That Time Again

About a week ago, I was showering when I felt a bump near my armpit.

“It’s back.”

That was all I could think as I scrambled to the mirror to take a closer look at the lump.

It was an insect bite.*

Not really a funny story, I know, except it is. Kind of like the adage about seeing an animal with cloven hoofs running toward you and immediately assuming it’s a zebra instead of a horse.

It doesn’t make any sense. Unless you live in Africa and have seen zebras running in the wild.

Well, the last time I found a lump, it was cancer. So though I’d swear to you the possibility of its return is never uppermost in my mind, it is — and always will be — a possibility.

Not something I think about every day, but buried deep in the back of my mind where it belongs.

And since my yearly mammogram and oncologist appointment is coming up, I’ve been running through the scenarios, which pushes the thought a bit more forward than usual.

“This time, I won’t stay home as much. I’ll keep working, I’ll …”

I work through the details in my head — how to make it easier on everyone if it happens again.

For now, these scenarios remain theoretical, and I’m well aware of how blessed that makes me. For so many others, this kind of planning is a daily reality.
“How can I get to chemo and still get my kids to choir practice on time?”
“Is it possible to shop for my aging parents when I’m so tired I can barely stand?”
“What kind of employee am I?  I don’t know from one day to the next if I’ll feel up to doing my job.”

There are other dilemmas, I’m sure, beyond my imagination that others deal with every day.

It should go without saying, but I’m saying it anyway. If you know someone in treatment for cancer or any other ailment, find a way to support them. Even if it’s just dropping by with supper or sending a card.

This disease — like many others — can happen to anyone, at any time. I think survivors are exponentially more aware of that, which makes our call to duty is even higher. Not because it could be us next time or we owe to people from the last time, but because it’s the right thing to do.

As for me, I remain happy to be here, happy to have hair. And the second part is optional.

*I haven’t completely lost perspective. Since going through treatment, I’ve become a magnet for every kind of biting bug, and many bites affect me more than in the past — swelling to the point that it requires no stretch of the imagination at all to take it for another cancerous lump. 

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Life After Cancer

Seven years ago, March 18 was a sunny, but cold Friday, and while many people were sleeping off their St. Patrick’s Day hangovers, I was driving to the hospital where I knew I would be told my breast biopsy showed cancer cells.

Why else the surgeon would have wanted to see me immediately? That day. Before she went on vacation for a week.

She took time off; I took a major detour.

So this is my cancerversary, a day I note each March in quiet gratitude I’m here to mark another year’s passage.

My life now is quite different from what it was on that chilly Friday.

No longer a full-time library manager, I am instead a retired librarian and part-time grocery associate at a local store.

When I realized I was looking upon my writing career as yet another thing I had to do, I stopped writing romance. I have only so many moments left in my life, and reasoned if I wasn’t making money at the endeavor and no longer enjoying it, the time had come to stop. Instead, I focused on making sure all my Cancer Lessons were re-written and posted on this blog.

Then, I started another one.

I also began working again on my family tree, I share here the first lesson in genealogy: It’s an endless pursuit because for every person you identify, there are two more to work on — their parents. I’m back five generations and still going.

Darling Daughter — who guarded me as I recovered from surgery by carefully timing my visitors — is a college graduate with a full-time supervisory position at a library (at 23!). She’s built an adult life and peopled it with friends, a book club, and a soccer team. It seems I’ve passed on not only my career field, but my shin guards too. And I’m only half-joking when I say she’s Kym 2.0.

Partly to fill the void she left, The Engineer and I started beekeeping (hence, the name of my new blog). It would be a good hobby to share, we thought, a new activity we could do together, one that would force us to learn something new.

It’s been that and more.

To answer your unspoken question, yes, the bees are still alive (so far). And no, we didn’t get any honey last year. For more, you’ll have to read The Byrd and the Bees.

People I don’t see very often still ask (in that oh-so-meaningful tone of voice), “How are you?”

The answer is “Just fine and hoping to stay that way.”

Physically, I’m much the same as before cancer. There are a few exceptions.

  • My hair, eyebrows, and lashes seem thinner.
  • If I stretch very hard, I feel my scars pull.
  • I still wear a lymph sleeve when exercising or flying.
  • I’m a little weaker, especially in my arms (for this, I can only blame me — for not being morally strong enough to force my lazy self to do push ups).

