Cancer Lesson #2: You Should Probably Mention the Lump

Cancer Lesson #2: When you call for your appointment, you should probably mention the lump. 

I found my cancer during one of the nightly boob shifts mentioned in Cancer Lesson #1. Only half-awake, my hand touched on something that can only be described as a lump. I thought, “Hmm, I really do need to call for my appointment,” and promptly fell back asleep.

In the shower the next morning, I did a breast self-examination (BSE) and the lump was still there.

I hadn’t been dreaming.

Still, I didn’t mention what I’d found when I scheduled the appointment through the central booking desk that handles my doctor’s schedule. I kept hoping it was a blocked duct or something that would go away on its own.

The earliest appointment they could offer was three weeks away.

I took it, and spent the next twenty-four hours touching that side of my breast again and again, reconfirming my discovery. If you’d seen me, you’d have thought I was a sexual deviant with an obsession for feeling myself up.

Eventually, I realized I couldn’t make it through three weeks before talking to my doctor; I called the central desk again.

“I made an appointment for my yearly exam,” I told them, “and I probably should have mentioned that I found a lump.”

No more central booking. I was connected straight to Dr. K’s nurse who offered me an appointment the following day.

 

Cancer Lesson #1: Don’t Ignore the Postcard

Cancer Lesson #1: Don’t ignore the postcard.

My postcard came in October 2010 – maybe earlier – reminding me it was time for my annual checkup. And while I didn’t exactly ignore its summons, I certainly didn’t rush out to make an appointment, merely jotted that task on my to-do list, right next to a reminder that I was long-overdue at for a dentist visit too.

Looking back, I can see there were signs even then that cancer was growing in my right breast.

Since starting menopause, my breasts had gotten looser, and sometimes when I slept on that side, I needed to rearrange myself to get comfortable, something I assumed larger-breasted women had been doing all their life.

I didn’t give it a second thought; I was too busy enjoying the fact that I had cleavage for the first time in my life — an exciting development for someone whose bras have never gone beyond the A range.

Only after being diagnosed did I realize that discomfort was almost certainly my cancer.

Would it have made any difference if I’d gone to my OB/GYN as soon as I got the card? My doctors say probably not.

But there are other, more aggressive, breast cancers where a month or two could affect treatment options, possibly even the patient’s prognosis.

So, don’t ignore the postcard.

reminder-postit

Clip art from Mammographysaveslives.org, where they’ll send you an annual email reminder.

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 #78: How to Create a Legacy

This cancer lesson is from a post on my other blog. 

Cancer Lesson #78: How to create a legacy

How do you create a legacy? If you’re a philanthropic billionaire, you might donate money to a school or a hospital or a children’s home in the hope they’ll name it after you. If you’re an earthbound saint like Mother Theresa, you give up your worldly goods and spend your time ministering to the poor.

And if you’re my friend Pat, you create a legacy by being who you are and sharing your gift for quilting by making them for others. Pat has created quilts for new babies, weddings, the Guthrie Center (she’s a huge Arlo fan), and for charity auctions including Relay for Life and the Ovarian Quilt Project. She even made one for me, which I wrote about last April, though I’m still not sure what I did to deserve it. friendshipquilt

However, a big part of Pat’s legacy is the way she’s dealt with ovarian cancer — continuing to live her life with laughter and fun, through its trials and pain, exhibiting more strength and grace than most of us could muster.

Now, she’s receiving hospice care, which you already know if you read either of my blogs. What you don’t know is how the quilting community has rallied round to make sure Pat’s legacy continues.

First, two  women in her quilting guild and another friend offered to help finish the quilts Pat still had in progress. Then, the rest of the guild volunteered to take charge of the fabric in Pat’s sewing room — a huge task since there’s enough to open a small quilt shop. The group plans to use the fabric to make quilts to donate to charities in Pat’s name.

I have to pause to compose myself whenever I tell people this because it always makes me cry.

