Hearing the words, “Cancer-free”…

There are certain dates in our lives that immediately become etched into our memories, in an effortless manner, on account of the emotional impact they leave on us. My memory has been compromised by chemotherapy treatment, “chemo-brain”, I can say without a doubt, is a real thing.  But there are dates I will always remember, despite my altered memory.

January 11th, 2017, (just a few days ago), turned into one of those relevant dates.

I met with my oncologist that day, mainly to check up on how I have been recovering from the side-effects brought on by chemo.  I still shuffle out of bed with achy joints and muscles, and struggle with lowered energy, but I have been informed that at this point, this is normal, that it can take 3 months before I will start to notice any major improvements.

What turned January 11th into such a significant day, were hearing the words “cancer-free”, upon my asking what exactly my status was in regards to my health.  To my surprise, technically, I have been considered “cancer-free” ever since I had my second surgery, on July 21, 2016.

I have heard many breast cancer survivors use the term, NED, or No Evidence of Disease, or that they were in remission.  And I know for many, reaching the 5-year mark, without further incident, is a major milestone, as the chances of recurrence apparently become even lower.  So those were honestly the last words I had expected to hear from my doctor.  Everyone with a breast cancer diagnosis, even us “early-stagers”, have to learn to live with uncertainty.  Approximately a third of all women diagnosed at an early stage will have either a local recurrence, or worse, a metastasis.  Something I was entirely unaware of when I was first diagnosed.  I didn’t really learn of this, in all honesty, until months down the road.  Detecting this disease at an early stage is important, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee anything.  I just hope with all my heart, that I am one of the 70% who does not have to deal with this ever again!

Getting back to those precious words I heard from my doctor… wow, it was so incredible to hear her say that!  Cancer-free!  I was elated, and experienced a wonderful sense of calm for the rest of the day, like never before.  My worries dissolved, vanished, and I actually felt “relaxed”.

I had imagined myself celebrating the following day, on the 12th, but worrying thoughts and fear started festering in my mind and it didn’t take long before they snowballed, until I was swallowed into a massive state of “uncertainty”.  Ugh!

I went all the way from wanting to celebrate being declared cancer-free, to crawling in doubt and paranoia about whether it’s actually okay for me to think I am truly in the clear!  I know these feelings are common among breast cancer survivors, and they are something I am going to have to learn how to manage.

Thinking, “I am cancer-free”, feels amazing.  Maybe I just need to keep telling myself that.  Maybe that should become my new mantra.

I am scheduled for a follow-up MRI by the end of this month.  Actually, I have been anticipating this MRI ever since my last surgery.  Once I have that additional bit of reassurance that “everything looks good”, it will be easier for me to fully embrace the idea that I am okay.  Considering things were not very straightforward last year, that there were curve-balls and so many surprises, I feel I need this extra reassurance so I can really spend more time fully believing and celebrating that I am “Cancer-free”!  I do feel positive and am not anticipating anything of concern to appear following this MRI.  I suppose I am just being cautiously optimistic.

It is hard to believe that it was sometime this week last year that I was anxiously awaiting for my first appointment at the breast clinic.  I had already been seen at a walk-in clinic and was referred for an ultrasound and mammogram for January 19th, the day my life changed forever.  What a long road this has been.

Hugs, Love and all my Gratitude to everyone who has reached out and given me so much support throughout this long and tremendous journey! ❤ ❤ ❤

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4th Chemo cycle canceled – I am Done With Chemo!!!

My Facebook post announcing the good news….  (originally posted on December 14th, 2016)
Very good news to share!! I am DONE WITH CHEMO!!! Today’s treatment has officially been cancelled! As I explained in my recent blog post, a number of the side-effects really took their toll these past few weeks and I wondered how I was going to face the next cycle, especially having not recovered from round three. Without even sharing this concern with my oncologist, she has said at this point the balance has tipped, that the risks associated with the side-effects outweigh any benefit I would get from another round… So that is it, no more chemo!! I am relieved beyond belief, and while it will take months to recover from the side-effects, including becoming anemic (no wonder I am so bloody fatigued!), I am so happy to have reached this point! I look forward to the gradual recovery in gaining my energy and strength back, and to living each day to the fullest  I am also completely overwhelmed by the outpouring of love and support from all of you throughout this process. I am completely filled with gratitude and feel extremely fortunate to be connected to so many people with such big hearts! My Love & Hugs to you all!! 😘😘😘.

