Thursday, June 28, 2012

Relay for Life According to Laura

As you know, this year was my first doing the Relay for Life.  2012 is only the second year that our town (a suburb of Seattle) has had a Relay for Life.

My husband, Greg
I had heard of it before - raise money for cancer.  Ya, that's nice.  But, I didn't know anyone with cancer, not really.  Sure, you hear people on the news who have/had cancer or someone might say they are related to someone with cancer or know someone.  But, cancer was never really on my radar until I got it.

I remember a few months ago when I was struggling with the "WHYs" - "Why did I get cancer?"  "Why did this happen to me?"  My new physical therapist, Kelly, said that maybe I got cancer so that I could have more empathy for others with cancer.  Well, I thought that was a sucky reason to get cancer!  Somebody could have just come and smacked me upside the head and said, "WAKE UP!"  A nicely worded letter would have been nice - "Hey!  People have cancer!  Be more caring!"
Kris (and Sheepie)

Regardless, I got cancer (twice) and survived and, as I find my way in my post-cancer world, I realize that I do want something good to come of this - maybe THAT's WHY I got cancer.  (Which, again, I'd like to say that's a terrible reason but whatever.)

Anyway, this led me to Relay for Life.  It took me several months to decide to actually start a team.  I don't really like to be in charge of things.  I don't particularly like to be a role model.  Being a good role model for my children (most days) takes a lot out of me...I don't have time or energy to be on good behavior for other people too.  I decided, though, that it was for a good cause.  Could I behave myself for a good cause?

Before I could make a team, we had to have a name.  I did the most intensive research I could to find a good name - I asked my friends on facebook.  There were several "interesting" suggestions including: "The Booby Bunch," "The Boob Squad" and "The Boob Crew."  After much deliberation (I asked my Mom), I decided on my friend, Elizabeth's, recommendation:  NO BOOBS REQUIRED!

We had a name, I had the $100 starting fee - I registered our team.  I set out recruiting members, again on facebook because I'm cool like that.  I was surprised at how many of my friends wanted to join!  People, not only willing to fundraise, but also give up a whole weekend for the cause.  I was honored that they would want to be a part, especially of a team ridiculously named "No Boobs Required."  I would find out, as Relay neared, that all of us had a personal connection to cancer.

In the beginning, our team consisted of my family, Greg (husband) and Kyra (daughter) and my friends Shana, her daughter Jade, Tanya, Monika, Karen, Kris, Shereen, Brenda, Deb and Christy.  Karen's son, Drew, joined later as did my son, Carter, rounding out the team to 15 members, the maximum.

We all made plans and coordinated fundraisers and, asked...for donations.  Karen Williams made and sold hundreds of cake pops for a dollar each.  Our friend, Elizabeth (the team namer) helped decorate many of them as did I.  Even my Mom pitched in to help with the decorating. I also donated my services as cake pop taste tester.  I was really good at it!  Decorating those little suckers isn't easy in my opinion, since I was born without any sort of crafty gene, but tasting, THAT I could do!

Collection Jars
Tanya and Christy, at Relay

Shana Warner held a jewelry party with profits going to Relay (I did this as well).  Kris Bitnes put my scary picture on jars and collected money - I was a CAUSE for people to donate to (which saddened my Mother).  Brenda held a very successful fundraiser pool party with drawings.  I helped my 10 year old daughter, Kyra, organize a book sale.  People bought things, People donated.

As Relay approached, we had no clue what we were in for.  We held a meeting and Relay Goddesses, Carrie Blankenship and Kim Demary, came to answer all of our endless inane questions.  We were as prepared as a bunch of newbies who had no clue could be.

The day finally arrived and I got up a little after 7 a.m.  I don't appreciate anything that starts that early, but, again, this was for a good cause.  The realization that I would, likely, be awake for the next 27 hours or so was daunting but I felt empowered (delirious from lack of sleep too).  I loaded the car and made a quick swing by Starbucks on my way there.  Armed with a Chonga bagel and Double Chocolate Chip Frappacino, I was ready to conquer the Relay!

Our encampment!  #8
I found our camp spot (lucky #8) and started to haul things over.  Shana and Jade (crazy early risers) were already there and Karen and I arrived at the same time.  We set things up quickly and Greg (along with Kyra and Carter) arrived a little after 9 to help.

Kyra was selling books and Shana was doing four raffles drawings (in the state of Washington, "raffles" are illegal, so we must call them "drawings."  Raffles are gambling but drawings aren't.  Go figure.).  Karen was selling more yummy cake pops (I was all "taste tested" out at this point) and her son, Drew, took on most of that duty.  Since food had to be sold in a different location (away from the track), Drew was away from our site most of the day.  As a teenage boy, he was super bummed to not get to spend the whole day with a bunch of 40 year old women.

A little after 10 a.m., the opening ceremonies began.  Everyone was called into the bleachers.   The opening ceremony was really beautiful and touching.  Several people spoke about the meaning of Relay and someone beautifully sang the national anthem.  It was then time for the Survivor's Lap. (To read about the Survivor's Lap - Go Here: Survivor Lap)

Following the Survivor Lap, it was time to really get serious.  Of course, it being MY team, that never actually happened.  But, as the day progressed, we sold books, "drawing" tickets, walked laps and gave the children endless dollar bills to buy treats, snacks and hot chocolate from the vendors.

