Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Angelina's Aunt Dies of Breast Cancer

Angelina Jolie’s Aunt Dies of Breast Cancer

Less than two weeks after Angelina Jolie described her decision to have a double mastectomy to avoid breast cancer in an Op-Ed article in The New York Times, her aunt, Debbie Martin, has died of the disease in Escondido, Calif., The Associated Press reported. She was 61 and died on Sunday.
Ms. Martin was the younger sister of Ms. Jolie’s mother, Marcheline Bertrand, who died of ovarian cancer in 2007. Ms. Jolie wrote in The Times on May 14 that it was her mother’s death and the presence of a defective gene, BRCA1, which increases her risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer, that prompted her to have preventive surgery.
Ron Martin, Ms. Martin’s husband, confirmed to The A.P. that she also had the BRCA1 gene, but was not aware of it until after her 2004 cancer diagnosis. “Had we known, we certainly would have done exactly what Angelina did,” he said.
He added that after learning she had breast cancer his wife had her ovaries removed because, like several other women in her family, she had a high genetic risk for ovarian cancer.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Social Security Disability Benefits and Breast Cancer

Social Security Disability Benefits and Breast Cancer

According to the American Cancer Society, breast cancer is the second most common cancer among women in the United States. That being said, breast cancer affects everyone differently—including men. Depending how advanced an individual’s breast cancer is, will determine the limitations that he or she will face.

Breast cancer and breast cancer treatments can cause serious side effects that may limit an individual’s ability to work and earn a living. As a result, loss of income and lack of health insurance can cause significant financial distress. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer and can no longer work, you may be eligible for Social Security Disability benefits. 

The following information will provide you with a brief overview of the disability benefit program and will help you prepare to begin the application process. 

Social Security Disability Technical Requirements
The Social Security Administration—or SSA—governs two separate programs that offer disability benefits. To be considered eligible for either program, applicants must meet the SSA’s definition of disability. This means that you have a health condition or disability that is expected to keep you from participating in Substantial Gainful Activity (SGA) for at least one year. In 2013, SGA is $1,040 per month. In addition to these basic requirements, each of the two disability programs has their own set of qualifying criteria. 

SSDI- The first program—Social Security Disability Insurance—is funded by income taxes paid by workers all over the country. Therefore, eligibility for this program is determined, in part, by an applicant’s work history and the amount of taxes they’ve paid. To simplify this, the SSA assigns “work credits” to each quarter a worker pays taxes. Then, they require a certain amount of work credits to qualify for SSDI. Learn more about work credits and SSDI, here: http://www.disability-benefits-help.org/glossary/work-credits.

SSI- The second program that offers disability benefits is the Supplemental Security Income program—or SSI. SSI is a needs-based program. This means that, for an applicant to qualify, he or she cannot exceed certain financial limits. SSI does not take work credits into account—therefore this program is a good option for individuals who may not have enough work credits to qualify for SSDI.  Learn more about SSI, here: http://www.disability-benefits-help.org/ssi/qualify-for-ssi.

It is important to note that once an applicant is awarded benefits from either program, they may also become eligible for Medicare or Medicaid. In some cases, applicants may be able to qualify for both SSI and SSDI benefits. 

Social Security Disability Medical Requirements
To gauge the severity of an applicant’s condition, the SSA consults what is referred to as the “blue book”. The blue book is essentially a list of disabling conditions as well as specific qualifying criteria for each. The cancer listings in the SSA’s blue book are all quite similar to one another. If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, and the cancer has spread to other areas of the body, recurs after treatment, or is inflammatory, you will likely be considered eligible under the breast cancer listing. 

If you do not meet these requirements, but your symptoms or treatments make it impossible for you to keep working, you may still be able to qualify for benefits under a medical vocational allowance. Essentially, this means that even though you don’t meet the blue book listing, the SSA recognizes that breast cancer makes it impossible for you to work.  