Chemo round 3

I have definitely felt a biting “winter chill” during this chapter in my cancer treatment journey.  Thankfully, this chill was interrupted, even halted, and warmed by a visit from a lovely couple, friends, who helped to lift my spirits and give me a fresh and positive perspective.

I am so grateful to them, and to everyone who has reached out to let me know I am not alone during this grueling time.  Knowing there are people who care, has really helped me find my inner strength again.

This third round of chemotherapy really pulled the rug from under me, putting me in a physical state I have never experienced before.  While I had been meaning to write a new blog post ever since having my third treatment (that was on Nov. 21st), each day I have been increasingly weighed down, mentally and physically, by a monstrous fatigue.  On top of that, the physical side-effects reached another level all together and had me wondering how it is that I am supposed to go through one more round of this!  The neuropathy, major skin sensitivity, muscle, joint, and bone pain, have all made for quite a torturous experience.  Man, I am in the ring with chemo and it seems to have me against the ropes some days!  This hasn’t been fun, and I apologize if I sound like I am grumbling, but I would like to record my experience in an honest way.  I will fight through all of this, but I’m not going to sugarcoat or downplay what happens to one’s body, mind and emotions while an “alkylating agent of the nitrogen mustard type” is running through one’s veins.  “The nitrogen mustards are cytotoxic chemotherapy agents similar to mustard gas.  Although their common use is medicinal, in principle these compounds can also be deployed as chemical warfare.”  Yikes!  No more reading about chemotherapy drugs online for the time being.

In addition to the exhausting side-effects, about a week following my third treatment, I apparently had a delayed allergic reaction to one of the chemo drugs and found myself covered in rather large red, itchy welts.  Fun times haha 😛 Thanks to my superhero oncologist for saving the day, yet again, she advised me to take the steroids I normally take for the three days surrounding each round of chemo, plus an antihistamine until it clears up, which thankfully, within a few days time, it did.

So, going through all of these chemo side-effects from hell, has made me all the more grateful for those who have let me know they care, who have made me smile and laugh while letting me rant, so I can find some sense of calm again.  You are angels, and have helped me keep my head above water when I felt as though my ship was going under.  To those who have reached out, thank you for making these days a little easier to cope with.

Despite my current state, I know I have the strength to see myself through this last round, which is now only a day away..  Ganbarimasu!

Ganbarimasu: (a Japanese word) means to carry through one’s task, putting up with difficulties and striving to overcome all hardships. ❤ ❤ ❤

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During my third round of chemo, I had a wonderful little visitor, named Murphy. ❤
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At home with my sweetheart, Olive. ❤

2nd Chemo – Half way there

This first part was originally written October 5th, 2016…

After struggling through a day packed with disbelief, fear and hurt, this morning I feel a very real and honest sense of gratitude.  I am so grateful for my life, exactly the way it is.  I feel lucky!  I am lucky to be here, and lucky that I have this chance to fight for my life, to stay on this beautiful, wild and crazy planet for as long as possible.  I have been given this chance… and I have to take it.  I know what to do, it is so obvious to me now.

Stepping through the quiet hallways of the cancer agency with a number of other individuals I hadn’t met before, people I don’t know on a personal level but share a discernible story with, to attend “Chemo school”, I felt both compassion for my fellow chemo rookies, as well as a sense of imminent torture that inevitably awaited us all!  We silently marched down the corridor to a large room where rows of black chairs and a large screen awaited our presence and attention.  My mind immediately faded into that fog again, as it does, when reality becomes too difficult to grasp.  The young, friendly nurse explained all of the potential unpleasant side-effects which may occur whilst undergoing chemotherapy treatment.  I sipped on my dark roast coffee seeking reprieve, and momentarily wondered if my presence there was all a mistake!  It was all absolutely surreal.  Was I really there?  Am I really getting chemotherapy??  How did I get to this point in my life, how did I get here, in this room, at 9am, at chemo school?!  What a trip, what a surprise.  The Universe has taken me onto numerous roads I never envisioned myself on, since I was a child… this being the most stunning of them all. 