Many of us took the special pledge to stay up ALL night without sleeping.  We were full of energy and empowered!  We were women (well, except for Greg) hear us Roar!


Each hour throughout the day had a theme and it was fun to watch the costumes.  As our team members walked by, I cheered for them.  A few were really honored by the acknowledgement, most acted like they didn't know me.  Our little Energizer Bunny of the team, Brenda Dykgraaf, walked so many laps, so fast, that I think I missed her about half the time.  Our plan was that some people signed up for specific times to walk and the rest of us would fill in.  Sadly, I "filled in" much less than I had planned.  It was a particularly achy day for me and I'd been battling a migraine for 2 days.  The bright sun (a rarity in Seattle!) was not welcome to my eyes or head.

At 7 p.m., Shana prepared to draw for her raffles.  She was giving away 2 sets of Office Pro, an Xbox Kinect and a bundle of Xbox games.  I quickly bought three tickets for the Kinect.  I made sure to rumple my tickets and fold them and kissed them for extra luck.  Shana had me draw the names for the Office Pro packs and first Christy and then Tanya won those.  They were thrilled.  I drew a little boy's name for the games bundle.  Then, it was time to draw for the Kinect!  I was so excited!  I KNEW which ticket to look for!  As I reached my hand in, I gloated!  Shana was suddenly on to me and my cheating ways and she snatched the bag from me.  She turned to Tanya to draw a name.  I gestured to Tanya behind Shana's back to pick the FOLDED TICKET!!!  Shana caught me and, in disgust, she stomped away to find a stranger to pick the winning ticket.  Darn.

A minute later, she stomped back in a huff.  I'd won anyway!!!  She had gone out into the field and found someone to draw the winning ticket and they chose my name out of the bag anyway!   It was great!  Shana wrote out the list for the announcer to call out the winners over the loudspeaker.  When the announcements came on, they called all the names and then read mine as, "Laura 'I LOVE COCONUT' Shelton."  Not okay Shana!  NOT OKAY!  But, hey, I won a Kinect, so it didn't matter.

As night neared, we gathered white bags to make luminaries.  Luminaries are bags decorated to honor people you know and love who have fought cancer (some that have won and many that have lost).  Shereen made a Luminaria for me.  She also made one for our 5 year old friend, Jenna, who died from cancer 3 years ago.  I made several for friends that I know.  Others made them for family members and friends.

We walked around the track to look at the luminaries before it got dark.  There were just so MANY of them.  It was beautiful and overwhelming.  Some had pictures, some had drawings, most had names.  They said things like "Grandpa," "Papa" and "Sis."  I stopped to read one in particular.  It had a letter on one side to "Mom" and a letter on the other side to "Sis."  The writer wrote letters about how much she missed each of them and how she was now, "the only one left."  I cried.

Dark fell and the luminaries glowed from the little battery operated lights inside.  At 10 p.m., we were all called to the bleachers.  Once everyone was gathered, the lights were all turned out.  The track now only lit by the glowing circle of bags that outlined the track.  Pink bags spelling out HOPE glowed in the stands on the opposite side.  It was beautiful and sad.

Voices spoke over the microphone but we could not see them in the dark.  It was like a voice from another world.  Eerie and haunting.  Survivors were then called down from the bleachers to get a purple glow stick and walk the track.

This was when I was sure the Relay people were trying to kill me again.  It was completely dark and they wanted me to navigate the dark bleachers and make it down to the bottom for a little purple glow stick.  After surviving cancer twice, I was pretty sure this was what was going to do me in.  I didn't think a little purple glow stick was enough reward for me to risk my life.  I do like glow sticks though...and they were free.

Luckily, I did make it down safely to the flat ground of the track to get my purple glow stick reward.  Everyone else was called out of the stands for a white glow stick.  I waited for my family and our whole group walked the track once more mostly in silence, in awe of the glowing luminaries.

The Relay peeps had announced at 10 that they were going to leave the lights off all night and let the track only be lit by the luminaries.  Our group was not happy.  First, we had NO light in our little compound.  Second, it was much harder to keep track of our children in total darkness.  Third, we knew we wouldn't be able to stay awake in darkness.  And last but not least, we feared that someone would get hurt on the dark track.  I feared that person would be me.  I have enough trouble walking in light!

Luckily, at 11 p.m., after one hour of darkness, the Powers that be in Relay decided to turn the lights back on.  Not only did they have some of the same concerns as us; but many are parents of teenagers and decided that a bunch of teenagers loose all night in total darkness was probably not a good idea.  (Good call).

Crazy Zumba peeps!