On a spiritual level, I’m better at remembering what’s important — family, friends, trying to stay healthy. If I occasionally lose focus of this, it’s not for long.

When I reflect on these changes, I wonder how many are the result of having had cancer, and how many are just because I’ve gotten older.

I don’t know.

I do know having cancer as a part of my past keeps me aware of how I spend time in the present. And remembering the friends I’ve lost to the disease reminds me I am fortunate to be here to ask that question.

I’m pretty sure they’d tell me not to waste my time worrying about it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cancer Lesson #83:Stop Viewing Pinktober Through Rose-Colored Glasses

Cancer Lesson #83: Stop viewing Pinktober through rose-colored glasses.

It’s October 1, and today someone was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Correction: The diagnosis wasn’t handed to one person, but to about 680 in the U.S. alone (calculated using the number of expected diagnoses in 2016 from the statistics at Breastcancer.org).

Over 600 people have just had their lives hijacked — temporarily or permanently — by a disease that a week ago belonged to someone else.

Breast cancer is now theirs, a choice they didn’t make and one in which they had no say. Neither heroes, nor victims, these men and women are just people  — like myself and countless others — who have been handed a diagnosis they probably weren’t expecting and aren’t quite sure how to face.

The same thing will happen tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that — long after the “breast cancer” merchandise, festooned and beribboned in pink, is languishing on the clearance rack.

And guess what — announcing your relationship status or the color of your underwear on Facebook won’t help any of them. Many of the pink articles you see in stores won’t either. They are produced merely to line the pockets of those companies that produce them.

Some argue these activities and merchandise raise awareness of the disease, but I think by now we’re all pretty aware. Don’t you?

Perhaps it’s time to move beyond awareness to actually doing something.

If you happen to find Pinktober a good reminder to support breast cancer research, I thank you. But I would ask that you make sure your contribution makes a difference, that your hard-earned money is going to a charity that actually does something to prevent, treat, or research breast cancer or to support its patients. You can do this by following the simple guidelines at Thinkbeforeyoupink.org. Should you choose to delve further into this website, you’ll see it raises other valid concerns about the commercialization of my disease.

I’m not a curmudgeon about this issue, completely against the “pinking” of breast cancer. In fact, if you follow this blog, you know when I was first diagnosed, my co-workers wore pink ribbons to show their support, a gesture that moved me to tears. So, my relationship with the color is somewhat conflicted. (See “Cancer Lesson #25: The Wearing of the Pink.)

But breast cancer isn’t pretty. No disease is, and all the pink in the world won’t change that. I find as the years pass, I object more and more when companies turn an illness into an opportunity to not only profit, but to sexualize a disease that can kill. (See Psychology Today: “Do Sexy Breast Cancer Campaigns Demean Women?)

I know I am one of the lucky ones. Five years out, I’m still here to write complain about this issue. For this reason, I rarely talk about my scars, about how they sometimes ache when the weather changes, how I can feel them pull when I stretch too hard, how wearing a bra gets uncomfortable after a while.

Then there’s the Anastrozole side-effects: osteoporosis (which my oncologist assures me will remedy itself once I’m off the drug), hot flashes that make it impossible to get a full night’s sleep, the padding of extra pounds I can’t seem to lose, and hair that falls out by the handful (not as extreme as it was with chemo, but disheartening nonetheless).

Because I know I’m lucky, it’s unusual for me to discuss the physical reminders of my experience. I write more about how cancer affected my outlook, my way of thinking about the future and about the realization that we all die.

Still, having cancer changed me both physically and mentally, and though I cannot tell you exactly how it will affect those diagnosed today, I know it will change them too, in ways they can’t foresee.

So, the next time you get a Facebook post that breathlessly asks you to share a “girly” secret status to support breast cancer, think of the 680 people who got the news today and whether that status is going to make a difference to their lives. (And, by the way? We all know men get breast cancer too, right? So, the “girly” idea doesn’t quite fly.)  Before you buy that new lipstick or pair of socks to “support breast cancer,” find out exactly how your purchase is making a difference.