It has been nearly one month since I wrote the above, and I am now at the half way mark for my chemotherapy treatments.  I had my second chemo treatment on Monday, October 31st.  Time flies like an arrow, as my Japanese painting sensei used to say!  This is definitely not an easy process.  I just keep trying to remind myself that everything I am feeling is temporary.  In all honesty though, today was absolute hell!  The bone pain from the Neupogen injection, or the chemo itself, was unrelenting, unforgiving…. it was utterly malicious!  I could not accomplish anything, nor could I enjoy very much, as the pain just refused to let up.  The painkillers I have did very little to offer any relief whatsoever.

Hopefully a good night’s sleep will help settle things down and tomorrow I will be given a reprieve from this torture! ❤

~UPDATE!  My wonderful oncologist has informed me to hold off on the neupogen injection today as she sorts out what pain medication I should take to continue with the shots.  Yay 🙂

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Ice packs on my legs to help ease the relentless bone pain I experienced today, while Olive enjoyed what remained of my morning smoothie 🙂

 

Chemotherapy – Treatment #1

Have you ever paused to have a look at the current circumstances of your own world and asked yourself, how on earth did I get here?  Well, on Thursday, October 6th, I had my first chemotherapy treatment at the BC Cancer Agency and I could not help but look at my surrounding environment and question how it was that I was actually there, about to start chemo.  Although this is something I never expected to be going through in my life, I think I had a gut feeling it might, at some point, be something I would be facing on this road I have been traveling on since January.

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I have become accustomed to all manner of needles from this journey, but I still look away and often close my eyes to avoid from having to see them.  Also, this was an especially difficult moment, knowing, for the first time in my life, I would soon be having some very strong chemotherapy drugs running through my entire body.

Was I scared?  Absolutely!  Scared, but so fortunate to have three dear loved ones accompany me through this hurdle.  Their presence helped quell the panic that started growing inside me, especially while the nurse underwent preparations to begin the treatment.  They were my life raft that day and I am so very grateful to them for being there.

This was certainly one of the most frightening things I have ever had to make a decision on.  What was considerably more unnerving, was the idea of not taking every measure available to me to make certain my body is free from any rogue cancer cells that could potentially be drifting about.  What oncologists refer to as, undetectable microscopic disease.  I know chemo does not guarantee anything, but it does feel like the right thing for me to do at this point in my journey.  My second Oncotype result, which tested the second smaller tumor, or satellite lesion, removed in July, came back with a higher number than the first.  The score fell in the middle of the intermediate range, at “20”.  The first score had come back with a very low risk re-occurrence result at “8”, back in March.  The score of 20 was the deal-breaker that helped my oncologist and I both agree that going ahead with chemo was the right path to take.  We had been on the fence for some weeks, and literally had hours of discussion about whether or not I should do it.  As my oncologist repeatedly said, there was a huge discrepancy between the first low Onctoype score, with that of the high-risk clinical features of the tumor.  They just didn’t match up.  With all of the discussion and further research I did, I grew more distrustful of putting so much stock into a number, one which just didn’t support what the pathology was suggesting.  As scared as I was, and am of chemo, I honestly felt an immediate sense of relief once we finally made the decision that I would go ahead with this treatment.  It felt like I was given a safety net.   It was on Friday, Sept 30th that we received the results of the second Oncotype test, and after meeting with my oncologist on Tuesday, October 2nd, rather than wait another week till after the Thanksgiving weekend, I decided to charge forward with my first treatment that Thursday.  I am glad I made the decision to not wait another week, and I still managed to have a nice Thanksgiving dinner with my family.

