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

 

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The Road Ahead

roadahead

 

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

 

Phase I Down!

I am happy to inform you that I completed Phase I of my Chemo today! Huzzah! Woohoo! Yay!

I am equally as happy to inform you that tomorrow is my last Neulasta shot! (Insert your desired celebratory exclamation here). Neulasta, I know that you did good things for me, but boy did you make me feel lousy!

In two weeks I will begin my second phase. Weekly infusions of Taxol (or maybe Taxotere) and Carboplatin. Because of my age and relative healthiness (i.e. no Diabetes or other potentially life-threatening conditions), my Oncologist is using a relatively new therapy with me. The plan is to continue at the same dosage for the entire 12 weeks, but since this is a new treatment plan, and I’m one of the first to be treated this way, we will go on a week to week basis to see how I handle it. It may need to be adjusted some, which may extend the phase beyond 12 weeks.

Oh wait, I forgot to tell you the third piece of celebratory news! My lumps are no longer detectable — neither my surgeon nor my Oncology Nurse Practitioner could feel them! My chemo brain is not remembering anymore celebratory expressions, so please fill in some suggestions in the comments.

A little update on how I am feeling: my CBC shows some anemia, which makes sense because I am feeling more fatigue than I have been in previous weeks. This is to be expected, as Chemo is cumulative and is known to make patients anemic. They may add some Iron infusions to my weekly regimen, but we will see.

I am also experiencing pain, which could be my arthritis or from my Chemo or a combination of both. Not much I can do about that except some Tylenol or Advil. And I’ve been told Epsom Salt baths.

Other than that, I am in pretty good spirits. Aunt H & Uncle D visited for a long weekend, and we finally saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens. It exceeded my expectations. Even my mom thought it was fabulous!! Then Saturday my sister (I only have one, so no abbreviation needed) and brother-in-law flew in. They are here until Saturday. Mom, Sis, and I saw Joy on Sunday. I loved it! The boys saw — you guessed it — Star Wars (again).

Spending time with family is wonderful. For the first time in several years, all of us were together for a family meal. With my dad retiring at the end of the year, we informally “roasted” him. Then my aunt H recounted a story about how awesome my dad is, and we all ended up crying happy tears. It was awesome 🙂

Sis bought me some new makeup products that I will be reviewing in my beauty blog, and aunt H bought me some puzzles and games to play when I’m not feeling like staring at technology (much needed). She also gave me the coolest body pillow I’ve ever seen. Which I will post a picture of tomorrow if I can.

xoxo

Beauty Post: Chemo Skin

As many of you know, chemo can wreak havoc on your skin (for details you can visit this article on chemocare.com). The biggest issue is dehydration. Chemo pretty much dries your entire body out (hence the recommended 96 ounces of water a day). Other issues can be Psoriasis/Eczema (since I have Psoriatic Arthritis and Eczema, I was particularly concerned about this).

Fortunately, I am doing pretty well with staying hydrated, and in my last two months’ Birchboxes, I received two amazing products that I ended up buying full-size. I was going to wait an entire month to review these, but I’m so happy with the results, I am going to share now.

First of all, here I am without any makeup on, ready for bed (clarification: in bed).

Photo on 12-22-15 at 9.10 PM

Honestly, not so bad. I have received compliments lately on my skin, and my excuse is that I wear a lot of makeup, but I think I need to give more credit to these two products:

As I mentioned before, I am not a paid reviewer, nor do I even think Birchbox knows I exist. But my skin looks like it does seven weeks into Chemo because of these two products. So I think I should give credit where credit is due.

The first product (which, ironically, I received second) is Avène Hydrance Optimale. Somehow they got a whole lot of spring water into this to create long-lasting hydration. It also enhances the effectiveness of any moisturizer used after it. I use this morning and night after washing my face.

The second product (that I received first) is the Embryolisse 24-Hour Miracle Cream. This product contains both shea butter and aloe vera. However, it does not clog my pores at all. Because I am receiving Chemo I use this morning and night as well. For those not undergoing Chemo, I’d probably start with only once a day. It absorbs into the skin quickly, and leaves my face feeling smooth, not sticky at all.

I have a terrible skincare routine, so all of this is pretty new to me. But I have been trying to cleanse my face every night. Thing is, I just use a generic brand (CVS) makeup remover wipe. That’s it. No other cleanser. Then I apply these two products. In the morning, if my face feels like it can handle a cleanser, I just use the Simple Moisturizing Cleanser. Sometimes, I just rinse with water. And then I apply both these items, usually just a minute or so before I apply makeup.

This is the reason I joined Birchbox. I wanted to be able to try products before I bought. I desperately wanted to improve my skincare routine, but didn’t want to spend a ton of money on products, only to have them work poorly. If you are interested in doing something similar, I highly recommend one of these subscriptions. I chose Birchbox, but there are a number of companies that offer similar options.

If you click on the links, you will see that neither product is particularly inexpensive (although the Miracle Cream is available in a 30 ML size for less money and commitment). However, only a little of each product is needed, and, well … when you’re bald and people are paying particular attention to your face … it, in my opinion, is absolutely worth it.

Stay tuned for more Beauty posts. I should be receiving a new box soon, and I might be heading to Ulta soon!

xoxo