Those along the way.

I was just in my tenth week of treatment regimen #1 when I met a lady that I still think of and praying for, weekly. I don’t really remember how our conversation began at the cancer center that day but I am thankful it did.

I don’t recall her name but we did learn a lot about one another while we sat there for a few short minutes. She was just a few years older than me, had three children, married, and had been diagnosed with Stage 3 Lung Cancer about a year prior. She had never smoked a day in her life. The doctors had said she had probably contracted it from Rayon in her home as a child. Her symptoms had begun just a few months prior to her diagnosis when she had a slight cough. They at first thought it was breast cancer. Her symptoms worsened and more test were ran. They determined the cancer had spread from her lungs to her spine and was only getting worse. She was then diagnosed on December 13, 2019.

The life span for someone with her diagnosis and the treatment plan she is currently managing is seven years. I couldn’t believe that this lady was telling me she had seven years to live. How do you process that? Many of us believe we’ll pass away when we are old, fragile, and our bodies are just tired. We don’t think about the fact that an awful thing such as cancer will take our lives a lot sooner than we ever imagined. That it could take us away from our children that aren’t grown, our husbands of which we still haven’t finished our love story or take us from the earth when there is so much more to see and do. She has seven years to live her life before cancer takes it away. She told me that she hoped to watch her youngest graduate high school. Her youngest being 10 years old. How do you not just cry with this person? Tell me. If you had seven years = 2,555 days to live what would your days look like? Who would you hug tighter? Who would you spend more time with? Where would you or what would you eat?

It’s normal to get busy and to run through each day with one hundred things to get done. I do it all the time. I tell myself that I have to go to the grocery so we have plenty of food verses just living on the stuff that NEEDS to be eaten. I need to make sure the laundry is caught up because if it isn’t well, we would be fine. Ha. If the floor hasn’t been vacuumed today, well that is ok. It’ll be there tomorrow. Look at the life you have been given. When you are no longer walking on this earth the house will still get dirty, clothes will still need to be washed, and work will still need to be done. But my dear, your people will no longer have you. So start looking at today from a different view. Play with your kids when they want to play, use sidewalk chalk, bake, build things, chase butterflies, and go fishing. Read them that book. Watch that movie with your husband/wife. Go on that shopping trip with your girlfriends. Get that tattoo. Jump out of a plane. Call your mamaw to see how she is doing today. There is no reason for you not to do any of these things. Believe me. At the end of the day you’ll be grateful that you did.

I’m not exactly sure why I crossed paths with that lady on that day at the cancer center. Perhaps it was so I would see just how fragile life truly is even though I feel I have figured that out during my own cancer journey. Perhaps it was for me to see that someone else’s life has greater challenges that our own. Or perhaps it was God’s way of pulling me closer to him. Whatever it is or was I have listened. I still think of her four months later. Our time on earth is precious. So are your people. And all those along the way.

It is your life. Now live it.

You have cancer. Breast C-A-N-C-E-R. Words you never thought YOU would hear. It is something that YOU only hear of other people having. This time though, it was me. I have cancer. I don’t care to give cancer, nor the type of cancer I have, capital letters like you may sometimes see – Breast Cancer – because I feel that it gives the words too much power. Too much recognition. Too much control. And while they are words that carry a lot of power, recognition, and control, for me they are just words. They do have a meaning and a strong one at that, .but I’m stronger.

In life you are given hundreds of choices each day. To go to work, to not go to work. To greet the person you see on the street, or to not. To hold open the door for someone, let them get it themselves. Pick up the phone when your grandmother calls, silence it and call her back when you’re finished watching that IG story. And while those things seem like no brainers and yes we SHOULD do each of them in the ‘to’ tense verses ‘to not’, there are many other choices we make each day too. Right there in our own minds. About our own selves. About our own response. About our own life.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer it certainly wasn’t a good day, but it wasn’t the worst day either. Looking back on it, the worst day would have been when I was told I wasn’t going to live. That would have been the worst day. Now mind you, there were many more bad days after that day and there are still bad days to come. But without the bad we wouldn’t have the good. And you learn to appreciate that when you’ve been through such a thing as cancer. It limits you due to the treatments, procedures, and appointments from tickling your kids because you’re too fatigued, or making pancakes with your daughter because you can’t stand the smell of food, or wash clothes because you don’t have the energy. It limits you. It traps you. And it changes you.

