Tag Archives: survival

Easter has become my Thanksgiving . . .

31 Mar

Last weekend I was invited to attend a blogging summit. The summit brought together cancer survivors (some 15 or more years out, some just a year out and some still in treatment). All of us blog or have blogged about our experience. We were also joined by medical practitioners (of many types: oncologists, radiology oncologists, naturopathic MDs, nutritionists, lymphedema specialists, nurses and and more) as well as care providers (who also blog) and other writers, journalists. I will write more about the blogging summit in a future post.

For now I want to simply say that being able to meet the amazing cancer survivors (some of whom I had only known online, in the virtual world, and some I had never met – virtual or otherwise) in person was truly incredible. I felt like I was meeting soul mates. There was just an immediate understanding of all things amongst us. That is the best way I can describe it.

There is a loneliness that cancer can visit upon you; does visit upon you I think (at least it did for me). I felt it most prominently four years ago – when all I wanted to do was to escape my body, run from it since it was, after all, seemingly trying to destroy me. It was a very strange sensation – one of being removed from seemingly everyone – despite the conscious and amazing presence that so many individuals in my life made to be there for me. I still felt so isolated. I was the one that could die from it and I was the one that had chemo coursing through my veins . . . you get my drift.

When cancer hits you are truly alone – at least with your cancer and your body. No one else has exactly the same thing, no one else will react exactly the same way (to treatment, to fatigue, to the pain, to the fear, to it . . . to cancer). No one can really tell you when you are in the throes of it whether you will make it or whether you will survive. And all around you there are both stories of survival and life as well as that of loss and death. And none of it makes any sense.

So back to the blogging summit. CTCA (Cancer Treatment Centers of America) hosted their second “blogger’s summit” in Arizona. I was fortunate enough to be invited . . . wow was I fortunate.

I met so many wonderful and amazing individuals at the blogger’s summit. To say that there is a kinship amongst those of us who are “survivors” and writers does not really quite capture it; not the depth of it anyway. It is something indescribable and quite frankly took me a bit by surprise. And, it is beginning to fill a void that I have felt for some time.  That sense of being removed from those around you; that loneliness . . . some of it that still lingers is melting away . . . a little. Meeting these wonderful people, with whom we have shared experience (that we wish we did not share) has helped me to feel less alone; less fearful.

The moment I became a cancer patient I became different. I was on the outside, removed somehow from everyone else . . . lonely.

At the summit we spoke about many things, there were presenters and questions etc. But, what was absolutely the most meaningful was the time with others who have been through, or cared for someone who has been through cancer (because they understand). We joked about cancer – not something everyone is comfortable doing. And we shared our stories, some of our fears and we talked about a future without cancer and survivorship. This was a room full of activists – women and men who want to spare others from having to either go through this disease or to at least spare them from having to go through it perhaps the way we did. And of course, we don’t want to go through it again ourselves.

I am so grateful for the time with these amazing individuals. And I look forward to these new friendships.

I am four years out from my diagnosis. I began treatment the week of Easter.

As someone who was raised Catholic, Easter has always had some meaning for me. But it is all the more meaningful for me now. Four years ago it was my first Easter with my youngest nephew . . . just a little baby then (who has now grown up into an exceptionally bright, talkative, engaging and delightful four and a half your old boy). That first Easter with him was very surreal.

A week into chemo, still a full head of hair (that was due to fall out) and the ever present thoughts of whether I would be there for his next Easter . . . all of that was surreal. I remember drinking up every moment with him and with my family that day. No one competed with me to hold him . . . the newest baby in our family. No one took him from my lap. No one. And although it was never said – we all knew why: it might be the last time I got to hold that baby.

I actively pushed away thoughts of whether he would he ever know his Auntie. But, I know it was a very present and real theme of that day, for all of us . . . for all of us except for the baby 🙂

Now he is four and a half. He knows his Auntie.

He pushes away pictures of me where I am bald and says “no, no, no”. . . he knows it is me in those bald photos. But somehow he knows that it was sick Auntie or at least not the Auntie he wants to see. And, in spite of the fact that some of those bald pictures with him are my absolute favorite, I kind of like that he now pushes those photos away . . .

