt out when someone asks how you are. Or at least I don’t.

And I’m still hesitant to tell people about my breast cancer because I don’t know how they will react. I want to share this personal experience with most people, but I never know what someone will say or do when I tell them I’ve had cancer. I’ve had people start crying, and then I have to tell them that it’s ok. I don’t really want to be taking care of someone else when I’m the one who’s had cancer.

And then there are the people that just give you a blank stare. They never know what to say so they usually say nothing. That’s awkward too.

So, my friend and I started chatting and I quickly got up the courage to tell her about my breast cancer. I shouldn’t be surprised by this, but she immediately told me that her sister-in-law went through the same exact diagnosis and treatment as me, at the exact same time, at the exact same age (39). To say that cancer is an epidemic is an understatement.

While I obviously wasn’t happy to hear about my friend’s sister-in-law, I was so relieved to be able to talk about breast cancer with someone who had seen it first hand. She hasn’t been through it herself, but she certainly learned how to talk about breast cancer in a caring way. My friend was amazingly supportive, without making me feel like she was feeling sorry for me.

We talked all about what I’ve been through physically as well as emotionally. How scary it was. How crappy it was. How I’m doing now. My thoughts on the future.

And most people can’t even muster up the courage to use these words, but the phrase “I’m still here” came up a lot. My friend wasn’t afraid to talk about that with me, while most people can’t even think those words, let alone say them out loud. It was so wonderful to be able to be honest with her about how much cancer sucked and still sucks, without me having to sugar coat it for her. That’s a true friend.

But while I sit here reflecting on how great it was to see my old, dear friend, it reminds me that I’m still trying to figure out how to tell people I’ve had cancer. This goes for strangers as well as friends I haven’t seen in years.

So how do you tell someone that you’ve had cancer?

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.

Finally Caught A Break

Three weeks ago today, I went in for surgery to see if I had ovarian cancer. As I blogged before the surgery, we weren’t sure what we were going to find. Just a little nerve racking.

It was a long two and a half weeks between my first meeting with my gyno oncologist and my day of surgery. I was convinced I was going to have ovarian cancer. I was preparing for the worst — a complete hysterectomy, months of chemo, chemo brain, losing my hair, eyebrows and eyelashes again, and who knows what else. I couldn’t even really process the choice that I was making about having my ovaries removed. I was clear about my decision to do this, but would have to later deal with the feelings surrounding this decision. I don’t have children yet, but definitely want them. But at this point, I just wanted to be alive to be able to figure out how to do that. Would I even survive having ovarian cancer? The statistics on ovarian cancer are not good. I haven’t caught a break up until this point, so why would this time be any different?

I arrived at the hospital at 5.30am for a 7.30am surgery. I think I got about an hour of sleep the night before. Obviously I couldn’t stop my mind from racing.

The nurse walked me back into the pre-op room, took my vitals, asked me my name and birthdate a million times, and hooked up my IV. Then I was left by myself in the room for a while. This is when I lost it. Couldn’t stop crying. I was so scared. My life was about to take a dramatic turn…again.

My family came into the room and we all had a good cry together. Very few words were said — I mean, what’s there really to say? I think we were all hoping for the best but expecting the worst. You can be knocked down only so many times before you stop believing that you won’t get hit.

They started the anesthesia and luckily that’s the last thing I remember before waking up after surgery.

Surgery was supposed to take 3 hours, but only took 45 minutes. They removed by ovaries and tubes, and tested the lesion. It quickly came back benign. They closed me up and we were done.

No ovarian cancer!

YIPPEE!!! Hooray!!! Woo-hoo!!!

I came to after surgery and the nurse told me the good news while I was in recovery. I couldn’t believe it. Am I dreaming? Am I still in surgery? Is this really happening?

They rolled me from the recovery room to a regular room to rest before leaving the hospital. My family came into the room cheering and smiling, giving hugs and kisses to me. I’d never been so happy and relieved in my life.

It’s been a long year and a half of tests and bad news. For once, it was so great to get good news from a doctor, telling me I don’t have cancer.

I finally caught a break.

Yippee

Heavy Mortality Thoughts Today

Today is my dad’s yahrzeit. It’s been 23 years since my dad died from Hodgkin disease. I never know how I’m going to feel during this time each year, but I thought this year I’d be ok. Not really sure why I thought that, but I did. I really did. Then a friend asked what I did last night and I told her I went to shul to remember my dad. That’s when the tears started.

Last year, I had chemo brain during the anniversary of my dad’s death. I was in the middle of my 8 chemo treatments. So I couldn’t really process how his death was affecting me. But today, its hitting me pretty hard.

My dad was a couple weeks shy of his 43rd birthday when he died. He fought 4 bouts of cancer. His body couldn’t handle the toll anymore of 12 years of drugs and damage from treatment. I think he was also tired of the fight. I can’t blame him. I understand the feeling.

Before my diagnosis, the idea of not making it past my 43rd birthday was never a thought that crossed my mind. But now, being in my first year as a breast cancer survivor and being 40 years old, I find myself wondering if I’ll even make it to 43.

I never thought I’d get breast cancer at 39. 65 yes. But not 39. That wasn’t a remote possibility in my mind. But now I know all too well that life is full of surprises – and I’m not talking about the good surprises.

My dad’s yahrzeit and my breast cancer make me think about my mortality a lot these days. How many days or years do I have left? Will my cancer come back like my dad’s did? Will my body give out too like his did? Will I have time to do the things I really want to do?

Obviously I don’t know the answer to any of these questions. And I’m trying to take these overwhelming feelings one day at a time. But what I do know is that this scary stuff.