As I said, I’m lucky. I am able to do all the things I did before I got cancer — ride my bike, play soccer as badly as I ever did, go flying with The Engineer. IMG_0333

On this first day of Pinktober, I’m praying the 680 people getting the diagnosis today are able to share a similar future.

Addendum: In reviewing this post before publication, I must add three things. First, I should say I have joined in the “girly” Facebook games in the past and admit they could be viewed as just having fun. That’s OK, as long as the participants realize they have little to do with supporting breast cancer patients. Second,  this post is my opinion. I would never presume to speak for other breast cancer patients,  former or current. And last and most importantly, this is an issue where the patient gets the final say. So if you want to know how you can best support someone who’s been diagnosed, try asking them. 

 

 

 

 

Cancer Lesson #82: Everything Gives You Cancer

Cancer Lesson #82: Everything gives you cancer.

One of the (many) weird things about having survived breast cancer is that no one really knows why I got it. As you can imagine, this makes it hard to figure out how to avoid a recurrence.

That doesn’t mean there’s a shortage of opinions on the subject, in fact, quite the opposite. There are a plethora of behaviors, foods and environmental factors that have been linked to cancer.

Next time you’re bored (or even now), try typing  ___________ and “cancer” into your favorite search engine. Fill in the blank with whatever you like. I’d lay money your results will say that thing either causes or prevents cancer.

For example, “tea and cancer” (since I’m drinking a cup right now) rewards us with “Among their many biological activities, the predominant polyphenols in green tea―EGCG, EGC, ECG, and EC―and the theaflavins and thearubigins in black teas have antioxidant activity (12). These chemicals, especially EGCG and ECG, have substantial free radicalscavenging activity and may protect cells from DNA damage caused by reactive oxygen species.” from Cancer.gov. Excellent! I’ll go pour another cuppa.

“Reading and cancer”  brought up “A new study released Monday by the Centers for Disease Control has found a direct link between a particularly aggressive strain of ocular cancer and reading text on a computer screen …” Good thing I noticed “The Onion” heading at the top of the page, or I’d have been worried.

The Mayo Clinic says a glass of red wine is good for your heart, so let’s try “alcohol and cancer.”

From Breastcancer.org“Research consistently shows that drinking alcoholic beverages — beer, wine, and liquor — increases a woman’s risk of hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol can increase levels of estrogen and other hormones associated with hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer. Alcohol also may increase breast cancer risk by damaging DNA in cells.”  But according to a  CNN health blog, drinking alcohol may improve breast cancer survival.

Which is it?  I know which outcome I favor.

Because there’s a lot of talk about pregnancy’s effect on the risk of breast cancer, I searched “pregnancy and cancer.” Here’s what the Susan G. Komen site said: “Although a first pregnancy may increase the short-term risk of breast cancer, it lowers the long-term risk. Pregnancy’s effects depend on your age when you first give birth.”

Confused yet?

“Exercise and cancer,” “soda and cancer,” “lemon juice and cancer,” even “vinegar and cancer” — according to someone somewhere they’re all connected to cancer.

I finally searched “things that give you cancer” and got several lists, including one from the UK’s Daily MailIt tops out at 116 items and includes wood dust, outdoor air pollution, and oral contraceptives, along with at least 100 chemicals I can’t pronounce but have no doubt come into contact with.

I’ve concluded I must do what seems logical to me. So here are my personal anti-cancer strategies:

  • Eat more vegetables (grown organically and/or locally when feasible) and less chemical-laden processed food (although I still can’t bring myself to eat kale).
  • Exercise regularly. For me, this is at least three times a week and should be more.
  • Know what’s important and what’s not worth worrying about.
  • Take a multi-vitamin, calcium, and my hormone inhibitor.
  • Enjoy time doing the things I love, with family and friends and sometimes by myself.
  • Keep my sense of humor.

Will it work? No one knows.

As the American Cancer Society says ” … even if you do everything just right, the cancer still might come back.”  Later in the same article, they continue, ” … with our current understanding of how it develops and grows, cancer is still a mystery in many ways.”

There are no guarantees.
There never has been.

Still, to help with the keeping your sense of humor strategy, here is a link to  Joe Jackson’s  jazzy thoughts on the subject.
Click through. I think you’ll enjoy his song.

 

 

Cancer Lesson #81: I Am Hope.