These are a few of my very favorite pictures I possess:

April 2009, my nephew’s first Easter, a few days after my first round of chemo and a few weeks before I would be bald.

More of the same day . . . the only family member who could truly freely enjoy the day . . . what a gift he was and is . . .

July 2009, was still going through chemo. This is one of my favorite pictures . . . but, my nephew doesn’t like it 🙂 So I keep it to myself 🙂

So on Easter of 2009 I wasn’t sure if I would make it to Easter of 2010. Easter 2010 came, and I decorated Easter eggs for my nephew’s first Easter egg hunt. I was still in treatment then, very tired and still not sure I would make it to another Easter. But, again, my nephew, aware of none of these things, was an incredible source of joy and energy for me. Here he is delighting in his very first Easter Egg Hunt . . . that I was very grateful to be around for . . .

Happy Easter! My nephew Garrett, sheer delight!

Easter 2010 🙂

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Happy Sunday and to those who are celebrating Easter, Happy Easter. I hope for many more Easters for all of of us.

Much love and peace,

Lisa

Komen: Please Leave Me Alone

31 Oct

Today I was yet again, hit up for money by the Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure. This is what they had to say: “take advantage of these last few hours to show that YOU care and want to a make difference in our community” and “let’s use these last few hours to save as many lives as possible”

Here is my response to them.

Dear Susan G. Komen Foundation for the Cure:

I am a breast cancer survivor.

I was diagnosed in March of 2009. My Aunt died of breast cancer in 1994. At the time of my Aunt’s diagnosis I was in law school and Nancy Brinker came and spoke to the women’s law association at my law school. She was there to promote her foundation in her sister’s honor and to urge us all to get mammograms at age 40 and to do self breast exams. At the time I met Ms. Brinker, I could not help but wonder why it was that my Aunt, who was at that time suffering through chemo (and doing so simply to extend her life long enough to see her first grandchild born) had never had any contact with the Susan G. Komen Foundation for THE CURE. I listened to Nancy speak about her sister and about her pledge to “end breast cancer forever”. And, like many, I believed that she meant well. But, no one from her foundation every helped my Aunt. Still, I thought, well, maybe they are so busy “racing for a cure” that they do not have time or resources to help a dying woman . . . my aunt, suffering through chemo, no cure could come in time for her . . . and, after all, that is what Nancy’s foundation was racing towards . . . a cure.

So my family cared for my Aunt until she died. Her children, her sisters, her husband, friends all showed up. But, nothing from the Komen Foundation. But, then, that wasn’t their job, was it? No, they were busy racing for a cure.

So, after my Aunt succumbed to breast cancer (after she spent her last days unable to handle medical costs or afford basic comforts) I ran in Susan G. Komen’s Orange County Race for the Cure in her honor. I truly believed that my doing so would somehow make a difference. After all, Nancy’s goal was to “end breast cancer forever” and I was certainly behind that.

Fast forward to March of 2009 and through a routine mammogram I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of breast cancer.

I again showed up to your Orange County Race for the Cure. I was going through treatment, going through surgeries, battling infections, battling my insurance company, trying to survive without an income . . . I sought help from your organization. I sought help from you because you claimed – on your very own website – to provide financial assistance to women going through treatment. I desperately needed your help.

I called day after day after day the number that was provided on your website to apply for financial assistance. I called multiple times a day over a period of months. Each time I called there was an outgoing message saying that “no one was available at this time, please call back later”. There was NO way to leave a message. I searched your website repeatedly looking for an email address or some way of contacting the person who handles the financial assistance that your organization claimed to provide. There was nothing, no email, no point of contact, no way to leave a voice mail message. Instead, just a teaser (and a bragging statement about how you help women with the costs of their treatment).

I finally called the Orange County chapter. I explained that the New York Chapter that is the ONLY chapter that apparently has the authority to provide financial assistance to women going through treatment, did not ever answer their phone. I was transferred (after multiple calls and complaints to the OC Chapter) finally, to the director of the Orange County Chapter. I explained to her that I had not been able to reach anyone for months, that no one answers the phone in New York, that there is no way to leave a voice mail message. The OC Director immediately said, and I quote: “Yes, I know, they don’t answer their phone. Have you tried calling the Salvation Army? They can help you with your utility bills. Have you tried calling the American Cancer Society? They can help you get information on clinical trials. Have you called the Lance Armstrong Foundation? They can help you get emotional support and match you up with a survivor who has had the same kind of cancer as you.”