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At ‘Chemo school’ they suggested bringing a book or iPad to pass the time, but because of the type of drug I am given, I need to wear extremely cold mittens to help protect my fingers and nails.  Yes, I brought a very special hand-made snowman with me to my first treatment. ❤  (I look rather sleepy in this photo!)

As has always been the case, the nurses and other medical folk at the BC Cancer Agency were very caring, patient and informative.  They are superheroes.  I really love them.  I have always hated going into hospitals but I don’t experience the same apprehension going to the cancer agency.  It doesn’t feel like a hospital.  It just feels like a place filled love for people who need treatment and need to heal.  A place with very caring and supportive people doing whatever they can to help those who have been struck with this disease.

How am I feeling?  Rather wiped out, fatigued and quite achy.  It’s almost like having a flu, when you don’t really have one.  But I am not nearly as bad as I had imagined I would be.  The first week was hard, I experienced nausea and absolutely wicked bad bone pain in my feet!  It was quite unbelievable.  During the first week, after each cycle of chemo, I have to take a Neupogen injection which increases my white blood cell count, to help fight off infection.  A side-effect from this injection is bone pain, typically in one’s back and hips.  I also experienced this after the 3rd injection.  It was quite torturous and unforgiving, knife-like pain.  I have never experienced anything like it, and I have been living with chronic pain for over 10 years now.  I actually managed to laugh about it, it was that incredible.  Luckily I was prescribed something to help diminish the severity of it.

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Experiencing wicked bad bone pain in my feet!  Either from chemo or the Neupogen injection.

Unfortunately, I will lose my hair.  That sucks hey?  I want to try to embrace this experience in as positive a way as possible, but I still find it somewhat frightening at this point and am having a hard time coming to terms with this part of the chemo experience.  I have had rather unpleasant dreams where I have lost patches of my hair.  It’s obvious that my fears are stirring up such nightmares.  Since the 20th (exactly 2 weeks after my treatment) I have been losing quite a lot of hair.  It’s very peculiar to see so many healthy looking strands of hair suddenly free falling from my tender scalp!  All of this is still extremely surreal to me.  A sweet, dear friend who went through this in 2007 was so encouraging when I mentioned I was nervous about losing my hair.  She told me that us cancer ladies are like the fucking Marines!  They have to shave their heads and battle, as do we. 🙂

A day before flying off to Europe, this sweetheart friend, amidst her extremely busy schedule, took the time to make this beautiful hand-made card for me and went out of her way to make certain I got it before she flew off on her wonderful adventure!  How thoughtful and very generous!  This made my heart glow and really brightened my day.

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Thank you, sweet Biffy ❤

A favorite Japanese proverb comes to mind.. “One kind word can warm three winter months.”  Certainly, one kind word or gesture can really warm a cancer warrior’s day, and that is huge!

This journey has been so challenging, frightening and exhausting, from one moment and day to the next.  I am trying to make the most of it, to learn as much as I can from the lessons it brings, as much as possible.  I want to thank everyone who has been here for me throughout all of this, whether it was an email, a text, a phone-call, a card, a hug, a visit, a coffee… I am so extremely grateful for all the love and support!  It has given me strength and made me smile through the many storms I have faced these past months.

For those who are curious to know what my chemo “soup” is and what the common or potential side-effects of this mix are..

My treatment plan involves 4 cycles of Docetaxel & Cyclophosphamide, every 3 weeks (about 3 months).

Common side-effects:

Nausea (I had nausea for about 4-5 days after treatment), hair loss (I am losing a lot of hair, and my scalp has become painful and sensitive), mouth sores (I have also become quite sensitive to hot and cold temperatures and I have noticed a slight change in how certain foods taste), fatigue (I have been experiencing this since radiation and hormone treatment, I haven’t felt my “normal” energy level in a very long time!), nail changes (my nail-beds and finger tips really hurt!  I have also noticed pain in my toes and feet), joint & muscle pain (I was especially achy during the first week, but things have improved somewhat going into week 3).

Plan of action:

I shall soldier on!

