Visit at the Right Time

A true friend shows love at all times,

And is a brother (or sister) who is born for times of distress.

                                                                   –Proverbs 17:17 (NWT)

My best friend and her husband came down for a visit this weekend. She’s my friend that I’ve mentioned before — she sends me a card every week. She and I FaceTime regularly. We are kindred spirits, and I feel very blessed to have her in my life. She remembers things about me that I even forget, and she listens more closely than I realize, as is evident from different gifts that she will send me throughout the year. I can tell her absolutely anything, with complete confidence that she will not judge me.

The weekend was so refreshing and just what I needed. We made virtually zero plans, aside from what to eat and where to eat it. And we just talked. And talked. And talked. It’s amazing that we even have anything to talk about, since we talk via text and FaceTime often, but we always do. Conversations drifted back and forth between topics, and we rarely actually finished one, as we got distracted by the next. But we would have it no other way. It’s the way our friendship works.

Recently I have felt lonely. Being under the influence of strong opioid drugs, I do not drive so my ability to run errands, or even to engage in some casual retail therapy, are very limited. Some days — even if I have the opportunity to be chauffeured around — I don’t feel up to it. It’s a very solitary existence, and I’ve given in to self-pity.

The reality is, though, that I am blessed with real and true friends. Friends that are family, both literally and figuratively. Friends that use their mileage points for me. Friends that carve time out of every week to send me a card or to FaceTime with me. Friends that make me laugh until I cry and friends who text me just to check in. Friends who are genuinely happy for me when I get to spend time with another friend. Friends who end their texts and phone calls with “love you.”

As my kindred spirit left today, my mother-in-law and sister-in-law arrived. They, along with my local sister-in-law and family, greeted me with long, protective hugs and faces that showed their happiness at seeing me.

My friends have made the story of my life.
–Helen Keller

This Tuesday I will find out the results of my scans. I will either receive good or bad news about how the Chemotherapy is or isn’t working. My oncology team will either tell me to continue the Chemo regimen I’m in or we will explore other options. I’ve been nervous about this appointment since last weekend. As to be expected, I am still anxious about the appointment, but I sit here writing without the dread that’s been hanging over my head.

I’ve been strengthened and refreshed by my visit with my sweet friend. It’s simply impossible to enjoy the friendship I’ve enjoyed this weekend and continue to have dread in my heart.

And I can feel the support of my family as I head into the week of unknowns ahead of me.

Thank you, Heavenly Father, for reminding me that I’m not alone at all.

xoxo

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This Time Around

Even though this is my second time with breast cancer, so many things are different about this experience. Aside from the obvious things — different parts of my body, a more serious stage, a different prognosis — I’m finding other differences as well.

I’m already experiencing low blood counts. I believe this is typical of Gemzar, but I have already had to postpone my third treatment because my blood counts are off. I’ve only had two treatments. I’m on a preventive antibiotic. Last time, it was months of chemo before my blood was affected.

My energy level is lower. This may be because of the Fentanyl patch I’m on, or it may be that this cancer is taking more out of me than last time. Most nights I am in bed before 9:00 and I’m asleep until around 7 or 8 the next morning. Some days I nap through the whole day.

I’m on pain medication. My original breast cancer had no pain associated with it. None. The pain of the mass in my pancreas was excruciating. Bad enough that I wear a Fentanyl patch 24 hours a day. Granted, I’ve come down to a lower dose, but the doctor isn’t in any hurry to wean me off of it.

My emotional state/outlook have changed. With an unclear and unsure prognosis, remaining positive is more difficult for me. I feel like I’m in limbo and I’m not sure what to do with myself. As a planner I prefer structure to my days, but with the gravity of this diagnosis my only job is to “take care of myself.” This leaves me kind of lost as to how to spend my time. My sense of humor has gotten darker, and I’ve become more reserved.

Not surprisingly, this last one has been most difficult to me. Last time I took on the role of fighter — I had something to beat, to get rid of. I had a concrete task. This time, it isn’t so clear, not so black and white. Instead of beating or getting rid of something, we’re trying to control the progression of it. It makes for a much more difficult fight song or cheer. Instead of “fight, fight, fight” it’s “control, control, control.” It doesn’t flow as easily.