I was so dismayed, disappointed, crushed, heartbroken, devastated.

Meanwhile, I was undergoing Herceptin treatments and radiation and recovering from surgeries. I was unable to work. I was broke. I was lead to believe – through Komen’s own web page – that if I was in financial need that some of the nearly 400 million dollars that was raised that year could be used to help me while I was in need.

I am not one to be looking for handouts. I raised money for Komen. I have raised money for other cancer organizations. I was under the mistaken belief (as was everyone I know, all of my friends) that Komen actually helped out women who were in my position.

Not true. At least, not in my experience. And, clearly, from the OC director’s response, it is typical that no one answers the phone in the New York office – THE chapter charged with the responsibility of helping cancer patients with their treatment costs, and financial assistance. No other chapter at that time had the ability to provide financial assistance. All requests had to go through their chapter. I am certain that I made over 100 calls to that chapter – calling the number that was listed on your site for financial assistance. After the 30th call or so, it simply became a game, a “let’s see how many times I can call and not get a live person and not be able to leave a message” game. It was unbelievable.

I have shared this story with many . . . many who in the past donated to your organization who now will no longer donate to your organization because like me, they feel your organization is a fraud.

I was mislead. My family and friends were urged to donate to your organization believing that you would donate most of their donation towards either research or paying for someone’s treatment. Neither of those are true.

You say you want to “end breast cancer forever” yet, you spend about 19% of the money that you TAKE from good hearted people towards research.

We are all very aware of breast cancer. If you still think creating awareness is a necessary goal, then make it clear that the money you raise is going to awareness. But, instead, you trademark the language “for the cure”. Instead, you state that your mission is to “end breast cancer forever”. How can that be when you only spend 19% on actual research.

How can you claim to be helping women with breast cancer when the phone number that you dangled out there on your website to call for financial assistance has no one, EVER, at the other end.

I have found out through my own personal experience how little you actually do towards racing “for a cure”. My cure, if I have one at all is in spite of you. My survival, if I survive, is in spite of you. My ability to survive financially, to navigate the difficult insurance and medical bill waters, is in spite of you.

I will spend every last day of my life (however long that will be – by the way, I expect it to survive a very long time) making everyone I know aware of what you have not done. I want to believe that your organization stemmed from a desire to make positive change, to help those in need and to work towards a cure for breast cancer. But, my experience – up close and personal – has told a different story. I have received no help from your organization. When I have actually spoken to a live person at Komen, they have referred me back to the American Cancer Society, to the Salvation Army, to social workers that my hospital “might have on staff who could help me find financial resources”.

So, while I expect nothing from you, I do have this one request: STOP, please STOP asking me to donate money to you. Please stop asking me, a breast cancer patient who you ignored, who you mislead, for money. Stop asking me to buy your nearly hundred dollar bracelet every year. Stop asking me to purchase your toxic chemical containing perfume. PLEASE, please, please, just leave me alone.

Pinktober Blues . . .

29 Oct
Cover of "Promise Me: How a Sister's Love...

So Nancy is calling this a "global movement" to "end breast cancer"? I don't think 19% to research is going to do it. I have no problem with money going to education or even to awareness, but, stop claiming you are "ending breast cancer", stop claiming you are "racing for a cure" because at your snail pace of 19% you are NOT.

This month has been rough in many ways. Partly it is because it is Pinktober. And partly it is because I just have not felt well. I have had a headache for 6 weeks now. That is nothing compared to what some of my friends have to endure. So, I feel weird even mentioning it. But, with those headaches I have the ever present fear of a recurrence. That is the lot for those of us who are lucky enough to be NED (no evidence of disease) . . . aches and pains take on a whole new possibility.

My headaches are getting under control a bit and I have actually had some breaks from it as well as just a lower intensity. So that is definitely an improvement.

I wonder though if my headaches are from Pinktober. I am serious. I really think it is . . . if not Pinktober, then Komen.

