Tuesday, May 26, 2015

That Fateful Mammogram

May 24, 2014 was the day I had my first-ever mammogram at age 47. I was flip about it. I told my Facebook friends I was going to do battle with the "hamburger press" for the first time, and afterwards, I said it really wasn't a big deal. I went for coffee with a new friend. I got a frantic phone call from my doctor at eight o'clock that night advising me to go for more screening. Here we are.

Now that a complete turn of the calendar has passed, I find I'm less inclined to look back upon those first few weeks of dealing with the specter of breast cancer. The number of times I said, "I just know it's cancer", either out loud or to myself, is not something I ever want to re-live. The terror I felt when I met with the radiologist after the second mammogram and ultrasound, and saw in her eyes that she knew, without having to perform a biopsy, that the news wouldn't be good, is a look I never again want to see.You get where I'm going. 

These days, I like to focus on everything I've learned over the past year. I'll never consider myself an expert on breast cancer, but my knowledge level has increased exponentially. I'm grateful for that; it's almost as if I took another graduate-level university course in what could potentially kill me.

Instead of writing a 25-page paper, I had to endure surgery and treatment, and everything else that goes along with those processes. The blog entries have helped me deal with the side effects, but I'd have much rather written a doctoral thesis about something pertaining to Shakespeare, Milton, Donne, or maybe Dante, just for shits and giggles. Twisting just my brain into knots would have been more enjoyable than what cancer treatment did to the rest of me.

My goal is, was, and always will be to have other women benefit from my experiences. Many of us are blindsided by our diagnoses, and feel very alone in facing them. I've been very lucky to have one person who is, was, and always will be my staunchest supporter. I count on many more people for electronic support, and a small group in the medical community who continue to treat me with the respect and dignity we are all entitled to. If you do have to go through something like breast cancer, having these elements in place makes it easier. And that's saying a lot.

I wasn't convinced that marking the year was a good idea. Then I thought, why not? I won't be mourning the passing of my breasts, even though they were taken from me on July 3, 2014, which makes the occasion kind of hard to forget here in America.

I won't be setting off fireworks to commemorate anything, but I will forever remind anyone who reads my words to never turn a nose up at learning something new. Education is life - literally. It might not make you an Internet celebrity, or earn you six-figure bank, but it is important. No one will be clicking "Like" or giving you the thumbs up when you're dead.


Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Tamoxifen, Sandra Lee, Mammography, and DCIS

Who likes buffets? If you do that's totally fine. I won't begrudge you, but I will share my thoughts:

I think buffets are evil. I think they are a bastion for those among us who have annoying food proclivities that border on being textbook eating disorders. They are all about quantity as opposed to quality. They illustrate the inherent gluttony of North Americans who think that multiple trips to the food troughs qualify as exercise. Number of times I've been to Las Vegas: three; number of buffets I ate at: zero. They remind me of my insane Canadian family.

I have no idea why I have a hair across my ass about buffets. Maybe I'm trying to channel my annoyance at being bombarded with myriad opinions about breast cancer, and the underlying acrimony towards women who are stricken with it. Really, this isn't very different from the incoherent right wing abortion/contraception/rape debates. Some segments of society want to lay the blame at our feet for our diagnoses, while simultaneously expressing frustration at not having better ways to diagnose and treat us.

Since I last blogged, I've read even more conflicting opinions about mammography, mastectomies, and ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS). Yesterday, Sandra Lee, the Food Network personality and partner of New York governor Andrew Cuomo, announced she has breast cancer. She was diagnosed with DCIS and is undergoing a double mastectomy to avoid further treatment. Of course, the details of her diagnosis were not shared, leaving people like me wondering if there is more to it than just DCIS, which I like to describe as cancer warming up in the bullpen.

Ms. Lee's announcement included a pledge to advocate for screening as a way to save lives, which falls in line with populist opinion, but rankles the researchers and militant feminists who swear we do ourselves more harm than good. I think by now you all know how I feel about that, but my voice is barely a whisper in the shout box. We need to open a high-profile dialogue about risk, as opposed to detection, and no one seems to be listening. You can find the risk dialogue if you search for it, but unfortunately, it's easier to just argue the status quo than it is to start a new conversation.

I'm a little over a week into my Tamoxifen/Effexor regimen, and so far I've felt a few more intense hot flashes, and have had some minor digestive issues. To put it plainly, I can no longer drink hot coffee (the ice maker in my fridge is working overtime), and I've got my bottle of Imodium on standby. I'm hoping all this is just temporary, although I do very much enjoy iced coffee when the weather is warm.

Tomorrow, I am going for a skin test in preparation for receiving my first "vaccine" injection. I will be getting jabbed next week, during my third Herceptin infusion.


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Natal Indulgence

Today is my 48th birthday, and I declare that I am entitled to rant a bit (not that I've ever refrained from ranting before) about what I've gone through during the past year and what it has taught me. 

As you might expect, my first birthday post-breast cancer diagnosis is a bit different from all the others. I'm not really thinking about my mortality; what I am thinking about is how my view of the world has changed over the past 12 months. So, buckle up and read on: 

The Worst Brings Out the Best: When you're confronted with a cancer diagnosis, you find out just how much you're willing to put up with. Trivial things that might have once caused your skin to crawl, and the hairs on the back of your neck to stand on end no longer elicit that type of reaction. Moreover, and this is something most of us already know, you find out who your true friends are. The ones who stick with you through cancer, are the ones who will be there with you through anything. The ones who scurry off like frightened rabbits should be consigned to the holes they crawl into and remain there for eternity.