I’m sure as time goes on, I will get used to my new normal. Taking it day by day. Appreciating the little things. Accepting that “taking care of myself” is my new full-time job. Already, I feel myself slipping into a bit of a routine, and that makes me feel a little more stable.

As with any life-changing event, this will take a period of adjustment. I know that; I just need to accept it. I need to remember that I have an abundance of support in my family and friends. I need to remember to rely on God and remind myself that He is holding onto my hand (Isa. 43:10, 13). That He will help me get through every step of this, no matter how difficult the steps might be.

Today was a rough day for me. But I talked to my husband and my mom and received reassurance, strengthening, and commiseration. Having someone acknowledge and assure me that my feelings are valid is extremely comforting. Having someone offer to help me in tangible ways is strengthening — both spiritually and emotionally. The amazing thing is that I get support like this on a daily basis from so many people. Some friends text me encouraging words. Some send cards. Some I get to speak to and/or see daily. And I thank God for all these ways that he’s giving me support. I may have a life-altering diagnosis, but I am blessed to have my support team standing with me.

xoxo

 

The Girls are Coming Back

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Let me begin by talking about this girl — Irma. We are in the path. We are evacuating to Tennessee, renting a house in the mountains. We were in Matthew’s path last year and were evacuated for about a full week. Matthew was a category 2. Irma is projected to be a 3. We saw damage with Matthew, and we expect damage with Irma, too.  Last year, I wasn’t as concerned … our home wasn’t near water or trees, and it was a townhouse. This time around, it’s different. We bought a home this April — a single family home with lots of trees and marsh across the street. I’m trying not to freak out.

Irma is not one of the “girls” I am referring to in the post title. But since many of my readers know my general location, I thought I’d go ahead and let y’all know that we are planning to evacuate and where. If you’re reading this and thinking, “Tennessee! That seems awfully far,” Tennessee was as close as we could get. If you consider that pretty much the entire state of Florida must evacuate, plus coastal Georgia, and coastal South Carolina, it seems easier to comprehend

Anyway, to explain the “girls” that are coming back …

I am getting my DIEP Flap surgery on November 28th! 

That’s right! I’m getting the breast reconstruction that I have really always wanted to get! Initially, we went with the simpler implant reconstruction because the recovery is easier, but I was very unhappy with the results. Once the left implant had been removed, I decided to pursue the DIEP flap procedure.

We all know that health insurance can be a blessing and a curse, and this case was no different. I qualified for a Medicaid program which meant low copays and very little out-of-pocket. It also meant that surgeons who perform this procedure don’t work with Medicaid (surgery cost far outweighs Medicaid’s payout). In the meantime, my husband received a significant raise which bumped us out of the income qualifications for Medicaid. Long story short, I’m now on a BCBS plan that will cover the surgery (but means more out-of-pocket cost for us).

With the new insurance in place, I immediately called the surgical practice and got in on Tuesday. Fortunately, it looks like I am an excellent candidate! The earliest availability is the date of my surgery. I am over the moon.

Some of you may be wondering what the DIEP Flap procedure is. I’ll explain as much as I understand. Don’t ask me what DIEP stands for, though, because I can’t remember. Basically, they take the fat and tissue from my tummy and use it to form new breast mounds. It is at least a two-part surgery. The first one is the major one. The second (and any others) are to fine-tune and smooth out my breasts and stomach.

Some things you might be thinking:

  • Hey, I’ve got some fat I could donate! Thank you, but that’s not the way it works. Plus, I have plenty of my own.
  • Does this mean you get a tummy tuck? Yeah, pretty much!
  • How long will you be in the hospital? Four nights
  • Why is this surgery better? Um, see points one and two. Plus they will look more natural and be closer to my original size. I may even regain some feeling that I lost with the initial reconstruction.
  • What is recovery like? I’ll be up walking the day after surgery. I will probably be a little stooped over at first. The most difficult thing will probably be “T-Rex” arms. I will not be allowed to reach for anything or lift my arms higher than 45 degrees for a while. I will have drains, but only about a week up top and three weeks in my tummy. I can drive after all the drains are out.

