Surviving Cancer

I have one friend who is facing a new diagnosis of lung cancer while another friend is nearing the end of her fight with ovarian cancer. It seems to be all around me. And I’m struggling with survivor’s guilt.

Wikipedia defines survivor’s guilt as “a mental condition that occurs when a person believes they have done something wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not.” Typically this refers to survivors of combat, terrorist attack, and natural disasters; and it can be a symptom of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). But it is also a common feeling that cancer survivors face.

While I consider myself a fighter and not a survivor per se, I, too, am struggling with this issue. Since I have been re-diagnosed, I’ve had three friends pass away from their cancer battles. One was five years younger than me. I continue to see her mother regularly, and feel guilty every time I do. I was diagnosed with cancer the first time before her, had it come back, and yet still outlived her.

Fortunately I’m not alone in this struggle. A simple Google search for “cancer patients and survivor’s guilt” brings up a number of articles on the topic, and how it can be mitigated. In fact, when I brought it up with my social worker, she reassured me that it is a very common feeling. She also encouraged me to do/remember several things to ease the guilt:

  • Acknowledge the feeling by writing it down; but then write down why feeling is unrealistic and why those feelings don’t help those grieving the loss of their loved ones.
  • Think of those who would be devastated by my loss.
  • My survival is a gift. Share it with my loved ones.
  • Live in honor of those whose lives were taken by cancer. I deserve every moment of my life, just as they did.

As I mentioned in my last post, my social worker also gave me a list of suggestions of things to do with my family in the time I have left. Some ideas include:

  • Schedule a day long photo shoot in our favorite spots around town or any other family favorite destination.  These photos would be used in a photobook/scrapbook that could be a beautiful dedication to my family. Include letters to each other in the book, nick names, funny stories, etc.
  • Ask each family member and friend to choose an activity or fun place they want to go with me alone and set dates for these things.
  • Write down all of the things I feel like I want/need to see in the world.
  • Think of my ultimate family vacation (there are organizations willing to cover some or all of the costs associated with this).
  • Record lots of videos — pictures are amazing, but hearing voices is so incredibly soothing when you are missing someone.
  • Make a quilt/scrap blanket together as a family.  It will be memories made while making it and then it will keep everyone warm physically and emotionally for years to come.
  • Make a Family Recipe Book. Cook family dishes together, or find new dishes and cook them as a family. Take pictures and write-up the recipes. It can be passed on to my son’s wife someday.

These are all amazing suggestions, and I plan on carrying out most — if not all — of them. It will keep me busy and focused on my family and dear friends, which is what makes me happiest. Will I still feel survivor’s guilt? Probably. I know myself and my depression, and this is likely something my depression would eat up like candy. But I’ll continue to fight against it as I make memories with my family and friends.

So tell me, if you had the opportunity to spend time with me, what would you want to do?

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Good Day, Sunshine

I got the results of my biopsy today. For those of you just tuning in, I have been having some pain in my groin and it was determined that the lymph nodes there were swollen and enlarged. It appeared that the cancer had spread to them; however to make sure, I got a biopsy of the nodes.

They’re NOT cancerous!

Can you believe it?! Everyone was happily surprised (cue the above song in my head). It had really seemed as though the biopsy was a formality and that they must be cancerous, but they’re not!

So what does this mean?

A few things:

  1. The cancer has not spread. I already have the mass in my pancreas and significant lymph node involvement. These have responded dramatically to the chemotherapy. If the lymph nodes in my groin had turned out to be cancer, then the chemo drug I’m on wouldn’t have worked as well as we thought, and we would have to worry about continuous spreading of the disease.
  2. I don’t have to alter or add anything to my chemotherapy regimen. Since they’re not cancer, it means that my chemo drug IS working as well as we want it to, and I don’t need to change a thing about my routine. Adding another chemotherapy drug could have meant additional side effects like losing my hair, lower blood counts, more pain, etc.
  3. I get to stay in my chemo routine. I mentioned this above, but to explain in more detail, we chemo patients learn our routines once we get into a chemo regimen. We learn what days are good, what days are bad, and what side effects to expect. If a new chemo drug is added, it’s like starting over again. We have new good and bad days to adjust to and new side effects to learn and to navigate. Being able to stay in my current routine is much easier on me.
  4. Going forward, I will continue the Gemzar (chemo drug) schedule — three weeks on, one week off. Scans (PET and CT) will be every three months. This will continue until a) the Gemzar stops working, or b) the Gemzar becomes toxic to my body. The end date of this chemo cannot be predicted; we just watch and see what happens.
  5. As far as what caused the lymph nodes to be painful and swollen, we don’t know. And quite honestly, we don’t care because it’s NOT CANCER.

But God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear, but along with the temptation he will also make the way out so that you may be able to endure it.

1 Corinthians 10:13 (NWT)

I am so grateful that God knows our limitations and provides us with what we need to endure different trials. I’m so thankful for this news. It feels like someone just added more time to my timer — took one big spin backwards on the dial.

This is the most optimistic I’ve felt since my re-diagnosis. It’s the first time I’ve breathed a sigh of relief, that I’ve thought of my expiration date as possibly being years away instead of months away. Researching and planning our big trip in June fills me with excitement instead of trepidation.

Today is a Good Day, Sunshine.

xoxo

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

 

Life is What Happens to You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans

I’ve been busy these last weeks … planning for my reconstructive surgery, revamping a section of our shop, generally feeling good about my new meds and how they were making me feel.

Things have really been coming together, and I’ve been feeling somewhat optimistic. Other than some digestive and intestinal issues, life has been feeling pretty great.

Until they weren’t. I went to the ER last Tuesday afternoon with stomach pain. Thinking I was constipated and that it was just gas, you can imagine my surprise when the nurse told me that the doctor was admitting me.

It turned out that my liver enzymes were high, as were some things having to do with my pancreas. I was jaundiced, and was going to have a procedure put a stent into a duct in my liver.

While pathology wasn’t completed before I was released from the hospital, we did know that I had a malignant mass in my pancreas. There was also discussion of lymph nodes being involved.

Yesterday, I met with my oncologist. He walked in and put his arm around me. I leaned my head on his shoulder, and he rested his head on mine. We sat like that for a few moments before he told me my complete diagnosis.

My breast cancer has metastasized and gone to my pancreas, where there is a mass. It has also spread to lymph nodes, but we don’t know how many yet. We also do not know if it has spread to other parts of my body yet. I get my scan done tomorrow, so I should know more by next week. It is considered stage 4.

Chemotherapy is the treatment I will be receiving beginning next week.It is a three week on, one week off schedule. I’m not sure how long it will continue. As of right now, I will be receiving Gemzar. Other chemos may be added depending on where else the cancer is located.

That is all we know as of right now.