At midnight, Karen's niece, Emily,  brought a friend and directed an hour of Zumba.  Christy jumped right in to Zumba.  I decided to give it a try myself.  I was a natural!  I picked it up right away and was rocking it.  And then they started to move their feet too.  I was not told I would have to move more than my arms!  I am not coordinated enough to manage that.  I was bumping into all the people around me.  They were not amused.  It was a disaster.  I was going to maim someone.  I quickly bowed out.  My Zumba days over before they began.  Christy, Tanya, Shana and Shereen decided to do their own little Zumba club over on the side.  It was "entertaining."  Zumba lasted for a whole hour!  The vast majority of the Zumba-ers were kids and teens.  The rest of us didn't have the energy to Zumba at midnight (or any other time for that matter).

When Zumba ended at 1 a.m., it was the PJ hour.  My kids and Karen's son, Ian, happily participated. Then at 2 a.m. was the Zombie Hour.  Jade wore a scary mask (or maybe that is just how she looks when she's really tired - Kidding Jade, Kidding!).  Carter dressed up as a zombie.  He made it around the track twice with only one flip flop because he says that zombies always lose one shoe.  I did not know this about zombies so this was helpful information.

At 2:30, Carter gave up and went to sleep in the tent.  Kyra and Ian were both still up and full of energy, hyped up on $1 hot chocolates.

At 3 a.m., it was Obstacle Hour.  The Relay people put out little "fences" to jump over.  Ian did the obstacle course with such enthusiasm that he won a prize!  I also energetically leapt over many of the obstacles (well, okay, I carefully stepped over them) but I got no such prize.  Hmph!

By 4 a.m., only nine of us remained.  Me, Kyra, Carter, Karen, Drew, Ian, Shana, Jade and Shereen.  Things started to get pretty delirious at this point.  We were sitting under the canopy talking.  Everything was funny.  Shana called her daughter (Jade) by the name "Lily" (Chrisy's dog's name).  Jade didn't even notice.  Shereen tried to convince us that she could have been a rapper in another life.  Karen was quiet (never a good thing).  We laughed so hard that we cried.  There were moments of long silences when we all sat in a trance and moments where we laughed so hard we cried.

I waited a long time for another team member to cross in front of our booth so I could cheer for them (and they could, as a result, pretend they didn't know me).  This is when I realized that we were all under the canopy.  No one was walking.  Whoops!  We all decided that just BEING THERE was enough.  We thought that was hilarious too.

Kyra - 6 a.m.
As dawn approached, we were all fading fast.  Shereen managed to convince herself that she should leave.  I was still resolved to stay until closing ceremonies at 10 a.m.  At 6:30 a.m., Kyra (who had been up all night) started having a nervous breakdown.  She was sitting in the chair under the canopy staring into space and crying.  I knew we were through.  None of us could go on.  I called Greg to come get us.  Karen left with her two boys and once Greg arrived, Shana and Jade left.

We packed up and waited for Brenda to arrive at 7 a.m.  I didn't want her to come back to an empty campsite.  What a shock that would have been!  Ha!  Once she arrived, we left and stumbled to our car.

Greg brought us breakfast and we ate and then all collapsed into bed and slept for hours.  We spent days unpacking the cars completely.
Energizer Bunny, Brenda!
Jade 6 a.m.

Brenda walked the most on our team, completing 80 laps (that's 20 MILES!!).

Our team raised $4,594.50 for Relay.  That's really impressive considering it was the first year for all of us and I wasn't even sure if I wanted to do it!

Relay was an amazing experience.  To be surrounded by people who had lived through something similar to what you had - to see people that had survived for years more than you dare even dream for yourself - it was humbling and beautiful.  Relay is highs and lows, we laughed until we cried, we laughed through tears, we just cried.  There were so many times that you could almost feel the presence of those that we walked for.  Those that couldn't be there.  Those that lost the battle with cancer.  So many times throughout the day, I just closed my eyes and absorbed "Relay."  Soaking in the sounds and emotions.  Looking at my children and all the children there and knowing that we are playing a small part in making sure that none of them have cancer.

Relay is for more birthdays.  It's as simple as that.  Making sure that all of us have many many more birthdays to celebrate!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Life is Unfair

I complain a lot about the current state of my hair.  I know I should be thankful that I even HAVE hair.  I know I should.  I KNOW!  And, I am....sort of.  It's just that when my hair started to grow back, I didn't envision THIS:

I know that, after chemo, often people have hair that grows back curly (this is a bit ridiculous though).  However, I would like to show you a picture of my adorable friend, Jen, who finished chemo three weeks after me:

Jen is adorable anyway - but this is just ridiculous.  Look at her cute hair in that darling pixie cut!


My adorable friend, Jen, with her cute pixie cut:


Adorable friend Jen:

What I look like:

Adorable friend Jen:



Tuesday, June 12, 2012

The Survivor Lap

Saturday May 19 to Sunday May 20 was my first Relay for Life event.

A year ago, I'd barely heard of Relay for Life.  In May of 2011, I was just beginning to navigate the road of breast cancer.  At the time of Relay last year, I hadn't been officially diagnosed yet.  I had just started the testing.  I was "only" a renal cancer survivor - 4 months out from surgery.  I remember in April of 2011, my friend, Carrie Blankenship (a Relay Goddess), asked if I would like to come walk the Survivor Lap at Relay 2011.

