Thursday, September 24, 2009

Breast Cancer Has Perks

Believe it or not, having breast cancer has an upside because by law, you are entitled to reconstructive plastic surgery. In 1998, President Bill Clinton signed a bill that requires all health insurance companies to cover the cost of breast reconstruction following a mastectomy. The bill also states that both the diseased breast and the opposite breast would be covered surgically to restore and achieve breast symmetry.

Even though I still have one more surgery coming up the end of this year, so far I've gotten a breast lift, tummy tuck and fat taken from my back. My breast tissue has been replaced by fat tissue. Accept for the fact that I have no feeling, I can't tell the difference visually. When I told my friend Maggie that I would be getting a breast lift, tummy tuck (and soon implants) compliments of breast cancer, she commented: Sweetie, it can't be all bad, you just got yourself about $15,000 worth of free plastic surgery!

I say it's a well deserved perk after the trauma of chemo and losing some of my most feminine assets. I am happy to report that my stomach is flatter than it's been in years. No amount of exercise and situps could talk away that middle-aged bulge. Also, I can get away without wearing a bra because of the breast lift. That alone takes years of your biological age. My plastic surgeon keeps telling me by the time all these surgeries are over, I'll be able to wear a bikini. We'll see, but right now, I don't think so.

I do think I look better in clothes, but looking good parading around naked? Not so much. There's just wayyyyy too many scars mapped out on my body to do that.  The way I view it, there were plenty of times in my life when I sashayed across a room without a stitch of clothing. But there comes a day when you just can't pull it off anymore. It's sort of like the first warm day of spring when you pull out those short-shorts. When you finally squeeze into them, you realize going out in public wearing those shorts would probably get you attention--but not in a good way. At least I can now wear T-shirts with a little spandex in them and look good again! So ladies, look at the silver lining of breast cancer--the possibility of perky breasts, a flat tummy and putting on that old bikini again!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

The Fear of Recurrence

This is the last weekend of the summer so I made sure to enjoy it.  Yesterday, I headed up to Mohegan Sun Casino, won some money playing slots and  bought myself something I've wanted for awhile. This morning, I headed up to the Elephant's Trunk outdoor flea market and reveled in aisles of hidden treasures and tchochkes. My last pit stop was Stew Leonard's--a farmer's market-like grocery store that Connecticut is famous for. I have good reason to celebrate by having some fun because my doctor got blood work results back last week, which confirmed so far, I'm cancer-free.

Now that my treatment is done, I'm constantly feeling for suspicious lumps and bumps or searching the internet for the symptoms of cancer recurrence. Apparently, the most common places breast cancer rears its ugly head again is in the lungs, the liver or the brain. A couple weeks ago, I kept feeling a pain on my right side and was thoroughly convinced that it was cancer of the liver. But when I found out you lose your appetite and drop weight if you have liver cancer, I knew I couldn't have it because I have NO PROBLEM eating.

I read the survival statistics for my particular stage of breast cancer at the five-year mark and they say I have a 49 percent to 67 percent chance of making it. Every once in awhile I'll get stuck in a mode of fear and start obsessing about these grim facts. Then I realize all I can do is pop a Tamoxifin pill  every day that is supposed to suppress estrogen, cross my fingers and carry on.  I reason that yes, cancer could come back at anytime. But right now, I have my health back and I will never take that for granted again. So why not enjoy feeling normal as much as I can? The seasons change this week. Nothing ever stays the same, so cease the day!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Estrogen-Breast Cancer Link

In 2006, I read Suzanne Somers' book Ageless, which touts the benefits of biodentical hormones for women going through menopause. I bought into the benefits of taking biodentical hormones hook, line and sinker and wasted no time making an appointment with my gynecologist so I could get on  biodentical estrogen supplements.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer about a year and a half later, I found out my particular cancer was estrogen positive. That means my cancer was actually feeding off the excessive hormones I put into my body thereby growing at a faster rate. While my breast surgeon said the biodentical hormones may not have caused my breast cancer, she claims the hormone supplements probably did hasten the tumor growth. I put two and two together and realized that if I hadn't been taking those pills, perhaps I would have had only Stage 2 breast cancer. That means maybe I wouldn't  have had to have a double mastectomy--my breasts would have been saved. That's a bitter pill to take.

I sent Suzanne Somers an email telling her that she should have been more forthcoming  in her book about the risks of breast cancer when taking biodentical hormones--especially since she had breast cancer herself. I got no response. Then I emailed Oprah Winfrey about it since I read that she started taking biodentical hormones after Somers appeared on one of her shows. Again, I received no response. A friend of mine who was recently diagnosed with breast cancer not only has the BRCA gene,(meaning there is breast cancer in her family history) she has been doing hormone therapy for years. Her doctor told her to get off the estrogen pills IMMEDIATELY.