You see, it is difficult to be surrounded in a sea of pink, to be constantly asked if you want to make a donation “to breast cancer” whenever you are in a check out stand at a grocery store. It is difficult when you know that all of this pink hoopla results in very little of the purchase price going towards research, towards a cure. And, sometimes none of it goes to research, sometimes it simply goes to “awareness”. Well, that means it goes towards pink packaging.

I AM truly suffering from pink fatigue. I have been angry and depressed about it.

Please understand that if I thought any of this sea of pink would improve survival rates for breast cancer I would feel very differently about it. But, in all the years that Komen has been taking money in the name of “racing for a cure” the survival rates for breast cancer are largely unchanged. Those of us who are diagnosed with aggressive forms of breast cancer (even when detected early) do not have a great prognosis of long term survival. Overall survival rates are pretty much the same as twenty years ago. Early detection is NOT a cure.

So I am angry. I am angry that Komen, an organization whose mission is to “end breast cancer forever” only spends about 19% of the nearly 400 million they raise each year on research.

And, this year Komen has sunk to a new low with “Promise Me”, a perfume commissioned by Susan G. Komen for the Cure. Komen’s Promise Me contains chemicals not listed in the ingredients that are regulated as toxic and hazardous. But, because the FDA does not regulate perfume, there is no requirement to list these chemicals on the label. And, of the approximately $60 purchase price, only $1.31 goes to research . . . this after subjecting anyone who wears it to chemicals that are known to cause disease. Pretty sick, right?

So, when I stand in line at the grocery store and the clerk innocently asks me if I want to donate “for the cure” I literally feel queasy. For some reason I see myself lying on a table going through the surgery I had to remove both of my breasts . . . I actually picture that in my head. I donated those parts of my body for breast cancer, for survival, so that I could have the chance to still be here today. That is what I think about when I am asked to donate for “the cure”.

I am grateful to be alive. I am grateful for the RESEARCH that lead to Herceptin . . . without that drug I would surely be dead. I am so, incredibly grateful.

But, we can have more than Herceptin, we could have a cure. So, while I am grateful I am also very angry. Angry that an organization like Komen who raises the lion’s share of money in the name of a cure only donates 19% of that money to research.

I am angry that good people, with the best of intentions are taken advantage of, are lead to believe that they are really making a difference when they buy something that has a Komen ribbon on it.

I am angry.

I am sad that I have friends who will not survive cancer because we are wasting our time with pink hoopla instead of real money for real cures. And I fear that I too will succumb one day to this disease . . . that there will not be a cure in time.

Some of you know that I play standup bass and sing. I am in a small blues band. Tonight I was asked to fill in for a bass player in another band because that bass player’s mother passed away today . . . from cancer.

I immediately agreed to fill in. I’ve never sat in with this band before, but, hopefully I will be able to keep up with them.

I wonder if some day someone will be calling for a bass player to fill in for me . . .

Leaving Las Vegas

8 Aug
Vector image of the Las Vegas sign.

Three years ago I was on a road trip to, of all places, Las Vegas. I say “of all places” because I am not a gambler nor much of a drinker and the thought of spending a weekend in smoke-filled casinos has about as much appeal as getting a root canal. I have always been extremely allergic to cigarette smoke. And with cancer on both sides of my family, the smell of smoke has always made me anxious.

My girlfriends were persistent. “It will be fun, a girls weekend”.  They showed me pictures of the suite that we would share. It was beautiful (think of the movie “The Hangover”, cut the suite in half and get rid of the tiger and you have a pretty good picture of what we had for the weekend).

I had been feeling incredibly tired for months (I did not yet know I had cancer, but, my extreme tiredness was one of the unnoticed signs of the battle my body was waging against the cancer within). Suddenly the idea of hanging out for three days in a luxury suite while my girlfriends gambled and went to shows (or whatever it is that people do in Vegas) started to have some appeal. I just wanted to rest. I remember how tired I felt then and how much I just wanted to do absolutely nothing. Which, by the way, is so NOT me.

At the last-minute, one of my girlfriend’s sisters (MJ – a breast cancer survivor) was able to join us. We had never met. I drove. MJ sat in the front with me and my two girl friends sat in the back and slept most of the trip to Vegas. The drive gave me and MJ an opportunity to get to know each other.