That felt like such a weird invitation to me.  Sure, I'd had cancer.  Renal cancer.  Sure I'd lost part of my kidney and recovered from a difficult and painful surgery - but I didn't *REALLY* feel like I'd had cancer.  I had heard about people suffering through surgeries and then chemo and radiation and losing their hair and so much more - but all I'd done is had a teeny little bit of a kidney loped off.  What right did I have to walk a Survivor Lap among those who'd lost so much and suffered so deeply.  I didn't really feel like I'd had cancer.  My journey was too easy.  Cancer was "easy" for me - snip off part of a kidney and I was done!  Sure it was scary and life changing to hear, "You have cancer."  Yadda Yadda Yadda. But, I wasn't a card-carrying cancer survivor (or so I thought).  I told Carrie, "Maybe next year..."

And then...I found out that I did, indeed, have breast cancer.  If cancer hadn't changed me before, it did then.  I knew the road ahead would be agonizing.  I didn't know the half of it.

As the planning began in September of 2011 for the 2012 Relay, I went to the monthly meetings.  Carrie talked to me a lot about starting my own team for Relay.  Did I want my own team?  Did I want to be "in charge" of something?  I wasn't sure I was up to it.  I was in the middle of chemo and every day I faced new challenges, scary side effects and dilemmas as to what to wear on my bald head!  This alone took up a lot of my time.  Could I really tackle putting together a Relay team too?

After going to three meetings, in January 2012, I officially went to the Relay for Life page and signed up.  I did it.  I was finished with chemo, my hair was growing back, I could do this.  My friends rallied around me and joined too.  We made plans and coordinated fundraisers.  In early May, I was given my purple shirt designating me as a Survivor.

Talk of the Survivor Lap began again.  I knew this time, I'd have to walk.  Had I really had cancer?  Wasn't this all just a terrible nightmare?  Would walking around that track as a "Survivor" make it REAL?  Most worrisome: What if I tripped?! (That is something I would totally do!)

At around 10 a.m. at the High School Track was the official start of Relay 2012.  All participants were called into the stands and opening ceremonies began.  After speeches, the singing of anthem, etc; Cancer Survivors were called down to the track.  Starting with those Survivors of 25 years or more.  Quite a few people trickled onto the track.  Then 20-25 year Survivors - more people filled the track.  And so it went - more and more people, men and women, old and young, filed down.

As "Survivors of 4 years" was called, my teammate Brenda Dykgraaf joined the crowd.  Then, 3 years, 2 years and then, "Survivors of 1 year!"  I got up then.  It hadn't really been a year but I thought that was the last category (it wasn't - they called 6 months or less as well).  I ambled my way down to the track amid some cheers from the my friends and family.  It all felt so silly - they were cheering for me?   "Pshaw!  It was nothing!" I thought embarrassed.

As goofy as I am, I don't really like to be the center of attention.  I was mortified to discover that I was in the back of the crowd since I was one of the last ones to be called down and all the other Survivors had already started walking.  I didn't want to be LAST!  How awkward!  I sped up and managed to pass a couple of people so I felt better.  (Okay, one guy that I passed was in a wheelchair - I'm not proud of this...okay, yes I am...)

I talked to a few people around me, including my friend and fellow survivor, Stephanie Strom and her neighbor, another Survivor, also named Stephanie.

Halfway around the field is where your "caregivers" join you on the lap.  Really, everyone on my team, nearly everyone I know, could have joined me!  So many people pitched in to take care of me and my family for the last year!  However, only my family did come - my 10 year old daughter running to meet me first.  Hugging me, she grabbed my hand and looked up at me and said, "I love you Mommy."  Following her was my husband and 7 year old son.

As I held hands with my daughter and husband (the 7 year old refuses to hold Mom's hand now - hmph!), we finished the lap.  About 3/4 way around, I had the opportunity to go up the ramp and have lunch with other Survivors - but I opted to finish the lap with my family.  It didn't seem right to have them finish that important lap without ME!  I was the whole reason we were all there!

We did finish that lap together just as we'd walked the cancer journey together.  I couldn't have done the lap alone just as I couldn't have beat cancer alone.

I had been reluctant about the Survivor Lap.  Sure, I'd earned it, I suppose.  But, as I walked, I thought of all the people that weren't there walking - those people that had lost their battle with cancer.  To see the sea of purple shirts walking the track as Survivors was inspiring - but you can't help but think of all the people that aren't there.  Cancer takes too many people.

But, I realized part way through the lap that I was there walking FOR those people!  We all were!  Sure we were Survivors in our purple shirts - but, as we walked that lap, we didn't only represent ourselves, but all those before us - all those that fought cancer and lost.

In years to come, let's hope that we see MORE purple shirts out there - more purple shirts meaning not that we've "invited" more people - but that MORE people have SURVIVED!

And then someday - we won't need a Relay Survivor Lap.  There will be NO Cancer Survivors - because there will be NO ONE that had Cancer.


(My entire Relay story (not just the Survivor Lap) is coming...)

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Ow! Ow! Ouch! Ow!

If you see me around muttering, "Ow! Ow! Ouch! Ow!" there's a reason.