The message of the the link between estrogen and breast cancer should be out there--loud and clear. There needs to be much more awareness. Case in point: I don't remember my  doctor even mentioning the possibility of getting breast cancer when he started me on estrogen pills. Women have a right to know about this risk--especially women whose family has a breast cancer history. So ladies, if your mother, your grandmother, your aunt or sister has gotten breast cancer and you are taking hormone therapy, talk to your doctor right away. It could save your life.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Laugh at Yourself

Everytime I began a new stage of cancer treatment--chemo, surgery, radiation--I would get another round of telephone calls, cards and gifts from family and friends. Conversations would begin with heavy concern: How are you holding up? Are you REALLY Okay?

After I lost my hair, I told them the benefits of no hair styling maintenance--it takes 15 minutes less to get ready for work in the morning! And the way I disguised my bald head, what with the hats, the earrings, the sunglasses--people just took me for some over-the-top fashionista anyway. When the Dunkin' Donuts gals told me to Work It Girl, I replied: Hey, when you're bald, you've gotta pull out all the stops!

Right before my first mastectomy, my uncle called and asked how I felt. I replied: I guess I'm going to have to give up that dream of becoming a stripper. He got a good laugh over that one. I relayed stories to family and friends about how I used breast cancer to my advantage. Like the time a cop pulled me over. I pulled back my wig to give him a peek of my bald head and said, please officer, I am late for my chemo appointment, I have cancer. He didn't give me a ticket and let me go.

That's what you call pulling out your Platinum Cancer Card. When I was digging for money to get coffee one day and clearly looked frazzled, I commented to no one in particular: I have cancer! The women standing behind me immediately stepped up to the counter and said, I'll pay. Okay, so I milked it  for what it was worth. It was actually a bit fun.

The point is, I tried to see some humor in the situation. It's a great coping mechanism. I had gone my whole life without spending a night in the hospital and suddenly within a year I had three major surgeries. But there was no point in whining about it. So I decided to enjoy the attention and look at the situation from a lighter point of view. Perhaps that's why everyone said I had such a great attitude. They tell you, one of the best ways to battle cancer is to remain positive. I did that by keeping my humor. Trust me, it works!

Since Breast Cancer Awareness month is right around the corner, why not give to an organization that fights breast with a light attitude: SaveThe Ta Tas. Buy yourself or a friend a T-Shirt with the Save The Ta Tas logo. You will be contributing to the fight against breast cancer while giving people a good laugh when they see what your T-Shirt says. Now that's the fighting spirit!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Reach Out

I feel good about myself today because I helped someone who has just been diagnosed with breast cancer. An old friend revealed to me that her doctor found a malignant tumor in her left breast. More tests have to be done, but I knew her head was spinning and I gave her imformation that I believe helped calm her down.

She was worried about her job but I assured her that she was protected by law.  The management at my company was incredibly supportive last year as I underwent treatment--the chemo, the mastectomies, the radiation.  With each surgery, I could always count on a beautiful bouquet of flowers from my company to arrive at the hospital.  I've already lost six weeks of work in 2009 due to my reconstructive surgeries. I told her not to get ahead of herself and project the worst. Then I gave her the phone numbers of my oncologist, breast surgeon and radiation doctor--just in case.

Reaching out to another person who has been diagnosed with the same disease as you has a soothing effect--for both the person offering help and the person needing help. It's the same dynamics that occur in an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. A person shares their pain with the group, than a person who's been through a similar situation, shares their wisdom on how best to handle the problem.

That's why my breast cancer support group at the Norma Pfriem Breast Cancer Center, in Fairfield Connecticut, became such a safe haven for me. There was always someone there to offer concrete advise on how to handle my angst about my cancer diagnosis. As I mentioned yesterday, it's crucial to surround yourself with support, but do it on multiple levels. Your family can help you at home with meals and cleaning after a surgery. Your best friend can hold your hand during an MRI, like my friend Dawn did.

But they haven't been through breast cancer. So seek people who have been through the disease to give you answers and assurances your friends and family just aren't equipped to give. You'll feel like you're not alone. You'll feel better because as bad as it seems, there are always people that have it worse than you. And that makes your battle all the more easy to handle.

That's all for now,

Monday, September 7, 2009

Surround Yourself With Support

Cancer has a funny way of changing your priorities. It starts when the chemo kicks in. You are simply too debiliated to continue your normal routine. So you have to make choices in order to get through each day. You ask yourself: Do I have enough energy to make dinner and clean the kitchen? Or should I simply order in? Should I make three sales presentations on Friday--three days after chemo--or reschedule some appointments the next week, knowing that after a Wednesday chemo treatment, Friday is the day I crash.

Out of neccessity, I mastered the art of hoarding my energy. And my energy conservation didn't stop with my job responsibilities or maintaining my home. I found out quickly who I could count on for the support I needed and who couldn't step up to the plate. Most of my closest and oldest friends and family were totally there to do what they could. There were even distant cousins and friends of friends who literally came out of the woodwork with there touching cards, calls and gifts. All this outpouring of love and support made me realize that I do matter here on earth. That if I were gone, I would truly be missed. No question, that helped me keep my chin up and carry on the battle.

As far as the friends I realized I couldn't count on, I decided expending energy to maintain a relationship with them was simply not worth the effort. The people that enveloped me in a blanket of love and support were feeding me, the people that weren't, were depleting me. It was that simple.