Feel free to ask me any other questions about it! Also if you have had similar surgeries, please give me any tips and suggestions you might have.

In the coming months, I will be trying to strengthen my core, lose some weight, and get into an exercise routine. These things will help with my recovery and my post-surgical appearance. With the “forced vacation” evacuation, I hope to work on a healthier routine.

I am happy to report that 40 is treating me well so far. I was able to add some medications to my antidepressant regimen, and the difference is fairly dramatic. I have more energy and less anxiety. Everyday activities and chores no longer feel like mountainous treks; rather I find myself regularly checking off my to-dos with a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. It is a huge relief to me to be feeling more like myself.

Work is fun and exciting. My self-esteem is still suffering, but with the knowledge of my surgery coming up, I am feeling a little less self-conscious. And also more motivated to get some exercise in and to eat better.

Thanks so much for sticking with me and continuing to read. I’m sure I’ll have more to write about soon!

xoxo

Life Beyond Cancer?

This post has been months in the making. It has been rolling around in my brain — in my conscious and subconscious — but I’ve had difficulty converting it to coherent thoughts and words. This is my sixth attempt.

Here are facts I can state. I developed Lymphedema in my left arm. It presented at first with purple skin, and then the arm became slightly swollen. We ruled out a blood clot before determining that it was indeed lymphedema. Treatment involved wrapping the arm in about five layers of cotton, foam, and bandages for three weeks. Now I wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet (covering the wrist, thumb, and palm; but no fingers). I am still supposed to wrap it overnight. We will see how that goes.

I am waiting to find out when and where I will have my next surgery. Being on Medicaid limits my options as far as surgeons go. I may need to travel anywhere from one to six hours to find a doctor who will work with me. I am hoping to qualify for the DIEP FLAP procedure. It is a long and complicated surgery; hence the reluctance of many surgeons to work with Medicaid. Medicaid just doesn’t pay well.

I turn 40 tomorrow.

Those are the facts I can relate. After that, things get swirly and blurred. This cancer-free life is not at all what I expected, and my emotions ebb and flow like a stormy sea. It doesn’t help that tomorrow is an age-related milestone.

The lyrics to this song have been on repeat in my head lately. Some days I feel others’ pain intensely, to the point of tears. But when it comes to me, I flatline. Nothing. No joy or  melancholy. No frustration or contentment. Just a big empty space. It’s like I am hollow; that if you really look into my eyes you’ll see resignation, exhaustion, or maybe nothing at all.

Trust me, I know that I am still recovering from the physical trauma of cancer treatment. My energy is building, but it isn’t great — and it may never get better. Side effects, like lymphedema and infertility are realities that will not go away. Other effects, like early menopause are physically and mentally exhausting. But these are realities that I can learn to live with.

What people in the cancer community don’t really talk about, though, is post-cancer depression. Some studies say that as many as 25% of cancer survivors suffer from low mood and/or depression. In fact, some experts compare these weeks, months, even years with grief. Not in the sense that the survivor is mourning the end of cancer treatment; but feelings of anxiety, anger, and sadness sometimes flood the brain after hearing the “all-clear.”

For instance, turning 40. On the one hand, I look at what I have accomplished in my 30s. I became a mother (technically I was 29, but it took until I was 30 to really get into a routine). I became a business owner (we’re about to celebrate our 10th anniversary). I grew spiritually, celebrated anniversaries (17 years and counting!), and watched my son navigate his way through the early school years.

On the other hand, I look at the hardships and difficulties from the last 10 years. I had a miscarriage. My Psoriatic Arthritis came back (it went into remission during pregnancy and the first few years of his life) with a vengeance. I had allergic reactions due to medications, and a stay in the Psych ward from a medically-induced manic state. I had three surgeries. A death in the family. I lost my best friend, and I nearly ruined my relationship with my parents.

I GOT CANCER.