Though, I'm not entirely sure what the reason is, I'm achy and sore.

Not all the time.  But enough of the time to look a little strange (more so than usual, my friends).

I don't know what is causing the aching and stiffness.  It could be leftover from chemo (side effects can last a year or longer!).  More likely it's a side effect of the cancer drug that I'm taking, Anastrozole.

One of my most persistent side effects during my chemo treatment was the aching, soreness and stiffness.  When I finished chemo and moved on to taking the daily cancer pill, my oncologist warned me that these side effects might still be an issue.

At first, as I resumed my daily life activities, I just figured that I was (woefully) out of shape.  My body had a lot of catching up to do.  The most I'd done in the last 9 months was walk to and from the kitchen for an occasional cookie (which is another issue altogether).  I surmised, that, as I got more used to life, I'd be less sore.

Unfortunately, it doesn't seem to have worked that way.  In fact, I would say that I struggle more with the aches and pains than I did just a couple of months ago.  Perhaps I'm doing drastically more or maybe the oral cancer drug just took this long to really build up in my system and make its presence known.

Some days are better than others.  Some days I feel pretty good.  Other days, I'm just so sore.  I feel like I went to the gym and spent hours on the torture machines (I haven't - in fact, it's been so long, I might get lost trying to FIND my gym again).  It does seem to follow that the busier I am, the more sore I am.

Oh cookie, how I love thee.
The other night, after a particularly full day or errands, doctor appointments (yes, I still have quite a few of them for various reasons) and kid activities - I lay in bed in agony.  I had a raging headache and everything hurt.  I seriously pondered getting up to take some Motrin.  But, I knew the Motrin was all the way in the kitchen.  I also knew there were no more cookies.  It just wasn't quite worth it to ONLY get up for the Motrin (without a cookie for a reward).  So, instead, I lay there in pain.

I tried to not move even the slightest muscle.  I tried to not even breathe too much.  At that point, the only thing that would have gotten me out of bed wouldn't have been a natural disaster.

I eventually did fall asleep and I woke the next morning feeling a little better.

It feels wrong to complain about such silly things.  Taking a drug that might keep you from getting cancer but makes you achy seems better than the alternative, I suppose.

I'll try to remember that as my bones creak and my muscles scream.

I wonder if there are any cookies in the kitchen...

Monday, May 7, 2012

I'm Okay...I Think

A few days ago, I went to my 6 month check-up.  After having blood tests, a chest x-ray and ultrasounds of my kidneys and thyroid, I was to find out the results.  Was there any cancer lurking?

I was so ecstatic to find out that all tests were clear!  Everything looked normal!  I. Am. Normal.  As much as I ever was, that is.

I practically skipped out of the cancer center.  My cancer days behind me.

An hour later, I ran into an acquaintance at the grocery store.  She remarked at how fast my hair is growing back.  She asked, "How are you?"

I said, "I'm okay."

and then I added,

"I think..."

Immediately after I said it, I wondered why.  Why did I add, "I think."  Just an hour earlier, I'd been at the oncologist where he assured me that everything was fine.  There are no signs of cancer.  Nothing in any of the tests to worry about.  No indication of anything wrong.

And yet, here I was saying, "I think..."

This is how you feel after getting an All Clear on your test results.
This is not actually me - if I tried to do this jumping stunt,
I'd have bigger things to worry about than cancer.
It's no secret that cancer patients dread these tests.  It's not the tests themselves that we dread - it's the waiting and then the finding out.  Once you find out the test results, your anxiety level decreases down to the lowest levels possible.  You feel FREE!  You feel ALIVE!  You are ECSTATIC!

As the days and weeks and then months pass, getting closer to the next check-up, the next round of tests; slowly your anxiety levels creep up.  Slowly, more and more doubt leaks in about whether or not you are healthy - whether or not cancer has returned.

Healthy people don't generally think too much about their health.  You live your life with the assumptions that you are fine.  I remember when I found out that I had cancer (both times).  It was such a blow.  "But, I feel FINE!" I remember thinking.  "How could I be so sick?!"  "How could there be something trying to kill me right now?"

Once you have cancer, though, you are always looking over your shoulder waiting for it to return.  Watching your back.  You know that cancer could be silently lurking, you've been there before.  You've lived it.

I've pondered the reasons that I said, "I think..." a lot since I said it.

I've wondered if I said it because I just like the attention.  Someone WITH cancer is much more interesting than just someone who HAD cancer.  I do like to be interesting...

But, I think I said it because, once you have cancer, you are just never sure.  Never 100% positive that there isn't something else lurking.  More cancer to face.

The further I get from cancer treatment, the more days I spend being "in remission," the less I do think about cancer.  Of course, it still is a main topic in my brain every day - but it's not the thought obsession that it was in the beginning when I could think of nothing else.

I wonder though, if I'll always say (or think) "I think..." when people ask me how I am.  Doctors may say that I'm cured at some point, but will I ever really FEEL "cured?"


Thursday, May 3, 2012

What Double Mastectomy Means to a 7 Year Old...