Thank you so much for the love everyone!  Please be kind to yourselves.  Listen to your body & be mindful of any suspicious signs and symptoms. ❤

 

2nd Surgery

{Originally written July 28th, 2016}
“This is why I remind all those women who are now in a struggle, that are brave, that mourn, and renounce, what we are experiencing is part of being courageous, because the brave one isn’t the one who doesn’t cry but the one who doesn’t stop trying.” Wendy, Breastcancer. org

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I am so grateful to have read these words this morning. I don’t know Wendy’s last name, but I read her story on the BreastCancer. org website and I found her writing very consoling, particularly now, following the wild carnival ride of emotions that transpired last Thursday, July 21st.

On a happy note, I made it, I survived my 2nd surgery! It was a long day, filled with both gut-splitting laughter and unexpected, unrelenting tears.  We arrived at the hospital at 8:30 a.m. I was so tired that morning, I mistakenly put my shirt on inside out.

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Surgery went well, but yet again, there was another surprise waiting in the wings for me. The surprises have been numerous throughout this journey, from Day one. I have tried diligently to remind myself there may always be more, but embracing any new skill takes practice, and I still find myself thrown off guard at times by the curve balls and new bits of information that crop up.

I had been informed I was to have one wire placed in the location of a Lymph node which needed removing, as biopsy results were reported as positive for cancer cells in this Lymph node. This fine, thread-like wire, helps the surgeon to locate the exact area of tissue to be removed. The procedure is called ‘Fine Wire Localization’. It turned out, plans had recently changed (without my knowledge), and they were to place a 2nd wire for a 2nd Lymph node to be removed. A Lymph node, which, when biopsied, apparently did not come back as positive for cancer cells, but did have abnormal cells of some sort, enough so that they wanted it removed to check it out, as a precaution. I said I was surprised to hear of this, and my surgical oncologist expressed her surprise as well, as until recently, she thought there was only one which needed to be taken out. I tried to put this new information in the back of my mind and just get on with the day to keep myself as calm as possible before surgery.

Why were there tears?  To summarize, I was wheeled into an area of the hospital I had not seen or visited since January 19th, 2016, the day I had been diagnosed. I was taken there for the fine wire procedure, where they used an ultrasound machine for the first wire, and the mammogram for the 2nd. As the nurse escorted me into this area of the hospital, called the ‘Breast Clinic’, I was wheeled past the small room where I had first been told by a doctor that I had breast cancer. Seeing this room again, 6 months later, nearly to the day, I was unexpectedly flooded with emotion. I had not anticipated that I would suddenly be surrounded by memories of the day I was first diagnosed. I saw the set of black chairs where I had sat, when I really began to sense something was wrong after they said they wanted to repeat the mammogram. I saw the same pictures on the walls, the same pictures I had gazed at that day, seeking some sense of calm while I sensed that the core of my world was shifting to an unfathomable new reality. The nurse then stopped, right directly in front of the room where I had my first core-needle biopsy just 20 – 30 minutes after learning I had breast cancer. This was the room they were to use for the fine wire procedure. It was absolutely overwhelming to be there again, flashing back to everything I had been through during the past 6 months… all of the testing, the multiple ultrasounds and biopsies, mammograms, MRI’s, bone scan, CT scan, x-rays, the needles that look more like ice picks than they do needles.. the appointments, discussions, questions, radiation treatments, the fear, fatigue, the sense of relief when I found out I didn’t need to undergo chemo… the fear of not doing chemo.. The learning to accept and find my way in this new reality. What a whirlwind. I broke into tears seeing that room again where it all first began. The tears were just unstoppable.

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In any case, I got myself in order, the wires were placed and I was wheeled back to the surgical day-care area. It was a relief to be back there. My Dad was there, waiting to make me smile and laugh again. As I mentioned, despite the tears, there was an equal amount of hysterical laughter that day, the jokes were as mad and as wild as ever. My father and I share a similar sense of humor, one that many others don’t understand. I am so glad that we can always laugh, even during the most tremendous times.

I have been resting at home and just started to notice my energy level improving in the past couple of days. My right side and arm is still rather sore so all I can do is take it easy and not take on too much too soon (I have a tendency to do that). I will see my surgical oncologist again on Wednesday, so we’ll see what happens from there.