A little distance into our trip, she began to share her breast cancer experience with me. There were details of how she was diagnosed, of chemotherapy, and a bi-lateral mastectomy. But in particular (probably because it was something she was currently dealing with) she discussed her breast reconstruction surgeries in quite a bit of detail. I remember thinking, wow, I could never go through that. I was amazed at all she had endured.

She told me how the surgeries went. She described how she was about to get “new nipples”, how tattooing would be used to create a new areola and skin from her groin area taken to create the nipples. It was a bit more than I was comfortable hearing. It was so personal, so detailed and we were complete strangers. At one point, she raised up her top to show me what had been done to date.

MJ’s story had quite an impact on me that day. Little did I know, the very drug that saved her life back in 2005 (Herceptin) would, in a matter of months, be coursing through my veins to do the same (I hope) magic.

Not since that road trip have I heard much in the way of truly frank discussions of breast reconstruction. It simply is not an easy topic. Although, MJ had no problem sharing her story with me, perhaps it was because we did not know each other. It becomes a different matter, I think, when it is our friends, our families our colleagues.

Chemobabe has recently taken on this topic in her blog. And another favorite blog of mine, Nancy’s Point. addresses wholeness after breast cancer (with or without reconstruction). And a few years ago, this post (by a blogger who is actually a high school classmate of mine) addresses sexuality after breast cancer reconstruction surgery in her blog: “Breast Cancer the Second Time Around”

So why is it so difficult to discuss?

Breast cancer has provided me a very interesting window into our society. I know sex sells. I know breasts sell, I know, I know, I KNOW! (And, there is a lot written about groups that use sexy names to sell awareness of the disease and to raise funds for research – something that is a whole other topic).

But, until you have had your breasts removed, and until you have been forced to deal with the pressures that be (everyone else’s expectations of what you should or should not do) you really can’t fully understand how much having breasts and being perceived as a woman are so deeply linked. And it goes way beyond sex. And perhaps it is why groups with names like “Save the Ta-tas” and “Feel Your Boobies” are sometimes seen as offensive to those of us that no longer have ta-tas to save or feel.

Initially I was not sure what I wanted to do reconstruction wise. I simply wanted to survive. The last thing I wanted to worry about was breast reconstruction while I was battling an aggressive form of breast cancer.

But, there were other issues I had to consider too. (As a business owner and an employer I felt the need to minimize my time out, time off from work would have broad implications. And, there were other concerns: how long would I have to sit out from playing music, and insurance issues). It was not an easy decision at all. But after a great deal of thought, I decided to have “immediate” breast reconstruction surgery (knowing full well there was nothing immediate about it).

I admit, I felt pressured to begin reconstruction “immediately”. I realize now that this was not perhaps the best route to go (multiple surgeries while going through immune suppressing treatment is not the safest route it turns out). I spent months on IV antibiotics due to infections at the surgical sites (daily nurse visits to my home, an IV pole in my living room . . . okay, I know you get it . . . cancer is not much fun). But, my point is that had I waited on the surgery (which was never presented to me as a real option) I probably would have avoided the multiple infections and loss of skin that occurred (sorry if that is too much information, but, that is what can happen: “morbidity” of your skin, especially radiated skin).

So, I could have waited. But, it is what it is and I prefer not to look backwards. But, there is no reason why someone else can’t perhaps make a better informed decision by hearing of my experience.

Incidentally, I had what is called a lat flap procedure. This was the only option for me. Oddly, I got a lot of grief over my decision to do the lat flap from women at a breast cancer support group. I believe they meant well, I know they did, but, I found it a little upsetting.

I had, after all, consulted with many surgeons, I did research, I am not stupid (at least I didn’t think of myself that way). So, since it was not the kind of support I needed at the time I simply stopped going to the group. I knew for me it was the best decision I could make at the time. Those of us faced with these kinds of choices do not go about it without a lot of thought. As a result, when we are questioned about our decisions – our very hard to make choices – it is frustrating and I suppose, a little insulting.