Last night, my 7 year old son was studying me.  When I noticed he asked:

Carter:  Mom, so you don't have to wear breasts anymore?
Me: (confused) What do you mean?
Carter:  You know, you don't have to WEAR BREASTS anymore?
Me: Well, I don't HAVE breasts anymore, is that what you mean?
Carter: Ya, how come?
Me: Remember, I had surgery to remove my breasts because I had cancer?
Carter: Yes, but you know, you don't have to WEAR them anymore? (does motions with hands)
Me: Oh, you mean BRAS?
Carter: YES!  So, you don't have to WEAR them anymore?
Me: Nope!
Carter:  Oh.  Okay!  (trots out of room pretending to be a Pokemon character)

Alrighty then.


Our local paper published a story I wrote for them about my cancer journey.  I'm feeling very famous right now, I especially like how they put "Contributing Writer" under my name like I'm legit!

After seeing that I was in the newspaper, Kyra (10) asked:

Kyra: Will the paparazzi start following you around now like they do with other famous people?
Me: Yes, sweetie, that is exactly what's going to happen.
Kyra: Oh.  Wow.  I hope no one follows me home...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Hair Report

No, that's not a poodle on my head...

I end up with the goofiest pictures when I take them myself.  Egad!

1/24/12 - Almost 3 Months After Chemo

Goofiest Picture EVER!  LOL  But, it does show some good hair growth!!

12/28/11 - 2 Months After Chemo


12/8/11 - 6 Weeks Out From Chemo

Side View - Hey, starting to look impressive!!

Not so impressive on the top of my head.  <sigh>

Five Weeks Out From Chemo 12/1/11

The long hair has been growing since the beginning, the other hair is just barely beginning to grow.

Me, looking dorky 12/1/11

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

"Everything Happens for a Reason"

It's a common saying, origins unknown.  "Everything happens for a reason."

I've said it before and I think I even believed it for a long time.  Sometimes things happen, even bad things.  We may not know the reason behind them when they happen, but, eventually, it seems, most things turn out okay.  Sometimes better.

It makes me think of the song by Garth Brooks "Unanswered Prayers."  In the song, he sings about how he had wanted a relationship to work out more than anything in the world.  He prayed to his God to make it come true.  He was devastated when it didn't work out and he couldn't understand why God hadn't answered his prayers.  Later in his life, he realizes that God was right.  God had something better in store for him.  He then thanks God for "Unanswered Prayers."

Life isn't like a song, obviously.  But, I'm sure I'm not the only one who was comforted in times of need by the sentiment.  "Everything happens for a reason."  Sometimes when it would seem like there could be no reason in the world, other than misery, for something to happen; it's comforting to think that, perhaps, there is a higher power - there is a reason, even if you can't see it yet.

And then, I got cancer.  And then, I got cancer again.  And, I lost my breasts.  And, I endured chemo.  And, I lost my hair.

What reason could there be for this suffering?  If there is a God, why would He make me (or anyone else) endure this?  Why did my friend's 5 year old daughter die of cancer?  Why does a young mother with two young boys die of breast cancer?  What could be the reasoning or meaning behind such heartache and agony and suffering?

I remember, soon after I was diagnosed, a friend had to go in for a biopsy after a suspicious mammogram.  When everything came back clear, she sent out an email thanking God and thanking everyone for their prayers.  "All of my friends must have prayed really hard for me and God listened!" she said.

Did MY friends not pray hard enough for me?  Did God not listen to me?  Did God turn His back on my prayers?  If so, why?  I was happy that she was okay - but I really questioned why God doesn't love me as much.

Why is one person spared (not that I wish cancer on anyone) and another not?  Why is one person left to suffer and another not?

WHY did I get cancer?  WHAT could possibly be the greater good in this?

In 2006, at an appointment at my ENT for an ear infection, he did his exam and told me I had a large lump on my thyroid.  I didn't even know what a thyroid was or where it was.  After biopsies and tests, it was undetermined whether or not it was cancer.  The mass was growing rapidly.  The smart decision was to have it removed (along with half of my thyroid) to find out, for sure, what it was.  In December 2006, I had the surgery.  It was a benign tumor.

That experience changed ME dramatically.  It changed so much how I looked at life and how I dealt with life.  With two small children (ages 5 and 2) and facing cancer - I was terrified.  I vowed to not take things for granted (as much) anymore.  I vowed to not fight every fight that came my way.  I vowed to let more go and not react so quickly to other people and situations.

And, I really did change.  I became nicer and calmer.  I let more roll off my back.  I appreciated life more and I loved my husband and kids more.  I slowed down a bit and enjoyed the day to day living. I argue less.  I give people the benefit of the doubt much more easily.  I forgive.

If *almost* having cancer changed me as profoundly as it did.  If I became a better person already.  Why did I still GET cancer?  What am I supposed to learn from this?  What am I supposed to do with this experience?  Where do I go from here?

I struggle with this daily - even now.  I don't think "Woe is me...."  But, I do question, "Why me?"

If "everything happens for a reason."  What is my reason?

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Shopping Boobless

Clothes shopping for women is never an easy venture.  It becomes infinitely more complicated when you try it after a double mastectomy.