Compassionate Allowance
Because breast cancer affects everyone differently, the SSA recognizes that individuals with advanced stage breast cancer cannot be expected to wait the standard processing times to receive disability benefits. For this reason, they have added advanced stage breast cancer to the list of compassionate allowances (CAL). 

The CAL program allows individuals with serious conditions to be approved for disability benefits in as little as ten days. The SSA states that if you have stage four breast cancer or if your breast cancer is inoperable, you may qualify for expedited processing through the CAL program. It is important to note that you do not need to fill out additional paperwork to qualify for the compassionate allowance program—the SSA will determine whether or not your condition matches CAL standards and will expedite your claim accordingly. 

Preparing to Apply for Social Security Disability Benefits 
Prior to beginning the application procedures, it is extremely important that you collect medical documentation to support your claim. The SSA will use this documentation to determine whether or not you meet their requirements. Medical documentation should include records of your diagnosis, your treatments, your response to treatments, lab results, hospitalizations, and even personal notes from your doctor. In addition to these records you should also have copies of financial and work related records. 

Once you are ready to begin, you can submit your initial application online or in person at your local Social Security office. It is important to remember that many initial applications are denied. If you find yourself in this situation, do not panic. You are allowed to appeal this decision. 

Keep in mind that Social Security Disability benefits are available to help you. It’s important that you don’t give up—no matter how difficult the process may seem. Once you are awarded benefits you can focus on your health, not your finances.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Evan Handler's Advice For Surviving a Medical Crisis

Blogger's note: As a die-hard Sex & The City fan, I was thrilled to stumble upon Even Handler's (who portrays Charlotte's husband in the series) website recently. Evan is a lymphoma survivor and here follows a poignant piece about what he learned as he navigated through cancer land.