You Must Find a New "Normal": First of all, there's no such thing as "normal". What you have to make peace with is the fact that your life as you know it has changed forever. It may sound strange, but since I had that experience once before, I was better prepared for it to happen again. Honestly, the second time around was easier to deal with. Don't get me wrong, hearing I had cancer was still greatly distressing, but I was lucky to have a better support system this time, than I did the first time my life was blown apart. 

It is Much Uglier Than You Can Imagine: Every woman's experience with breast cancer is different. Unfortunately, most of what we know about the experience comes from sources that gloss over a great deal of what it's really like. Celebrity tell-alls about cancer never used to bother me. Now, I roll my eyes at them. You'll never really understand until you go through it. And the irony is, we don't want to hear about it from the woman next-door; we have collectively become such colossal star-fuckers, that the little people don't seem to matter. 

We Must Destroy the Double Standard: One of the most shocking revelations I've had is discovering the double standard that exists when it comes to breasts. Women who elect to undergo plastic surgery to enhance their bust lines are applauded by everyone for doing something that will make them feel better about themselves. Women who undergo double mastectomies in an effort to give themselves peace of mind about recurrence are vilified, and thought of as unfeminine heathens who willingly mutilate their bodies. This has to change. Regardless of gender, we are all so much more than the sum of our body parts. 

Shut Up About Mammograms: Today, yet another article about mammograms found its way into my social media world. For decades now, we've had the prevention message jammed down our throats and most of us realize it is outmoded. We don't want to be clubbed over the head and dragged off to the breast press because someone wearing a pink ribbon is haranguing us. We understand there is conflicting information about when to get screened, how often, and all the false positives/negatives that occur. Instead of flogging us with countless contradictory studies and opinions, we need to find more effective ways to treat cancer, instead of thinking we can prevent it. At this stage of the game, there is no such thing. 

Stop Telling Us To Live With It: There are countless articles written about breast cancer being "over-diagnosed". Many medical professionals opine that there are certain types of breast cancer we can live with. I don't agree with that horse shit. My cancer spread to my lymph nodes and I never had any symptoms. We shouldn't have to live with cancer if it can be dealt with. People living with metastatic disease don't have a choice. 

We Must Take Responsibility For Ourselves: The easiest thing to do when it comes to dealing with health issues is to stick your head in the sand and hope for the best. I'm guilty of doing that, and so are you. If we take the time to learn about our family history and what we need to be conscious of, we're halfway home. Making informed decisions about how to stay as healthy as possible requires a bit of soul-searching, not a trip to the supermarket for a wheelbarrow of kale. Yes, eating healthfully is part of it, but knowing where you come from and what you might be at risk for is a significant part of the process. When we determine our risk factors, we can make more informed choices. Only we can do that for ourselves. I can't make you do it; I can only share my experiences, which will hopefully get you thinking about your own. 


Sunday, May 3, 2015

My Eggo Is Not Preggo

I had my second Herceptin treatment the other day, and I'm due to get my first "vaccine" injection in three weeks. So far, so good with Herceptin; no vile side effects with the exception of a slightly crusty nose, which isn't anywhere near as bad as it was when I was getting Taxol. I hope it eventually goes away because someone, somewhere is going to catch me picking my nose. 

As promised, here is a link to some information about the study I'm participating in. There is a great deal of excitement about immunotherapy studies lately, because they seem to hold a lot of promise for controlling different types of cancer, including breast cancer. Herceptin is a pioneering treatment in this category, along with Gardasil. Many of us are more familiar with Gardasil because of the controversy surrounding it; some people ignorantly believe that vaccinating young girls with Gardasil to prevent cervical cancer gives them the green light to be sexually promiscuous, but that couldn't be further from the truth. I don't want to go off on a rant about all the misinformation flying around about vaccinations in general; I will end by saying both treatments are groundbreaking, and Herceptin in particular, is helping many women in the battle against recurrence. 

Last, but certainly not least, if you are reading this, please devote about 40 minutes to watching Killing Cancer. This documentary is a real eye-opener about the work being done to bring immunotherapy treatments to people who would otherwise be doomed without them. 

Finally, the title and image I've chosen have to do with the fact that I have to take a pregnancy test before every Herceptin infusion. Peeing in a cup is no big deal, but I chuckle at the irony that there's no way I could possibly be pregnant at this stage of the game. Alas, I must do it because protocol demands it; but I will giggle, smirk, and joke each and every time, because I just gotta be me. 

And now, the moment you've all been waiting for: Nava Does Menopause. 

As I said, all the pregnancy testing in my future is the epitome of irony since I have settled on an estrogen-suppression regimen. If you recall, my medical oncologist and I were discussing using Lupron and anastrozole, an aromatase inhibitor, to kill whatever estrogen is left in my body. I also toyed with the idea of having my ovaries removed, but I've abandoned that for the time being. I gave myself a much-needed break after the horrific conclusion of roasting, and during that time, I did some research on Lupron and decided it wasn't for me. Instead, I am starting Tamoxifen, and will take it for the next six-to-nine months. It's been eight months since my last period, so technically, I am still pre-menopausal. You have to be period-less for at least a year before you are classified as menopausal. Moreover, aromatase inhibitors are given only to women who have crossed over, which is why I am starting out with Tamoxifen. In addition to Tamoxifen, I will be taking the antidepressant Effexor, instead of my trusty Celexa. It turns out Celexa can render Tamoxifen less effective, so I had to switch. Here's hoping I can literally remain chill, and not be overcome by heat prostration - sorry, hot flashes. 

Stay tuned for updates.