For the first time since my double mastectomy, I tried on clothes.  I went shopping with my Mom.  I was only trying on shirts and sweaters since I have enough pants for now.  I'm taking a trip next weekend to a much warmer climate (Las Vegas Baby!) and I need clothes for this!  I'm a Seattle girl and I'm always cold, so I dress in sweaters and long sleeves until the temperature reaches well over 70 degrees.  If you know anything about Seattle, you know that the temperature doesn't get above 70 that often so I wear sweaters for about 10 months of the year.  I am woefully unprepared to spend a few days in a warmer sunnier climate.

Living in a colder climate has been very helpful for dressing after a double mastectomy.  I had my surgery in July and by September, I was wearing sweaters and scarfs to camouflage what wasn't there anymore (boobs).  I'm not sure I'm really fooling anyone, but it makes me feel better.

Super Cute dress - but not for
the boobless.
Back to the shopping trip; I found several lighter shirts and a few sweaters to try on.  There are a lot of cute styles out right now.

Sadly, many of these cute new styles did not look anywhere near presentable on me.

Not only am I boobless, but I have some other serious fashion don'ts.  The boobless dilemma is just the tip of the iceberg.

The fact that I don't have breasts means that I have a flat chest.  "Flat" isn't quite the right description.  Since I had what is called a "skin sparing mastectomy," I have extra skin (refer to cute picture of Sharpei puppy).  This extra skin is in preparation for reconstruction.  Someday, it'll turn into a nice round perky boob.  For now though, it's not attractive.  This causes a problem with clothing.  There are a lot of cute shirts that are scoop necked or v-necked to show a little cleavage.  Unfortunately, for me, I don't HAVE cleavage anymore.  Unfortunately, for me, all you see is wrinkled skin.  It's not a good look.

Not only is the fun extra skin an issue.  But, also, since I don't have boobs anymore, I'm (as I said) flat where boobs should be.  This doesn't seem like too big of an issue until you factor in that I do not (sadly) have a flat stomach anymore.  In fact, I don't think I've had a flat stomach since I was about 12.  Having children and loving food have exasperated this.  Before I had breast cancer, I had a big tummy AND big boobs!  The ratio was, at least, normal.  Now, I have flat boobs and a big tummy which gives the effect of being about 15 months pregnant.  With triplets.

Pitiful looking port scar.
The one-eyed sad face.
As if things couldn't get any worse, I also have a scar on the left side of my chest where my port was put in (and still remains).  It's a line with a dot above.  It looks like a one-eyed sad face.  Completely pitiful looking and unsightly. (Which brings me to the rant of why they couldn't make the line curved up so it, at least, looks like a one-eyed happy face!)

Cute darts to emphasis the boobage...not so cute
when no boobs to emphasize!
I also noticed, as I was trying clothes on, that many clothes are meant to emphasize the boobage.  There are cute darts and strategically placed ruffles and buttons.  All there to make the breasts look cuter, rounder, perkier.  However, when you don't HAVE breasts, these efforts to make boobs look "cute," just look ridiculous.

After trying on a few things and failing miserably to find anything that I would wear in public on purpose, I wandered around the store a bit more and noticed that there were no mannequins that looked like me.  No clothes made for my body type anymore.  I perused the rows and rows of different garments, feeling the materials, loving the colors, wishing something looked "cute" on me.  On THIS body.

Then I saw something that stopped me dead in my tracks.

The bra section.

The BRA section!
(Twilight Zone Music)
I stood there, holding my breath, staring into the abyss.  The abyss that was the bra section.  I felt self-aware and awkward.  I haven't been in a bra section in almost a year.  I wanted to venture over there to just "look" but it felt so wrong.  Like a "boobless" alarm would sound and I would be kicked out of the store.  I vacillated between being thankful I don't have to wear those contraptions known as bras anymore and being sad that I don't have anything to fill all those lovely lacy garments.

Instead of spending my days trying to hide bra straps and too much cleavage; I'm left to be self-conscious about scars and wrinkles and a body type that virtually no one has.

I don't expect retailers to start making clothes that look good on flat chested, boobless, chubby women. And that's okay.  Everyone has a different body type and everyone has to accept the challenges of living in what they have.  It really is what's inside that matters.

Now if we could all just convince ourselves of that....

(Oh, and I did buy two things...two turtleneck sweaters.  Not helpful for a trip to Vegas...)

Boob Count = 150

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Day of No Hats

Me, in one of my favorite hats.
(No makeup here, don't be scared!)
My hair growth has gotten to the point now where I almost feel comfortable going hat-less.  Almost.

Before today, I was at the point where I would wear a hat places but take it off in stores.  But, still, carry the hat...just in case.  Just in case of what, I don't know. Just in case there was some crazy lottery where everyone with a hat in their possession won one million dollars?  Just in case there was some devastating apocalypse where only hat wearers survived?   Regardless, it made me feel better to know that I just had it.

Having the hat with me was like a signal to other people (in my mind) that I just had cancer.  A signal that I didn't do this horrible haircut to myself on purpose!  A signal that I'm not trying to look "cool" at 42 years old by shaving all of my hair off.  As long as I had the hat with me, it served as an explanation.