8 Steps to Surviving a Medical Crisis: The Realist's Rendition

MAY 21, 2013

8 Steps to Surviving a Medical Crisis: The Realist's Rendition

In the summer of 1985, when I was twenty-four years old, I think most people would have described me as a "promising" young actor (I'm not sure, and I'm not sure I want to know, how they would have described me as a human being).
I had already been a working professional for most of the past seven years, and had an impressive assortment of leading roles on Broadway and in films under my belt -- enough to be considered "accomplished" in many other arenas.
But "promise" is how we often measure things in this life, and the "promise" of more is what often motivates as we meander (or march, or muddle) our way through.
Then, in mid-September, after a lingering flu led me to various doctors' offices, I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, and told it was "treatable, but not curable."
The statistical and existential whirlpool of data I was suddenly sucked into was not difficult to interpret. It indicated that the future didn't hold much "promise" at all.
I might not expire immediately (though that wasn't out of the question), but the odds of my living to even see thirty had plunged well below twenty-five percent.
I sat on my bed an hour after the diagnosis, and I cried. Not really cried, I sobbed and I screamed. I broke down in a way that I had never seen an adult go before.
I sat in a room, alone, moaning and slobbering for close to an hour. And I had no frame of reference at all. For anything that was happening to me. Everything was supposed to be beginning, not coming to an end.
My girlfriend, Jackie, whom I'd been seeing for a year so far, had just moved into my apartment to live with me. My career seemed like it was really about to take off.
I hadn't yet learned how often a career can seem to be about to take off. Now I know that there are careers in full flight, and those that are constantly threatening to take off.
I was glad that I didn't have one that was firmly earthbound, and I enjoyed my skips and hops up and down the runway, all the while dreaming of orbit.
While understudying in the Broadway production, I had just been offered the plummest role in the national tour of Neil Simon's play Biloxi Blues. I had a deal worked out to go to Israel for ten weeks to make a film with a renowned West German filmmaker.
And I had a meeting scheduled for the following Monday with Warren Beatty, for final casting approval on a movie that he was about to make with Dustin Hoffman. That film eventually turned out to be Ishtar, but it still would have been better than what I was facing.
The horror of sensing that my life was over wasn't something that my mind could grasp. I'm not even sure that a "life," as a separate entity, really exists.
My perception was one of having been robbed, stripped bare, of every possession, liberty, freedom, hope, and dream for the future. The essence of that concept that allows us to soldier on: "promise."
If you added those things up, they somehow equaled my life. That night, I couldn't stop thinking about all the dreams and plans I had that might never be. A home. A wife. Kids. Having a history to look back on. Becoming the person I wanted to become someday.
Anything that I had ever said or thought before that word -- "someday." Gone. Not for me. That was my biggest fear at that moment. The absence of a future for which to endure the present.
I felt as if I had wasted enormous amounts of time in my life, and that I had to have a second chance immediately. But first I had to go into the hospital for a month, or maybe more (or so I thought; the illness wound up consuming significant portions of the next five years).
I couldn't even start my new beginning right away. I was going to be exiled from my history, from my future, from my "promise," from time itself, all in the hope of possibly regaining contact with them.
Time became a concrete entity to me like never before. Never mind being more aware of it, I could've sculpted with it. I could have cooked it and eaten it.
I felt far, far away from everything that made me me, I was homesick already, and if there was a journey that had to be made first, I wanted to start right away and travel fast.
The trip wound up being far more complicated, in far more perverse fashion, than I ever could have anticipated. I discovered that themes that had fascinated and frustrated me in life already -- the ways that the pursuit of excellence is often inhibited by the forces that encourage, and demand, mediocrity -- didn't disappear inside hospitals. Rather, they were refined, and epitomized, there.
I also discovered that I was a "promising" writer, with a range of experiences and insights that could prove useful to others. I used the promise of existing as an inspiration in the future, as a way to inspire myself through a difficult present (which is now, thankfully, in the distant past).
Though it was always my natural inclination, I made conscious decisions to try to avoid what I found to be the overly sentimental and falsely comforting versions of the inspirational stories I'd been told. Along those lines, I can offer my own take on an advice column here to you.
There is no such thing as a perfectly navigated crisis. The best one can hope for, under certain circumstances, is to avoid escalation to full-blown calamity. But there are strategies one can employ to try to maximize the possibility of minimizing damage.