Cancer Lesson #81: I am hope.

When I did the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life a few weeks ago, I didn’t introduce myself with the rest of the survivors. This year, it felt a little too self-congratulatory, celebrating a result over which I had minimal control.

My mind began to shift, however, when the “Honorary Survivors” spoke. The “Junior Honorary Survivor,” who was about fourteen, talked about how she understands there are some things you can change and some you can’t. She said how important it was to focus on what we can do, instead of worrying about what we can’t, which I thought was very wise for one so young.

The adult spokesperson was a theirteen-year survivor of pancreatic cancer. This is almost a miracle, and that fact alone made me begin to think a little differently. (The Hirshberg Foundation for Pancreatic Cancer Research quotes the American Cancer Society as giving an average five-year survival rate of about 6%.)

My perspective began to change that day, but the lightbulb moment came when I was folding a load of laundry earlier this week.

I am hope. I am hope. I am hope. FullSizeRender-2
On t-shirt after t-shirt, the message stared up at me. IMG_0347

I am hope.

Not because I did anything special.  And certainly not because I deserve it more than those who are gone. But just as my friends’ deaths were beyond my control,  I also don’t want to change the fact that I’m still here.

It’s time to focus on what I can control , to consider what I can try to be for others.

Hope.
A beam of light to those who are beginning treatment.
A voice of — if not reason — then at least perspective on what the future might look like.

I am the hope, that five years after surgery and chemo, you can still ride a bike, play soccer as badly as you did before, enjoy your family and loved ones.

I am the hope that, like me, you might take a little extra time to appreciate the beauty of our world — the green of the trees, the glimmer of sun on water, and yes, even the raucous cacophony of cicadas.

I am the hope that you will survive to become hope too.

And I am the hope that we will always remember those who didn’t.IMG_0348

Namaste, Pat, Dale, Maribeth, and everyone else who is no longer with us.
The light within me salutes the light within you, the light that lingers on in those you loved.

 

Cancer Lesson #80: Planning for a Day I Hope Never Comes

Cancer Lesson #80: Planning for a day I hope never comes.

I wouldn’t tell my daughter right away. She was graduating college five days after my appointment. How could I ruin the occasion?
Should I take an extended sick leave this time? How would that affect my retirement?
What about my bike trip? Could I put off treatment until I returned?
My soccer cleats and shin guards needed replaced, but I’d do that when I knew I’d get the chance to wear out both.

Once again, it was time for my mammogram and oncology check-up.
Once again, I was convinced the test would find cancer.

I’m not a hypochondriac, though my thoughts before my appointment might make you think otherwise.  After jumping to the wrong conclusion (cancer) several times in the last few years, I refuse to do it again. I decided unless cancer re-presented itself in a way that brooked no disagreement, I won’t make myself crazy looking for it.

At 55, my body is changing (without my permission and certainly not for the better!). Because I’m reasonably active — no marathons in my future (or past, if I’m entirely truthful) — I get the occasional pain in places that never hurt before. If I ran to the doctor every time, well, let’s just say he’d soon lose patience with such nuerotic behavior.

And yet, every time I have an appointment, I find myself planning for that day, the one I hope never comes. The day they tell me my cancer has come back.

It’s probably because I’m a bit — The Engineer and Darling Daughter might say more than a bit — of a control freak. I like to think ahead, to have a plan, though I know cancer doesn’t give two hoots about anyone’s plan.

For that matter, life in general doesn’t give two hoots about my plans. I know this. I truly do.

It doesn’t stop me from making them. I guess I want to be ready for anything, even a cancer recurrence. Ha! As if anyone is ever ready.

Readers, my mammogram was clear. My twice-yearly visits to Dr. H are now switched to a single, annual appointment. Darling Daughter was graduated (Summa cum Laude, Phi Beta Kappa, Departmental Honors, and a prize for her senior thesis — yes, I’m one proud mama!)

There was no need for sick leave or worrying about my retirement, so I was able to enjoy a lovely bike trip  around Chincoteague Island.*IMG_0210I bought the cleats and shin guards. IMG_0333And I’ve put my cancer planning away.
At least until next year.

*Warning:If you ever visit Chincoteague, take insect repellent. The mosquitos are vicious!