<deep breath>

But Pat’s legacy is bigger than that. Like me, she started following “Tall Tales from Chiconia,” the blog of a fellow cancer survivor and quilter who lives in Australia. This blogger was organizing a quilting event called Foot²Freestyle, where 12 members from around the world (USA, UK, Netherlands, France, Germany, and Australia) were assigned a month to receive three blocks from each other member and make three of their own to compose into a quilt. The blocks are 12″ square (the “Foot²”) and could be made in any design the quilter chooses (the “Freestyle”). The recipient could choose three colors for her quilt.

Pat was to be “Miss May,” and her colors included teal, which is associated with ovarian cancer support. But things changed.

<deep breath>

The group responded by bumping her up. Not only are they making the quilt for Pat, who will donate it to the quilt project, they somehow through the magic of computers, created a virtual quilt for her, in case it isn’t done in time. (There’s an awful lot of mailing involved with quilt squares coming from three continents.) Here it is. Gorgeous, don’t you think?pats-virtual-quilt

There’s more. Kate, author of “Tall Tales of Chiconia,” has asked her fellow bloggers to share this story, along with information about the symptoms of that sneaky bastard ovarian cancer and a link to their country’s national ovarian cancer support organization. In the US, that organization is the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance. 

The symptoms, alas, are equally vague no matter where you live. As Kate put it:

“We urge you to familiarise yourself with the symptoms of ovarian cancer — symptoms which are so common and so ephemeral that many don’t consider them symptoms at all. For this reason, ovarian cancer is rarely diagnosed in its early stages, often leading to a poor prognosis. Some of you reading this are men, in which case, please pass the information to your mothers, wives, sisters or daughters. It’s important.”

Here are the symptoms, quoted directly from the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance website: “Women with ovarian cancer report that symptoms are persistent and represent a change from normal for their bodies. The frequency and/or number of such symptoms are key factors in the diagnosis of ovarian cancer. Several studies show that even early stage ovarian cancer can produce these symptoms.

  • Bloating
  • Pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Difficulty eating or feeling full quickly
  • Urinary symptoms (urgency or frequency)

See your doctor, preferably a gynecologist, if you have these symptoms more than 12 times during the course of one month and the symptoms are new or unusual for you.

Kate has also offered to make a quilt for the Australian Ovarian Cancer organization and invited her fellow bloggers to either join her or make a similar offer to the organization where they live.

And now, I have a favor to ask. To help spread Pat’s legacy, I hope you will please share this post, or at least the symptoms and a link to the Ovarian Cancer Alliance.

Because we all have Pats in our lives.

<deep breath>

And it’s very hard to lose them.

Cancer Lesson #76: We are not in control.

 

For most of my life, I’ve deluded myself into believing I am somehow in control.

Getting cancer swept that illusion away, but the lesson proved astoundingly easy to forget once I started feeling better.

Today, though, I was reminded once again just how helpless we all are.

We fool ourselves into thinking there’s always something we can do to make things better, whether it’s for ourselves or for those we love.

And sometimes there just isn’t.

Still, I find it hard to give in, to surrender this illusion of control, though I know it is only an illusion. It’s just so damned hard to realize there are some situations you can’t fix.

Maybe that’s why we find it difficult to deal with terminal or serious illness.

What do we do when nothing we do will help?

I don’t know the answer to that question. Maybe all we can do is admit we don’t know what to do and ask if there’s something we haven’t thought of.

And when we have the opportunity to do anything – however small – that will make someone’s life a tiny bit better, we should act.

Because there will be times when there’s nothing we can do.

Cancer Lesson #75: Tittoo Defined

Cancer Lesson #75: Tittoo Defined
Warning: This post may be a little TMI for some readers.
Tittoo: [ti-too]  verb, –tooed, -tooing, noun, plural -toos
verb: to color a reconstructed nipple by puncturing the skin and infusing dyes.
noun
: 1. procedure used to color the nipple on a reconstructed breast,
2. reconstructed nipple that has been colored by puncturing the skin and infusing dyes.

Sample Sentences
Verb: Part of the physician’s assistant’s job was to tittoo the breast cancer patients who had undergone reconstructive surgery.
Noun: Wow! My tittoo didn’t hurt at all — not like the tramp stamp I got in Vegas when I turned twenty-one.