As someone who's wriggled free from a few supposedly inescapable binds myself (healthful, long-term survival of what was then considered to be "incurable" leukemia, and its highly treacherous remedies, in the mid-1980s prominent among them), here are some thoughts I can pass along.
Step 1: Gather information.
Learn everything you can about what you're facing, no matter how frightening that information might be. Yours might not be the worst-case scenario described in what you're reading -- but even if it is you'll be better served for having read it.
Step 2: Gather more information.
You can never have too much. Some of it won't apply to you, and some of it will be worthless. But you can never use information you never found, so you should continue to look.
Step 3: Double and triple check the information you're tempted to start relying on with additional source.
Does it feel like this is getting redundant? If so, print the phrase "Information is Power," and tape it where others have told you to tape affirmations. Put this on top, though, because it's going to be more useful than reading "I Love Myself" every time you look in the mirror. Knowing information is power, believing it, and making use of it will not train you to love yourself. It will be the act of loving yourself.
Step 4 (to be performed simultaneously with Steps 2 and 3): Take a good hard look at your family and friends.
Some of them will prove to be more helpful than you ever could have imagined. Others will become more serious impediments than you're going to want to admit. You must observe, and you must make judgments. Because it's possible you're going to have to choose whom to entrust with crucial tasks, and you do not want to depend too much on anyone in the second group.
Step 5: Hand out assignments.
You are the Commander in Chief of your crisis, like it or not. Even concluding you're too overwhelmed, leaving all decisions to others, is a type of choice (not the best, to my mind, but it is a type). Give careful thought to how you will "delegate authority." Your outcome might depend on the performance of others. Choose well, and you could be in good shape. Choose poorly, and results might suffer. I don't recommend handling everything yourself. That would be self-sabotage. I do suggest you take the lead in choosing who does what, based on your conclusions from Step 4.
Step 6: Tell those whose feelings are hurt by your choices so far that you don't have the energy to take care of them right now.
Sound harsh? Well, you don't have to say it as harshly as I'm saying everything here. Still, it is the message you're going to have to send to someone, at some point. Because someone will let you know they're unhappy. And that shouldn't be your concern. Your concern is surviving to see another day. Reparations come later.
Step 7: Find someone you can talk to about all this.
In all likelihood, this will turn out to be something you should have done sooner -- but there wasn't time. And problems with your team (and there will be problems) might not have revealed themselves clearly yet. So, deal with the complications of the delay, but don't delay any longer. It's possible that someone already close to you might turn out to possess adequate strength and selflessness to help you deal with everyone else, and your crisis, too. If so, consider yourself lucky.
But you should still find an additional advisor. An independent, professional listener, if you can possibly afford it. Because, no matter how saint-like your savior of a friend turns out to be, they're still only human. That doesn't mean they're destined to suddenly pull away -- though they might. Or, they might just collapse from the strain. You're going to have to learn to shelter others from some of your thoughts, frustrations, and fears, and a (good, knowledgeable, and skilled -- and they all aren't) therapist can be a life-saving investment.
Step 8: Jump out of the plane, and hope the parachute opens.
Okay, I'm being metaphorical. But now is the time to make choices, and live or die by them. Believe me: there will be decisions you think you can't possibly make, because none of the choices are very good, and the ramifications are too enormous. But you have prepared. You have done your research.
You have assembled a team. It's time to act. Consider your options. Decide on a plan. Put it into motion. Try to trust that you've maximized your chances for success.
Good luck.
Evan Handler is an actor and author best known from HBO's "Sex and the City," as well as Showtime's current "Californication." Handler has also played significant roles in such films and television shows as "Ransom, ""Taps," "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," "Lost," "The West Wing," and "It's Like, You Know…" Handler's first book,Time On Fire: My Comedy of Terrors, recently reissued as an ebook for the first time (as well as paperback), details his unlikely recovery from the leukemia diagnosed in the mid-1980s. His second book, It's Only Temporary: The Good News and the Bad News of Being Alive, has also been reissued for the first time in both paperback and ebook formats. The book describes the years since the illness, and Handler's surprisingly circuitous journey toward gratitude, using tales of serial dating, absurd relationships, unexpected depressions, and, ultimately, lasting love and a miracle conception. Learn more at EvanHandler.com and follow the author on Facebook andTwitter.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Angelina Jolie's Courageous Choice