Suddenly, book titles like Don't Sweat The Small Stuff and Living The Simple Life became the mantras of my life. Now that my cancer treatment is behind me, it has become easier to let things roll off my back--I don't want extraneous things to worry about. I embrace the mundane. What's more, I don't take the important relationships in my life for granted. When it's my turn to give back the love and support to those that gave it to me, you can bet I will be there.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Choose To Be Grateful

Today is a perfect September Sunday. The blue sky spans bright and cloudless. The morning air hints of the chill that is about to come as the month turns from Summer to Autumn. My life is not perfect now--not by a long shot. But when I think of where I was a year ago, I have to feel grateful.

September and particularly Labor Day weekend has always been a bittersweet time for me. I got married September 3, 1983--Labor Day weekend. I got divorced on September 11, 1995.
I think of the day I watched the Twin Towers fall from my penthouse window in Stamford, CT on September 11, 2001. I met my boyfriend, Joe, on September 23, 2007, the first day of Autumn. For me, the month of September has always signified memories of endings or beginnings.

This September is no exception. A week ago, I spent the day with my boyfriend of two years, my dear
Joe-Joe. We had lunch along the Long Island Sound, last Sunday, watching boats sail by. He stood by me throughout my cancer journey. But last Monday morning, he packed his bags and left.

However, he left for a good reason. He has battled hard with alcholism for a long time. Even though he went to rehab last April, he started drinking again two weeks ago. So he felt it was best to move to a sober house and concentrate on himself. Last Friday, he said he wasn't coming back to live with me, but would call me from time to time to tell me how he was doing as he struggled toward recovery.

At first I was angry, mad, How could he have deserted me? But then I realized God had given him to me when I really needed him. I will never forget his unflagging support when I needed it most. Now I'm on my way, I'm fine, but he's not. He has bottomed out and I can't bail him out anymore, I was doing that all summer. It wasn't working for him or me.

I've chosen to be grateful for the time that we had. The future of our relationship is a big question mark. But I honor his decision to do what he must in order to stay sober. He has a lot of work ahead of him. That said, I have no choice but to carry on without him. Sitting here on a beautiful Sunday alone, I can't help but miss him. I must tell myself, whatever will be will be.

Thank you God, for giving me a precious gift, my Joe, during a crucial time in my life. I don't know how I would have made it without him. Please guide him through this trying time and help him on the path toward sobriety. Thy will, not mine, will be done.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Work It Girl!

Once I began to accept my breast cancer prognosis, the next step was accepting the fact that I had to lose my hair. Right after my first chemotherapy treatment, I kept capping my head with both hands, squishing my hair to my scalp as if somehow I could prevent the inevitable.

But just as my chemo nurses predicted, five days after my second chemo treatment, I awoke to see the telltale strands of blonde hair on my pillow case. That was on a Friday. By Sunday, I had to put a wrap kerchief scarf around my head and top it off with a straw fedora, a la Alicia Keys, to keep masses of hair from dropping to the floor.

On Monday morning, I had no choice but to wear a hat to work. Now my hair was flyng off my head with the blowing wind just like a tree shedding its leaves in Autumn. I asked my friend Dawn to come to the house after work and just get rid of it--buzz it off. As soon as the buzzer started shaving off the last vestiges of my platinum blonde hair, I started crying uncontrollably. Then Dawn started crying and my boyfriend Joe-Joe bravely stepped in to finish the job.

After I took a good look at myself bald in the mirror, I promptly put on the wig I had bought weeks earlier and came upstairs with a forced smile. The moment I feared most was now done. And once I crossed that bridge, somehow I felt oddly relieved.

I walked into the office the next morning donning my new blonde-bob wig with my head held high, fully aware of the stares that followed. Everyone was very assuring and supportive. "That wig is so becoming on you! You look great," my colleagues would say. I just lowered my head demurely and said thanks.

Once I got used to having to cover up my head with a wig, a scarf or a hat, I pulled out all my most dramatic earrings out of my jewelry box and started buying big, bold and unusual earrings wherever I found them. I splurged on a pair of big designer sunglasses that I knew were becoming on me. To keep my wig from looking too artifical, I tied beautiful silk scarves around the top of my crown--gypsy style.

What with the dramatic scarves, hats, glasses and earrings all worn at once, I was definitely making a fashion statement. But all those props came in handy as my skin got more pale and my eyebrows and eyelashes started to fall out. One particular morning,, I walked into Dunkin' Donuts and I remember one of the black girls behind the counter exuded: "Lordy you sure are stylin' today! Work it girl!"

"Thanks so much sweetie," I replied. That comment made my day. I had reached back to my days as an executive editor at Accessories magazine and found a bag of tricks to fake prettiness with fashion until I made it through treatment. A couple weeks later, that same girl at Dunkin' Donuts told me one morning at the drive-thru window, "I don't know your name, but I pray for you every night." As I drove away, all I could do was cry. Workin' it got me another person calling on heaven to get me through cancer. Who knew?