Forty is just an age. It’s still closer to one than to a hundred. It’s also even more time for the cancer to return. That’s what think of on bad days. Some days, these lyrics could be about me (not romantically, of course).

The frustrating thing about chemotherapy is the longer-term side effects. The memory impairment. The lack of concentration. These last months, years, or never go away. So it takes an immense amount of energy to focus, to be motivated, to care about things.

I used to love adult coloring to relieve my stress and to make me feel better. Now the thought of starting a page is so overwhelming that I haven’t tried in more than a year. Trying to pick which color pencil to start with is a monumental task.

While I was going through chemo, I took great pride in doing my makeup, choosing my outfit, and making myself as “pretty” as possible. These days, I don’t even want to shower. And I won’t go into the impact cancer — breast cancer — has on one’s self image.

Fortunately, I am quite sick of my wallowing. So I am trying to fake it till I make it. Many days, this has worked. I’ve taken on a new project at work. I try to engage more with my husband and my son. I check in with family and friends.

It’s a work in progress. I am going to talk to the doctor about adjusting my antidepressant. I will try to exercise more. But it is a fight, and sometimes I lose the battle. I’ve learned that I can succumb for a little bit — maybe even a day — because it’s OK to acknowledge the anxiety, worry, and anger, that comes with cancer, or even with our daily lives.

I also realize that allowing myself to feel and explore these negatives emotions needs a time limit, or the hills grow rapidly into mountains I cannot imagine climbing. Recognizing this seems like an accomplishment in itself.

Not much will change tomorrow. I’ll still be a mom and a wife and a business owner. A daughter, a sister, and hopefully a friend. Maybe I will be a little more grateful. A little more compassionate. I’ll listen to my son’s imaginary super heroes with a little more patience. Look at my husband and pay attention to what he is saying; pulling myself away from whatever I was doing. Maybe I will look up from my phone and look at creation with a little more awe and appreciation.

Cancer is life-changing. The key, I think, is to listen to what the experience teaches. To be present. To be loving, compassionate, and kind. To help others when it’s inconvenient for us. To be thankful to God for life and the strong body that helped me fight and beat cancer. To be happy and content with what and who I have in my life.

xoxo

 

Once Upon a Time

Once upon a time there was a little girl who loved life. She loved her mama and daddy and her big sister and spent lovely days with them (even though she got on her sister’s nerves). She was a bit of a follower, and let her friends take the lead, but she was a happy girl.

Her innocence was taken from her early on, but she lived on with her family, contented among them. As she got older, darker thoughts filled her mind — doubt, guilt, self-hatred — but on the outside she clung on to kindness and happiness and her always steady family.

She met a man she loved and married him. They had a baby whom she loved more than she ever thought was possible.

In deepest, darkest days, she still saw good in people. Some called her naive — and they were right — but she always felt it was better to see the best and get disappointed than to immediately see the worst.

Chronic illness ravaged her; depression ravaged her; and one day cancer did, too. But she stood up and looked for the good — like she always had — and got through it all one day at a time.

She still does that, to this day.

 

The Road Ahead

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I apologize for the absence. Honestly, I’ve been feeling a little down lately, and I haven’t known how to properly recognize/express my feelings until recently. Let me back up …

During my recovery through May and June my Oncologist informed me that he wanted me to start on an oral chemo medication in conjunction with my radiation. Needless to say that was disappointing to me. Actually, it was more than disappointing. I was pretty upset and depressed about it. I won’t bore you with the details of the reasoning behind this, but it’s a pretty much a “better safe than sorry” precaution.

I began feeling like myself again by the middle of June (as far as surgery), and we even went away at the end of the month (to Atlanta to see my favorite band, The Cure.) However, now that I was off pain meds, my arthritis pain has consistently been getting worse. For those of you living with chronic pain, I know you understand how exhausting that is.

Chronic pain hasn’t helped the depression. But I’m able to take some pain meds as needed, and I am getting ready to start a non-drug therapy to help block pain signals. Add to that the start of Chemo and Radiation, and, well, I am one exhausted chickie!

