A breast cancer survivor shares her experiences with the BRCA gene.

Friday, December 11, 2009

A Lesson on Healing

Today, I ventured out for my first official errand since surgery...a trip to the farmer's market.  The market is a real treat since it carries all sorts of organic produce, wild Alaskan salmon, exotic spices and freshly baked breads, among other things.

Following doctor's orders to "ease back into things" and the "no lifting over 10 pounds" rule, my goal was to make a quick trip, buy only a few items and return home safe and sound.

Walking into the market was like entering a Christmas wonderland.  Colors and textures and aromas.  Oh, my!  Flaming red beets and orange turban squash and purple potatoes and rich green brussel sprouts.

Yes, I stayed too long, bought too much and wore myself out.  And, I discovered an interesting fact:  healthy food weighs a lot.

The Way of Love

In his book, The Five Love Languages, Gary Chapman spells out the different ways we express and want to receive love: Words of Affirmation (You're wonderful!), Quality Time (Up for a drive in the country?), Physical Touch (Well, yeah...), Receiving Gifts (Americans specialize in this)...and Acts of Service.

Although we can appreciate each of these expressions, there tends to be one that speaks to us most, in which we deeply feel loved. Unfortunately for my husband, I feel most loved by Acts of Service.  If only I could be bought off with a ring.  But, no, I prefer him hauling barrels of compost to my garden beds each spring, which he loathes.

I bring this up because during the cancer treatment process--or, I should say ordeal--people have been amazing in showering me with love.  I've received cards and books and warm pajamas.  I've been sent dozens of cards with touching sentiments.  People have told me how special I am and how I've impacted their lives.  All of these things have greatly moved me.

In addition to these gifts, the Acts of Service have carried me through the most difficult times, and I can't emphasize enough how vital it is to have people lend a hand -- and be able to accept their generosity graciously. 

I've pretty much been on the giving end of the equation, in which I was control, I was the strong one, I was capable.  I suspect this is true for most breast cancer patients.

Being on the other side, in which I was the vulnerable one, the weak one, the dependent one...well, that was hard to accept.  And a lot of that has to do with pride. It's hard to admit to yourself that you're not the all powerful, invincible super-woman you thought. You're mortal like the rest.

Once again, during this last surgery, I had friends who took the time, trouble and effort to sit at the hospital during surgery, drive me places, bring me homemade soup, walk my dog, run my errands...lend a hand anyway they could. Of course, my husband and my parents were there for me along the way.  But having friends to give them some relief was an enormous gift. They are the super-women.

Throughout my experience with cancer, I've learned many things, but one of the most crucial lessons is this: you simply can't get through cancer without the love of others.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Reconstruction, Rebuilding, Rebooting

It's over!  I went through my final surgery and have been resting and healing this past week. 

Looking back over this process, I ask myself--based on what I know now -- was reconstruction worth it?  For the most part, I would say yes.

I love the results of what my surgeon did.  I think about how terrified I was upon hearing the words, "double mastectomy."  All I could envision was being butchered.  I never would have dreamed I could go through this and end up with a body that, frankly, I liked better than when I began.

However, I would tell anyone who is considering reconstruction that you have to be physically and emotionally up to it, because it's a long haul, requiring a lot of work and patience. 

I've been frustrated in having to accept my limitations.  I've been exhausted, not having the same stamina as I did before. I've had to dedicate long hours to rebuilding muscle that was cut.  My abdominal muscles swell when I put too much pressure on that area, which can make clothes extremely uncomfortable.  And when I'm stretching or doing some sort of exercise, my muscles can cramp, which is painful. You have to think of it like rebuilding Dresden...one stone at a time.   

It's far more involved than you realize going into it.  But worth it?  Yes, you could say that.  But, I understand now why some women don't choose the reconstruction route.  It's hard.  There's no right answer, but what feels right to you.

So, now that surgery is behind me, I will be taking it easy over the next six weeks -- no strenuous activity -- and then back to exercise...and then tattooing.  The fun never ends.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

The Mammogram Debate

The latest news being hotly debated is about moving the recommended age of women to begin mammograms from 40 to 50.  

I know statistics show that for the most part, it's not as necessary until women reach their fifties (and there are those cynics who think radiologists are fighting this because it would affect their income).

While I'm no medical expert, but from a survivor's point of view--and one who was diagnosed at 41--it concerns me since cancer grows faster in younger women due to their higher levels of estrogen. So, the earlier cancer is diagnosed in younger women, the better to catch it before it spreads.

It also seems like there are more and more younger women (pre-menopause) who are being diagnosed with the disease.  Statistics don't back me up on this, I know -- rather, it's only from my personal experience.  But almost every woman I know who has -- or had --breast cancer, was diagnosed before 50.  Maybe I'm just hanging out with the wrong crowd.

Hopefully, this issue will be discussed and debated more before they raise the age for a mammogram to be covered by insurance. We don't  need one more thing to discourage women from screening for cancer.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Don't Worry, Be Happy

As a breast cancer survivor and BRCA-gene carrier, I appreciate Barbara Ehrenreich for acknowledging the “Think Positive!” attitude pervasive in the cancer world.

Although most people were exceptional when I went through chemotherapy, there were also well-meaning, but misguided, “positive energy” advisers. The “Be happy and you’ll be cured” superstition is all too common in cancer dialogue, which doesn’t allow space for patients to truly grieve or acknowledge their fear, pain and anger.

Thank goodness for support groups that allow people to be real in the mist of the unknown.

Friday, December 4, 2009

Speaking of Hair...

With all this focus on the cosmetic side of reconstruction, a girl can't go too long without bringing up the number 1 topic when it comes to our appearance...hair, of course.  

This past year, when gray strands started comingling with my brown ones, I decided it was time to stop the henna and take on serious coloring. However, permanent and semi-permanent hair dyes converted my hair's texture into straw, with strands floating above my head despite every product I tried to control it. 

Finally, a coworker put me in touch with a stylist who was a breast cancer survivor and used only non-toxic, organic products. I immediately made an appointment and discovered EcoColors hair color. 

Voila! The color is rich and natural and my hair's texture is soft and glossy. And, I feel better knowing I'm not infusing my scalp with toxic dyes.  Ask your stylist to try them.