Once you have experienced it you don’t go back. You don’t go back to who you once were. You show compassion to someone else that’s been diagnosed because you know what it is like. Once you have cancer, you do the simpler things in life. You smile when that car let’s you walk in front of them at the four way stop. You help that person who has their hands full but can’t get the door open. You speak nicely to someone when you see that they are having a bad day. Even when they aren’t, you speak nicely. You treat people with respect. You help others. You hug someone if it is needed. Or heck, just hug someone. When you have cancer, you look it in the eye and you don’t blink. You show it who’s boss. You show it that it won’t own you. You take it and you kick it, spit on it, crush it, and throw it as far as you can. And if it comes back, you do it all again because you, you are worth it. I am worth it.

You cannot control the world. You cannot control getting cancer but you can control you and how you approach it. You are here today. You are alive. You are breathing. Live the life you want to live. Life is too short. It is too fragile. This is your life. Now live it.

Puzzle Pieces

With my diagnosis my Oncologist had recommended I have a genetics test completed to determine if I had the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation. Given my age and not having any family history of breast cancer she wanted to look deeper. For those of you that aren’t familiar with what those are let me tell you. The BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are genes that are normally seen in the cells of breast and other tissue and are responsible for repairing damaged DNA, or destroy cells if DNA cannot be repaired.

Each living thing is made of genes. The genes tell our body/body parts what to do. When you have a gene mutation that simply means that the gene is broken. Therefore, it doesn’t do it’s job. Another interesting thing is that the gene mutation comes from one or both of your parents. Therefore, it’s hereditary. Some people get cancer and there isn’t a known reason. I got cancer because I have the BRCA2 gene mutation. Therefore, I’m BRCA2+. So what’s the difference between the BRCA1 and BRCA2? BRCA1 mutations are associated with an increased risk of triple-negative breast cancer, an aggressive and difficult type of cancer to treat. BRCA2 mutations increase the risk of breast, ovarian, pancreatic, and melanoma cancers. So now we get into all that.

I had reached out to the genetics counselor within my hospital organization and set up the testing. I would have an extra vile of blood drawn during a treatment, it would get sent off to California for testing and then I’d hear results within a few weeks. A few weeks past and I was sitting at work when I saw the number pop-up on my phone. I took it as I always did when the hospital was calling. After a few short moments I was told that I had the BRCA2 gene mutation which now opened up many unwanted doors. At first, I wrote down all that she said. She continued to tell me more about what exactly it meant now that the test was positive. I was just taking it all in and then she apologized for delivering such news. I called my husband and told him but given we were both at work it was a bit difficult to comprehend what all it meant.

Over the weekend I started to process what she had said and by Monday morning at my next infusion appointment I lost it. I was talking to my oncologist and we discussed the results from the genetics test and I began to cry. If you read my previous posts you are aware that when we sat down with the oncologist for the first time she asked if we were finished having children. Let’s be honest, I had a 3 and a half year old and an 11 month old at home, I was still nursing, wasn’t sleeping through the night, changing diapers, and all the things that come along with these age groups. I had no idea if I wanted more kids. My body wasn’t even healed from the second one I had just had. But now that we knew I had the BRCA2 gene mutation we now knew that I have a higher chance of getting ovarian cancer. How do you remove that risk? You remove the ovaries. When you remove the ovaries you remove the opportunity for another child. That hit hard. I had processed the fact that we may never be able to have another baby but knew that at least my reproductive organs would be there if it were a possibility. Now mind you with my chemo treatment regimen, typically your reproductive organs began to shut down but that isn’t always the case. So now I was being told that I needed to have my reproductive organs removed completely. Some would say, ‘Why not do it? You’re saving your life’, and I do agree but another part of me is dying. Another part of me that brought my children into this world is going to no longer be with me. My breasts are already being taken from me. My hair was taken from me. Time with my husband, children, family and friends has been taken from me so now my ovaries too? What kind of crap is that. Shitty crap if you ask me. Just shitty crap.

As the days past, I began to cope with what the gene mutation meant. I have two beautiful girls that are happy and healthy. They both came to us rather easily unlike so many women in today’s word which hurts my heart so much. And you know, there are so many babies and children in their world that need a good home. They need a roof over their head, a bed to sleep in, hugs, kisses, food. If we decide we do want more children we can certainly have more. They may not be ours biologically but they most certainly will be ours.

Just a few weeks ago, I saw my Dermatologist for the first time in quite a few years. It’s recommended with the mutation that you see a Dermatologist annually to be scanned for any chance of melanoma. Fortunately, I’m good to go with that!! As for the pancreatic cancer, the experts have told me that I don’t need to worry with that given my age. That’s something we’ll certainly keep in mind and monitor as the time comes. The mutation does increase my chances of getting that from 1.5% (a non-mutation carrier) to 7%. I’m keeping my hopes high that I’ll never be included in that 7%.

Ironically, they have connected prostate cancer with breast cancer. Strange, right. I have prostate cancer on both sides of my family. My maternal uncle and fraternal grandfather. TO be safe, my mom had the same genetics test done that I had and she isn’t a carrier so that leaves my dad. He is doing it now and we’re waiting on the results. That’ll mean the chances are increased for my two sisters and even my brother. Yeah, men can have the same gene mutations. It’s been an eye opener on many different fronts. Thankfully my puzzle pieces are coming together. With this journey there have certainly been some rigid edges to the puzzle there certainly have been beautiful pieces, too.

No Hair… DO Care.

You hear and read all of the various ‘_____ Hair… Don’t Care’ quotes or see the stickers on vehicles as you’re driving. They are cute, funny, and humorous. But when it’s you and the quote goes ‘No Hair… Don’t Care’, that quote doesn’t really stand true because you ‘DO Care’. At this point in my life I have less hair on my head and actually on my entire body than I did the day I came into the world. I was a 8 lbs. 15 oz. baby girl with a head full of solid black hair. That’s the picture you see below. I was just one week old. PRESH! Just PRESH!

Chemo typically means that you’ll loose your hair. Chemo targets all rapidly dividing cells – healthy cells as well as cancer cells. Hair follicles are some of the fastest growing cells in the body. Week 4 is when I remember being in the shower and my hair started to come out in handfuls. And let me tell you, you have more hair on your head than there are noodle choices at a noodle shop. I would get out of the shower, clean out the drain, get dressed and then blow dry my hair for the day to then look at the floor and see my hair everywhere. It was almost like our white tile had tiny tints of brown cracks in it. Then I’d head out for the day and periodically run my hands through my hair to only have more hair come out onto my hands.

Week after week, I would clean the hair from the shower, my towel, the bathroom floor, my hairbrush, my pillowcase, and my ponytail holder when I’d take my hair down. Week four came. We were out of town and I remember walking out of the bathroom and telling my husband I was ready. I was ready to get all of the hair off my head and was done with cleaning it up. Some people that I had met at the beginning of my journey decided to shave their head either right before or after their first chemo treatment. Mainly because they wanted the control. It gave them a sense of controlling what the cancer could and couldn’t do to them. And I totally get that. You have this monster inside your body that is getting ready to take you on a ride you didn’t ask for and it isn’t going to be a fun ride like a joy ride on a motorcycle or a roller coaster. It’s a ride that’s going to bring you down to your core mentally, emotionally, and sometimes physically. I reached out to a friend of mind that is a hair stylist and asked what her schedule was like the next day. I reached out to a few other friends once I knew she had a clear schedule and it was scheduled. That night my father-in-law and brother-in-law both shaved their heads. I got to do the honors. We laughed and joked about it making the mood a bit more relaxed. The next day was Sunday, November 29th. We had a group of friends over to the house and the shaving party began. A friend of ours did his first, then my husband, and then me. I sat to the side and watched. I chatted with the ladies and watched the kids play with one another. My oldest daughter though it was funny when my husband/her daddy was getting his head shaved. She thought it felt funny. It is interesting seeing people with no hair on their head when you haven’t ever seen them that way before. Some people have oddly shaped heads, some heads have scars, moles, and some have wrinkles. My husband’s head looked great though 🙂 Perfect! I was up next. I was a bit hesitant to get out of my seat. I stirred a little. Took smaller steps to the chair that the ones before me had their head shaved in. I sat down. My friend placed the cape around me just like they do in the salon. She started to brush her hands through my hair and that’s when I began to cry. She looked at me and bent down to hug me and I just cried. I hadn’t been emotional about losing my hair at all. It certainly was time to let it go but I hadn’t really thought anything else about it until that moment. What will my girls think? How will they look at me? How will my husband look at me? What will it feel like? Look like? Once it’s gone how long will it take to get it back? What will it look like when it comes back? And most importantly, why am I having to make the decision to shave my head. I shouldn’t have to do this. But, I did. I needed to do it. I was done messing with it. I was done letting cancer control it. It was my turn to control it. So I did. My friend began to cut off large chunks and then the shaver came on and it began. In just a couple of minutes my hair was gone. I was a baldy… and it was cold.

My husband looked at me and hugged me once it was all over. That was a sense of relief to just feel his warmth and his love wrapped around me. My oldest daughter looked at me for a minute but then smiled and gave me a hug. That was a relief. And my youngest came right to me and looked at my head and then went on looking around at the world. It was ok. Everything was ok. A couple weeks later my husband’s two cousins volunteered their heads to be shaved as well. So we headed over and one after the other shaved their heads too. It was comforting knowing that friends (and my husband) were walking this ‘baldy’ life with me. Comforting in knowing I wasn’t alone. No one walks alone.

I had made the decision early on that once it was time to shave my head I didn’t want a wig. I had tried a few of them on and they felt odd to me. They didn’t look at all like me. And even though I thought it would be fun to have different styles, colors or lengths, the truth was none of those wigs made me look like me and I wanted to look like me. So I decided to go with the bald headed me because you know what, this is me right now. This is MY life. This is MY journey.

Treatments = Lots of Drugs

At this point it had been 18 days since I had been diagnosed with Breast Cancer. Only my close friends and family knew what was going on. To this day I still have so much admiration for everyone that sent messages, emails, the phone calls, the care packages, the meal train commitments, and even the hugs that at this point Covid-19 wasn’t going to stop me from getting close to those that wanted to share a hug with me. Screw you virus. I have cancer.

The day had come for treatment #1. I didn’t really know what to expect. Aaron, my husband, was allowed to go with me and he’d be there for all the support I needed. We knew that the treatment would take a few hours and then we’d be free to head on home. If you look at the pictures at the top of this page you’ll see one of two bags handing on the IV stand. The one on the left is just a standard fluid. The one on the right is my cocktail. To bad that cocktail doesn’t come in a nice fancy glass that makes you feel happy and like you want to get up and dance. Lol! The second photo isn’t me flicking off Norton Cancer Institute even though that’s what it looks like. It’s actually my flicking off the word Cancer. I have so many inappropriate words for that one word. And then the last photo is of my husband and I right before we went into the building for treatment #1.. Now mind you, each time I have a treatment I have to call a phone number and they run through all the Covid questions; have you been in contact with anyone over the 14 days days, do you have any of the Covid symptoms (then they’d go through every single one), and lastly, have you had a Covid test in the last 14 days. Every. Single. Week. But back to treatment #1.

After arriving and of course saying no to the questions, we went in the front door where they checked both my and my husbands temperatures which were normal. We headed up to the third floor where we’d get checked in, I’d get a fancy (not really) little white bracelet and then we waited. A few moments later, a Nurses Assistant called my name and we went back. Bless their sweet hearts. They asked how I was doing? I mean what else do you ask someone you just met who’s about to get loaded up with chemo. Haha. They have to hate asking that question. They know why you’re there. Off we went into our own private room. And let me tell you. If you want some quiet time, get cancer, take chemo and enjoy a few hours to yourself. These rooms were awesome! They had a recliner. You have your own TV. They give you heated blankets (remember me talking of those heated blankets :)), snacks, and water. You have a call button if you want them to get you anything else too. And they’ll dim the lights for you so you can sleep. But take my word and don’t get cancer. All that is better at a resort or even in your own home. 🙂

Once the Nurses Assistance had me checked in and we went over everything; current medication; allergies, height, weight, etc. the Nurse came in with all the necessary tools and plugged into my port. You’ll see a picture of that in a later post. It felt as if they were plugging into a little rubber ball in my chest. A strange feeling. They began taking vials of blood (three to be exact) to make sure my numbers were ok so I could receive the chemo. In the meantime I was started on fluids as we waited for about 20 minutes until the nurse came back and gave the results. Fortunately, my numbers were great. From there I was given a steroid to help with any kind of reaction I may have from the chemo. Then I had to wait around 20 minutes before they could begin the chemo. Twenty minutes came and twenty minutes went and it was time to have my very first chemo cocktail. I did get tired over the hour it dripped into my port and started going through my blood stream. I really wanted to tell my body how sorry I was that it was having to process this toxic chemical that it was being introduced to. So I prayed and asked that God just help me get through it. I had a long road to go. Twelve weeks of this particular chemo cocktail. Taxol was the name. Possible side effects included an Infusion Reaction (which I never had), hair loss (yep… that happened), joint/bone/muscle aches, and cramping (yep… those happened too), nausea and vomiting (the nausea happened), diarrhea (I had the opposite problem), fatigue (yep) and a few other side effects but I didn’t have to deal with those.

Once the hour was up, the nurse pulled out of my port, put a Band-Aid on it as if I had a little splinter or had a scrapped knee, gave me my discharge papers and off Aaron and I went. I don’t recall where Aaron and I ate lunch that day but I remember those first few weeks we ate out pretty much each week. To us, it was a break from reality. No kids. No crowds, No words at times. It was just a way for us… to be.

I won’t bore you with each and every visit and the details. Most weeks were the same. One thing that wasn’t the same was that Aaron couldn’t go each week. It was a restriction thanks to the damn Coronavirus. He would take and drop me off each week though. And be there when I was finished. Some weeks I was more tired than others but we’d grab some food, head home, and veg out on the couch until it was time to pick-up the girls from school. At this time, I was still working. I’d work Tuesday-Friday. Monday’s were chemo/rest days. Did I mention that the steroid they gave me kept me up at night. Yeah, many nights I was up until 1, 2, or 3 in the morning. My body was tired but my mind couldn’t stop running around.

And don’t let me forget to tell you about the ice. Yes, ICE. One crappy thing about Taxol is that it can cause neuropathy. That’s simply numbness in your extremities that can be temporary or permanent. My Oncologist recommended that you soak your hands and feet in ice pellets for at least 20 minutes. Freezing your hands and feet simply didn’t allow the Taxol to get to those areas. So each week when it was time for Taxol to start dripping into my bloodstream I would place my hands (with rubber gloves on) in one of those puke buckets they have in hospitals and hold onto the ice pellets. My feet would be in the same type bucket but between two ice packs. Good news was I could wear my own socks. Granted they did offer their socks. Ha. I’ll pass. I tried to get to 30 or 40 minutes verses just 20 but it was SO hard to do. I’d pull my fingers and toes out here and there and wiggle them around but once my time was up to pull them out I couldn’t get them out fast enough.

Over the next few weeks, my appetite started to lessen. Water started to taste bad. And my hair started to fall out more and more. Fortunately, I kept my hair until 8 weeks into treatment. Then it was time to part with it.