I am so grateful for all of the thoughtful and caring support I have received throughout all of this.  I feel I have a strong tribe of beautiful, kindhearted people banding around me, helping me heal. I am sincerely grateful for that. Love and Hugs to everyone.

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My story…

_DSF2689-1500-TatumWulffPhotographyFrom all the journeys I have found myself on, I never once foresaw the Universe putting me on the path I now stand. If you could look at a physical map of my life, you would see a huge turning point marked on the morning of January 19th, 2016, the morning I was diagnosed with breast cancer. After having my first ever mammogram at the age of 41, followed by ultrasound imaging, the hard mass that was found was immediately concluded to be malignant. Upon hearing the words, “I’m concerned” and “Breast cancer” fall from the doctor’s mouth, a paralyzing fog drifted in and settled over my mind and any memory of what she said beyond those words now eludes me, washed away from the immediate shock and disbelief.

Although she delivered this news with absolute certainty, my mind wandered to the idea she may have been mistaken, that maybe the biopsy results would show otherwise. I waited one week for confirmation from those results.  I had an opportunity to go in sooner but my new reality was entirely unfathomable to me, and I made things worse for myself by waiting longer than necessary to learn what lay ahead. I would like to say I faced those days with strength, courage and optimism, but that wasn’t the case. I was quite terrified. Every day lasted it’s own eternity, pushing through each hour felt just like one of those dreams where you want to run as fast as you can but for some reason can barely move a step forward. A movie reel of different chapters and people in my life played through my mind continuously. My entire life was literally flashing before my eyes. An avalanche of thoughts and memories flooded my mind of everyone I had ever loved, people who had loved me, different experiences, places and moments that have shaped me. Friends and family helped me come to my senses and I finally called to go in and see someone as soon as possible to face the music. I couldn’t face another day of waiting.

It was confirmed. I had breast cancer. Ironically, that turned out to be the first day since the 19th, that I felt a sense of hope. I felt a window open and light spill in as my Surgical Oncologist said the words, “Early stage”.

I had surgery on Wednesday, February 24th, which went very well. Returning home, I was overcome by immense relief and elation knowing that intrusive mass was no longer residing in, and hijacking my body.

Even further good news, is that on March 3rd I was informed it hadn’t spread to my lymph nodes or the surrounding tissue. I feel a sense of victory.. or possibly just ‘good fortune’, and feel my scars represent that victory (or good fortune..), but I am also still very much on-guard and cautious and not at all ready to allow myself a complete celebration. The next step in this journey involves further tests as well as either chemotherapy and/or radiation treatments sometime in the near future.

The outpouring of support and love from my friends and family have kept my spirits up and given me the strength needed to face this. So far, I feel I may have been given another chance to live a healthy life, in mind, body and spirit. I love my life, and love all the challenges and struggles that have come with it. Every moment feels like a gift and I am overcome with gratitude for the love of my family, friends and even strangers and people I may have only previously known as acquaintances who have shared their story with me and offered their support and friendship. I also realize how fortunate I am to live in a country that provides good healthcare and I am so grateful to my Surgical Oncologist and all the medical folk who have, and are taking good care of me.

I would like to urge everyone to not ignore any signs your body gives you that you need to get something looked at, no matter what is going on in your life otherwise. I delayed visiting a clinic when I knew I should have gone in immediately. Each one of our lives is so fragile, and should never be gambled with. If you have any suspicious symptoms of any kind, go see a doctor. One just helped save my life. My world has completely changed since January 19th. Please take care of yourself.

P.S. I have received a few messages and emails from people asking what first made me go in for a mammogram. The lump was very close to the surface of my skin, it was hard to miss. This is another reason I am incredibly lucky. Had it been growing in a less detectable or obvious area, I never would have noticed it and never would have gone to a walk-in clinic to have a doctor examine me. I might still be sitting here today with it developing. The thought of that horrifies me. Please don’t minimize the importance of getting yourself checked up on by a doctor. The sooner something like this is caught the better!