I am happy to report, though, that I am mostly tolerating the chemo well (as in the past). I’m experiencing some nausea/food aversion and it disrupts my sleep, but things could be much worse. Radiation is purely a nuisance to me at this point, for which I’m grateful. I need a little bit of time to readjust my self-expectations and schedule before the pain/irritation sets in.

Once again, I am struggling with whether my lack of interest/motivation is from chemo/radiation fatigue or depression or both. Tonight I plan on an early bedtime with a little extra Trazadone to help me stay asleep longer (I typically only take one because I sleep really late when I take two; but at this point I’m feeling like a walking dishrag, so I probably need to catch up a bit).

My plastic surgeon told me/warned me that all I’d feel like doing in the first weeks after surgery was watching TV/Netflix and shopping online. Much to hubs’ chagrin, I’m still shopping online. Mostly filling my carts and abandoning them, but occasionally I take on all the way through, a brief wave of excitement washes over me upon arrival, and then I’m once again paralyzed by both mental an physical fatigue.

I do feel confident, though, that my mood is nothing that can’t be fixed by some sleep, some prayer, and some realistic exceptions of myself. In the meantime, I remind myself that I could be having more severe side effects; and all of this is better than being dead.

Over the next few weeks, I will try to update more regularly. In the meantime, I would love your tips on getting out of this mood!

xo

 

Ugly Truths

Note: I wrote this last night. I am feeling much better today, but I think it is important to share the post anyway. To share that my attitude isn’t always Sunshine and Rainbows. That I have bad days. Plus, I’d love some feedback on what you do when you feel down like this.

Hi there readers. Guess what! Tuesday marks my half-way point through this second phase of treatment. Thank you, my sister, for helping me realize that! And, I’m sorry that I wasn’t up for talking. I was hungry, and this blog post will explain a little more.

I am glad to be halfway through this phase. But you know what? I’m pretty much over this whole cancer treatment thing. I’m tired. I am experiencing aches and pains and stomach issues and fatigue. It seems that I cannot get physically comfortable, and I’m having more trouble getting distracted with the things that have intrigued me thus far.

If cancer was a person, I would want want to beat the crap out of it. It makes me angry. It’s like this really annoying person who I tried to be nice to, and it just took advantage of me and my good nature. It needs to go. To get out of my life. To never contact me again. I need to change my number. Move, maybe. Get rid of this stalker.

Up until now, I’ve found things that make me happy. Planning my day-to-day schedule. Using essential oils. Always having my nails done with Jamberry. Blogging. Doing my makeup. Now these things aren’t bringing me as much joy as they were. Why? I’m not entirely sure. I assume that the fatigue is a big part of it. Increasingly, lately, the idea of spending the day in bed is more appealing than putting forth the effort to shower and put on my make-up and “look good.” As I plan my week, I see the how the need to adjust for my fatigue level lessens my productivity. Blogging about positive things gets harder by the day because I’m feeling less positive and less productive. And my concentration is poor, so organizing my thoughts and ideas to actually execute a project becomes increasingly difficult.

It’s not to say that I have no positive thinking. Overall, I am so grateful to my God that He has helped me endure this experience. My prognosis is good, and I am handling Chemo (for the most part) like a champ, so I don’t really have much about which to complain. My family and friends are as supportive as they were at my initial diagnosis, if not more so.

It’s just that cancer sucks. It really does. Treatment is rough. I have it far better than many, but I’m over it. And it does get harder, the more it builds up in one’s system. Discomfort increases and fatigue increases. Right now I have a constantly bloody nose because the Chemo aggravates the irritation in my sinus and nose from the dry heat needed this time of year.

Ugh! I have such a bad attitude, which annoys me. I know I will get over it. And I’ve allowed myself this weekend to acknowledge and feel these feelings. My nearest and dearest have allowed me to vent … nodding in sympathy and laughing in solidarity. This already makes me feel a bit better. And I know that I have a full week ahead that will make me feel productive and accomplished.

Tell me, readers, what do you find helps when you experience times like these? Not specific to cancer, but to feeling in a rut or like nothing is bringing you the joy it once was? Any words of encouragement, empathy, or advice is greatly appreciated.

xoxo