My wish is that for newly diagnosed women, facing a mastectomy or other breast altering surgery, lumpectomy etc, is that they are presented with all options (not having reconstruction, having it “immediately” and having reconstruction at a later date). And my second wish is for those facing these choices that they be given the time, un-pressured time, to make their decision. And above all, as Chemobabe points out, once the decision has been made . . . it would be nice to have it trusted, not challenged or questioned.

There simply is not a one-size-fits-all approach to reconstructive surgery (whether to have it all, when to have it or type) any more than there is a one-size-fits-all bra.

There is light at the end of the tunnel . . .

25 Jul
Crowded summertime beach in Avalon, Santa Cata...

Avalon

It is funny how sometimes when you are forced (or force yourself) to do something difficult, it becomes easier.

I have to study for an upcoming professional exam. I don’t mind studying, I actually have always enjoyed it. But, since cancer my body is not the same. Things that were once quite easy can sometimes be very difficult. One of those things is sitting in the same position for a long time . . . something you kind of need to be able to do to study (at least I need to do it that way). Well, I started studying in short time frames and built up to longer time frames and now, while I can’t say I am back to my normal study stamina, I am definitely in a far better position than I was even just a few weeks ago.

So, I have been forcing myself to sit and study for as long as I can without taking a break. Then, when I absolutely have to, I take a break and return to it. My body hurts, my legs and arms go numb and it is uncomfortable and irritating. But, it is what it is. AND, I am quite happy to report that what I can do today is vastly more than what I could accomplish even just a few weeks ago. It really has in its own way (my studying) been a type of physical therapy.

I can only imagine how much better I will be after a few more weeks and then a few more weeks and so on.

The most challenging thing for me post cancer has been the feeling of losing my old self. I don’t mean losing my breasts and having my old breasts replaced with scarred up “reconstructed” breasts. Nope. I chose a bilateral mastectomy. I had cancer in one breast and chose to have both breasts removed. That choice made me feel empowered, not depressed, strong, not weak . . . and in some small way in control.

My point is that I am not so bothered by the scars on my body. It is the physical limitations (pain, exhaustion, lack of energy) that bother me the most. And it is those things that make me feel less like myself. (And, a little pissed).

Nowadays, post cancer, I often find myself having to choose which things to do in a given day, a given week, etc. simply because I don’t have enough energy or pain free time to do what I normally would do. And, I have found that very frustrating.

For example, recently I spent the day with friends on Catalina Island. It was a wonderful day. The weather was perfect and the company even better. But, knowing that I had this day trip planned meant to me that I had to figure out how much I could or could not do the preceding day and week because if I did too much, I would then be too tired for Catalina. It is like having a bank account without enough funds to meet your expenditures. I am in the red physically.

So it goes . . . my post cancer existence. And just so I am clear – I don’t mean not partying until 2:00 am the night before (that isn’t really my thing anyway). I mean not “over-extending myself” the day before – which can simply mean – letting the laundry go another day, and simply taking it really easy. On this occasion, it meant turning down a last minute dinner invitation. I couldn’t just say, “hey, I would love to come, but, I have a big day tomorrow and doing both will be too much for me” . . . or . . . could I? Instead I said, “I would love to, but, I already have plans” (yeah, plans to lie in bed for the rest of the night . . . argh).

It is a balancing act and I am getting better at it . . . better at knowing my limits and better at pushing my limits too.

This studying has been a wonderful thing because it has definitely improved my physical stamina for concentrated work (something that makes me very, very happy).

Prior to cancer I was working on a new book. I had to drop work on it during chemo because my brain was, well, fried. And looking back now on some of the blog posts I wrote during those days, I am certain that it was a wise choice to postpone finishing the book (chemobrain is real, at least it was for me).

But, after the past several weeks of studying, I know that now I could sit down and write for hours in a day. And that, my friends, is a huge, huge deal because it means that I am that much closer to getting my life back.

I know I will still have to make choices between which things I can do in a given day or week. But, the feeling I have had of being sidetracked by this disease is beginning to fade. I am dismissing it every day that I force myself to sit through the discomfort and study. It is a good feeling. Oh, and a day trip to Catalina Island with great friends is a pretty good way to leave some of the leftover pains from cancer behind me too.