Today, I went to the grocery store and I didn't take my hat!  Not at all!  Not even to the car so I could, maybe, change my mind later.  I left all my hats at home.  I thought long and hard about this.  Was I ready to give up my security blanket so soon?  Was I ready to face the world knowing that I would be judged for looking like this and not hiding behind a hat?

Me, college years.  Oh hair, I MISS YOU!
As I walked through the grocery store, I felt a bit empowered.  I am woman, hear me roar without my hat!  But, I did get more than a few looks.  There weren't any of the looks that I got back when my head was bald and I wore a scarf.  The looks of sadness and pity weren't there.  These were looks of, "Why the hell would anyone do that to themselves?"  "Does that woman think that "hairstyle" looks GOOD?"  I knew what people were thinking as clearly as if they had screamed it at me themselves.

On one hand, I hate how my hair looks right now.  In my vain youth, I would have never been seen out in public looking like this!  On the other hand, it's a badge of honor too.  "Look at me!  I made it!  I survived cancer! I DID IT!"  Unfortunately, I think I'm the only one who knows that it's a badge of honor and not just a really bad haircut.

I've had several people tell me that they love my hair.  Some people, in fact, have told me that they love it now even more than when I had hair.  I'm not sure whether to thank them or slap them.  Was my "real" hairstyle so bad that I look better now this way?

Closeup of the anarchy that is happening
on my head right now.
The gray is ever present and seems to be more abundant than before (it was the first to grow back - oh joy).  I guess if anything is going to turn you gray, cancer would do it.  In that last few days, my hair has also decided that it would be super fun to be curly.  Instead of being a cute manageable curl, it tends to just stick out without abandon like it's trying to escape my head altogether.  Places where the hair just sticks straight out as if to say, "Get me off this crazy woman!!"  To me, none of this equals an acceptable look.

Are hats a thing of my past?  I can't be sure.  It's nice to have the option to go without a hat but it's hard to do so when you hate what's on top of your head.  But, hair grows only as fast as it grows (and mine does grow fast).  This is who I am right now.  It is a badge of honor, no matter if strangers know it or not.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The "R" Word

Valentines Day 2012 is the first time I officially heard the "R" word.

That word?


At my doctor's appointment today, I asked if I was in remission and he said YES!

I asked if I would ever be considered cured.

That answer was a little more complicated.  Once you have cancer, you are never really considered "cured."  Though, my status will officially be remission for about 3 years, then it will change to "cured."  But, in cancer terms, there is no cure.  Not really.  It's never 100%.  But, being "cured" means that the cancer is less likely to recur.  However, as my doctor said, he's had patients end up with breast cancer again 12 years after being "cured."  CURED is not a word they throw around lightly.  Because, there is no cure for cancer.


For now though, I was so excited to hear the word REMISSION!  There is no trace of cancer in my blood.  There is a special blood test that is done on cancer patients called a Tumor Marker Test.  That test, along with other blood work ups, can show the presence of tumors in the body.  All of my blood tests are coming back completely normal now, meaning there is no indication of any cancer lurking.  The blood tests aren't 100% accurate, of course, but doctors can watch trends over time in blood work of cancer patients to ensure that treatments are working.

I finished chemo in October and, after my hysterectomy in January, I began taking a cancer drug called Anastrozole.  This is an oral cancer treatment, a little pill that I take every day.  I'll have to take it for the next 5 years (at least).  That is how long it's shown to be effective.  In 5 years, I may take nothing or I may be switched to something different.  It depends on what advances are made in the next 5 years in treating cancer.  Those are decisions to be made later.

Anastrozole (also known as Arimidex) is one of two main drugs prescribed for cancer patients after chemo.  Anastrozole is the drug prescribed for women to treat breast cancer who have already gone through menopause.  Since all of my lady parts are gone, I am officially menopausal.  Anastrozole is used to further decrease the amount of estrogen your body makes.  Since my body apparently likes to take estrogen and use it to make cancer, this is a good pill for me.  Women who are pre-menopausal often take Tamoxifen.  Tamoxifen counteracts estrogen in the body by making sure that estrogen doesn't help cancer to grow.

Neither drug is completely effective against cancer.  But, the odds are good.  Anastrozole is 1-2% more effective than Tamoxifen.  It's not a huge amount, but I have rotten luck so I'll take whatever edge I can.

The side effects of these drugs are pages long.  Every thing you can think of COULD happen. Fun stuff like cataracts and hot flashes. Luckily, after a month of taking Anastrozole, I'm doing well and tolerating it.  I do have some definite aching in my joints and overall soreness.  It's hard to say if that is a side effect of the cancer drug or not.  It could be leftover from the chemo.  Or it could be a result of sitting around like a lump for the last 9 months.

Whatever the reason, I still look like I'm about 70 years old when I get up from a chair or start walking.  It's a super sexy look.

Time will tell if the cancer is really gone from my body completely or just hiding somewhere.  For now, I'm very optimistic and I so much like my new word: