In April 2001, I was diagnosed with stage II breast cancer. I was a news anchor for WESH-TV, and there was no way I’d be able to hide the soon-to-be bald head, freakishly pale skin, and weight loss of chemotherapy…. or the repeated multiple days I’d miss from work. I also didn’t want to push my autobiography on the 6 pm news. So to share may story and try to dispel rumors and fear, I wrote this diary. These days it would be called a blog. I was ahead of my time. 🙂 I am republishing them, mostly unedited, in hopes of inspiring and informing a new decade of cancer patients and their families. Here’s October.
October 5, 2001
Here’s a bit of irony. My white blood cell count is in the normal range and I got a cold anyway. All those months of white blood cell absentia, and I don’t get sick until the cells return. Go figure. I figure I got sick on one of the five planes I caught this weekend while covering the governor’s trip to Boston and Chicago. That was a lot of fun. I love getting out to do reporting, especially on a big story like that one. It was just like the old days, when I used to cover a lot of state politics. So, now I’m taking antibiotics and DayQuil to get through the rest of the week at work. I feel like this cold has knocked me back. I’m pretty tired, and that could be partly because of the chemo. The Taxotere really hasn’t affected me yet, but I know eventually, it is going to make me tired. Hopefully, this fatigue is just cold-related. It’s kept me off the road (running), out of the pool (swimming) and out of the gym! Can’t have that. I get a little anxious, when I’m not building, or at least working on, maintaining my strength. Last Monday in the chemo room was even more uneventful than the week before. (I love that.) I did get another lesson in humility, though. I am counting down my Taxotere treatments, one by one, and I sat next to a woman who was getting her 199th chemo session. After 199, she couldn’t even remember what it is she’s taking anymore, and doesn’t know when she’ll be stopping treatments. Also, this week I talked to a friend who’s starting 48 chemo treatments, and it sounds like they will all make her as sick as the Adriamycin-Cytoxan made me. I really feel like I have nothing to complain about now. It’s amazing what people can and will endure in their fight to live. One thing I learned through the cancer treatment that’s been re-emphasized in the chemo room, is how valuable good health is, and how much people take it for granted until there’s a health crisis. I’m stunned that people who are close to me still smoke. Not because it puts me at risk, but because there is no question it will increase your chances of getting cancer or other diseases. Right after chemo, which took about 90 minutes, I went to the gym to lift weights. Because of the potential for lymphedema (swelling of the arm, because the lymph fluid builds up), I have to be careful about how much weight I lift. I don’t think there’s enough research on preventing lymphedema. Conventional wisdom from experts I’ve read says not to lift more than 12 or 15 pounds of weights repetitively, not to carry heavy bags on the side where lymph nodes were removed and to avoid cuts and infection on that side, too. On the flip side, I have several friends, including a personal trainer/former body builder, who lift weights as heavy as they ever did, with no lymphedema. It’s frustrating that there are no definitive rules to follow to avoid the condition. It’s all trial and error (and hopefully, no error!) I am now a quarter through the Taxotere. Yahoo! It looks like not only will I be done with chemo before the holidays; I’ll be done before a ski trip I have planned for the first weekend of December. Yea!
More Hair Observations… And Starting to Look Beyond Treatment
October 12, 2001
I am now one-third of the way through the Taxotere treatments. Four down, eight to go. Still no fatigue, no joint pain. I’m always on alert for side effects. I’m rarely disappointed, at least through this cancer treatment. Want to know how little the Taxotere is affecting me? On Monday, I ran five miles, took my chemo and then went to lift weights. It was a piece of cake. This week, I’ve really been able to build on my endurance with longer runs and two-hour bike rides. I’m trying to make sure my 50-mile bike ride in Mount Dora this weekend doesn’t kill me. I signed up to take part in the Mount Dora Bike Festival. The ride I chose is 50 miles, and includes a stop at a German bakery. Cycle, strudel, cycle. It sounds like my kind of day. I have never ridden that far before, but I figure it’s a good time to try. I like the idea of achieving an athletic goal like this, during chemo. And, it’ll be a lovely 89 degrees. Let’s talk hair. My hair is growing back. It’s now between 1/8″ and 1/4″ long. I had my friend, Kimberly, measure it with a ruler, which was kind of funny. When I went to see Dr. Dave last week, he said something like, “Maybe it won’t fall out,” which made me freeze in my tracks. I hadn’t even considered that this might not be the growing-out-for-good phase. I asked the nurses about that, and they reassured me that if it’s growing like this now, after a month of Taxotere, it’s not going to fall out. I am going to choose to believe the nurses. They always have good information about side effects.
I love the wig that Michael made for me, but I am tired of wearing it. I think I’ll stop wearing it as soon as my hair is a couple of inches long. I could like that Sharon Stone, boyish look on me for a while. I’m sure I’ll get e-mails from people who don’t like it, but for me, not wearing the wig anymore would be such a symbol of getting better, I won’t care. One concept I’ve had trouble accepting, especially in times when I feel so good, is that I’ll be a cancer survivor forever. I often wake up forgetting that cancer will be a part of my life for the rest of my life. Then, I’ll remember. Not that the prospect of it gets me down, but I do get, well, irritated. There are times when I think, I’m too young to have to deal with tests and shots and monitoring and surgery and MRIs and bone scans and CAT scans for the next few decades. It’s amazing to me sometimes that that’ll be part of my life from now on. It’s incongruous to my life before the cancer diagnosis. I know I’m lucky and blessed that my situation has an excellent prognosis, but as a 39-year-old woman, it’s sometimes a little tough to take. It’s hard to explain. Unfortunately, lots of women share the exact same feelings. In case you don’t know, October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month. There are many fundraisers and public awareness events this month. Get involved, if you can. Learn something about how to protect yourself or someone you love. And if you haven’t scheduled your mammogram or doctor’s appointment or follow-up visit, or learned how to do your own self-exam, there’s no better time than now. No excuses.
Looking Backward, Moving Forward
October 19, 2001
I got a great perspective on how far I’ve come with my treatment this week. I remember at the outset of my cancer treatment thinking how long it was going to go on. Two surgeries and at least six months of chemo seemed to stretch on forever before me. Now, all I have left are seven (hopefully) easy Taxotere doses. Well, this week, I got to chat with a woman — the friend of a friend — who is in her 30’s and newly-diagnosed with breast cancer. She’s about to start the exact same treatment I’m going through. I spent a while describing for her, blow by blow, what to expect throughout her treatment. I was amazed at how much I’ve already done. On one hand, it seems like the summer and fall are flying by. On the other hand, I could hardly remember some of the things I went through in the beginning and in the middle. It really is amazing how something that was SO HUGE really does neatly fade into your life experiences. It’s more proof that this cancer really is just a detour. I told her about one thing I hadn’t thought about for a while — my numb arm. After the first surgery, I lost feeling from about three inches above my elbow, through the underarm and down along the side of my ribcage, about to the bra line. It still hasn’t come back. One of my friends, a breast cancer survivor, still doesn’t have feeling there after five years. I knew that was a possible side effect from surgery, because of all the nerve damage, but it’s still weird sometimes. It feels like your mouth does after Novacaine, but all the time. You know how your mouth feels fat? I get that same feeling along the back of my arm. Being hypersensitive about lymphedema freaks me out sometimes. I compare arms in the mirror often, to make sure it’s just a fat feeling, and not a fat appearance. So far, so good. I spoke to about a hundred women at ORMC’s “Women Who Mean Business” this week (really early!). Since it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month, I was telling them about what I’ve gone through and am going through. I told them about how I had to scrap my goals for my triathlon season and for my first half-ironman race, which was supposed to be in September. Someone asked me what my new goals are. Well, my new goals are to live my life without letting cancer get in the way. I said I won’t let it affect my life, change my life or definitely end my life. And that half-ironman is still in my future. I did my 54-mile bike ride at the Mount Dora Bike Festival Saturday. It was fantastic. It took us about three and a half hours, from Mount Dora to Howie-in-the-Hills and the Yalaha Bakery and back. The strudel was excellent, even though it did sit in my gut for part of the way back. When my friend, Alex, told me we had nine miles to go, I was also more than ready to get off my bike, but we stuck it out and felt pretty good afterward. This Sunday: The five-mile UCF run for the Track Shack Foundation. And guess what Saturday is? My birthday. My 30th birthday (plus 10). Thursday, my very fun friends surprised me at lunch. I went to meet them at a restaurant, and when I walked in, they were all wearing different wigs. Some were really cute, but there were three Welcome Back Kotter style afros. It made me laugh. My friends crack me up. And I always knew they were secretly jealous that hair preparation for me for the last few months takes 5.6 seconds. They have wig envy. 🙂
Happy Birthday to Me and Measuring New Limitations
October 26, 2001
I am 40. I find that slightly incomprehensible. Just last year, I was 26. Really. Oh well, I am planning on the next decade being even more awesome than the last decade was. It was actually great, despite the way it ended. Kelly (my boyfriend) threw me a birthday party for my 40th, and I wore a long, red wig with bangs. (see my picture, below) I called myself Crystal. Crystal was a big hit, when people finally figured out it was me. My mom came down for my birthday. I think she’s more stunned at my new age (30, plus 10) than I am. The day after my birthday, I ran the UCF 5-miler — the Track Shack Foundation race. It was my first race in a new age group. I’m a Masters runner! The run was tough, because it was so hot and humid (and I stayed up too late Saturday night), but I did it anyway. I eventually got over the finish line. It’s times like these races when I see how much my fitness level has dropped. I usually finish in the top few racers. This race, I was about halfway back in my age group. That means there’s that much more improvement I can make later. I’ll be speedy again eventually. Then, Monday brought me to the halfway point in my Taxotere treatment. As usual, it was uneventful. I spent the hour-and-a-half reading or talking with a woman I see every week. We’re both on a weekly schedule. She’s always there with her Dunkin’ Donut and coffee. There are still no obvious side effects to this drug. My red and white blood cell counts are dropping, but neither is considered low yet. Still no unusual fatigue or achy joints and my tear ducts seem to be fine. The doctors and a couple of long-time Taxotere patients who’ve written me, say with only 12 treatments, the tear ducts probably won’t be affected. That sounds good to me. I’m still thinking about lymphedema this week. I looked up a really informative Web site to get preventive information. One of the tips is not to do repetitive movements against resistance. Well, this week, I went kayaking with my friends, and kayaking is basically repetitive movement against resistance. So, does that mean kayaking should be out for me, forever? It’s frustrating, because, who really knows? Most of the information on what really causes lymphedema is anecdotal. There’s not much solid research that I’ve been able to find. Does the potential for lymphedema mean I’m off the hook for push-ups and chin-ups for the rest of my life? As much as I dislike both of those exercises, I would be somewhat distraught if told I could never do them again. And I’m now within six weeks or so of Tamoxifen. Tamoxifen can have some terrible side effects, and I’m conflicted about taking it. I’m doing more research on it, and I’ll report what I find out here. In my clinical trial protocol I’m supposed to be on Tamoxifen for five years, to minimize the chance of the cancer returning. Finally, more fun with the hair is planned for this weekend. I’m going to the Shepherd’s Hope Famous Faces Masquerade Ball Saturday night. I figured I’d take advantage of my extremely short hair (1/2 inch at last measurement), and go as G.I. Jane. (Can you see how life is going in circles here??? It was just a few months ago that I became G.I. Jane, with the help of Michael’s razor.) Michael is going to the gala with me as G.I. Joe. We’ll have about the same haircut, but finally my hair is again longer than his is! Yahoo!