As Featured in the Op-Ed section of The New York Times

My Medical Choice

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Readers’ Comments

MY MOTHER fought cancer for almost a decade and died at 56. She held out long enough to meet the first of her grandchildren and to hold them in her arms. But my other children will never have the chance to know her and experience how loving and gracious she was.
We often speak of “Mommy’s mommy,” and I find myself trying to explain the illness that took her away from us. They have asked if the same could happen to me. I have always told them not to worry, but the truth is I carry a “faulty” gene, BRCA1, which sharply increases my risk of developing breast cancer and ovarian cancer.
My doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer, although the risk is different in the case of each woman.
Only a fraction of breast cancers result from an inherited gene mutation. Those with a defect in BRCA1 have a 65 percent risk of getting it, on average.
Once I knew that this was my reality, I decided to be proactive and to minimize the risk as much I could. I made a decision to have a preventive double mastectomy. I started with the breasts, as my risk of breast cancer is higher than my risk of ovarian cancer, and the surgery is more complex.
On April 27, I finished the three months of medical procedures that the mastectomies involved. During that time I have been able to keep this private and to carry on with my work.
But I am writing about it now because I hope that other women can benefit from my experience. Cancer is still a word that strikes fear into people’s hearts, producing a deep sense of powerlessness. But today it is possible to find out through a blood test whether you are highly susceptible to breast and ovarian cancer, and then take action.
My own process began on Feb. 2 with a procedure known as a “nipple delay,” which rules out disease in the breast ducts behind the nipple and draws extra blood flow to the area. This causes some pain and a lot of bruising, but it increases the chance of saving the nipple.
Two weeks later I had the major surgery, where the breast tissue is removed and temporary fillers are put in place. The operation can take eight hours. You wake up with drain tubes and expanders in your breasts. It does feel like a scene out of a science-fiction film. But days after surgery you can be back to a normal life.
Nine weeks later, the final surgery is completed with the reconstruction of the breasts with an implant. There have been many advances in this procedure in the last few years, and the results can be beautiful.
I wanted to write this to tell other women that the decision to have a mastectomy was not easy. But it is one I am very happy that I made. My chances of developing breast cancer have dropped from 87 percent to under 5 percent. I can tell my children that they don’t need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer.
It is reassuring that they see nothing that makes them uncomfortable. They can see my small scars and that’s it. Everything else is just Mommy, the same as she always was. And they know that I love them and will do anything to be with them as long as I can. On a personal note, I do not feel any less of a woman. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity.
I am fortunate to have a partner, Brad Pitt, who is so loving and supportive. So to anyone who has a wife or girlfriend going through this, know that you are a very important part of the transition. Brad was at the Pink Lotus Breast Center, where I was treated, for every minute of the surgeries. We managed to find moments to laugh together. We knew this was the right thing to do for our family and that it would bring us closer. And it has.
For any woman reading this, I hope it helps you to know you have options. I want to encourage every woman, especially if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer, to seek out the information and medical experts who can help you through this aspect of your life, and to make your own informed choices.
I acknowledge that there are many wonderful holistic doctors working on alternatives to surgery. My own regimen will be posted in due course on the Web site of the Pink Lotus Breast Center. I hope that this will be helpful to other women.
Breast cancer alone kills some 458,000 people each year, according to the World Health Organization, mainly in low- and middle-income countries. It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women.
I choose not to keep my story private because there are many women who do not know that they might be living under the shadow of cancer. It is my hope that they, too, will be able to get gene tested, and that if they have a high risk they, too, will know that they have strong options.
Life comes with many challenges. The ones that should not scare us are the ones we can take on and take control of.

Angelina Jolie is an actress and director.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Thank Your Lucky Stars

Yesterday, I participated in Westport, Connecticut's inaugural Komen walk for breast cancer. It was convenient to take part in a Komen event only 20 minutes from home since the only other Komen walk in this state takes place every June in Hartford--an hour away.

This was my fourth Komen walk so I knew the drill. First, there's a survivor's breakfast followed by the survivor Parade of Pink. It was a great milestone to walk with the 5-10 year survival group! After the parade, a guest speaker took the stage. She sported a bald head so we knew what that was all about.  Sheila spoke about getting stage 2 cancer some 10 years ago. She talked about how she did everything she could to maintain a healthy body after her treatment--eating vegan, working out religiously.

Despite her diligent efforts, her breast cancer came back. She is now standing before a death sentence and will have to undergo treatment for the rest of her life. As I stood in the rain under a Parade of Pink poster, I thought about my own diagnosis five years ago--Stage 3 locally advanced breast cancer. Sheila's breast cancer was less advanced than mine and yet there she is. Running the last lap of her battle.

It got me thinking that I should go back to Dr. Fischbach and get an annual check-up. I started wondering if I'm walking around with metatastic breast cancer and I don't even know it. But wait. Sheila said she passed out unconscious when her cancer came back. I haven't had that happen--yet.

Amy, the captain of our team--The Fighting Irish--helped organize the event in honor of her sister, who is also battling stage 4 breast cancer. I introduced myself to Amy's sister and when she asked me if was cancer-free after five years, I was embarrassed to say yes. Like Sheila, her chemotherapy treatments are on-going for the rest of her life.

This disease is unpredictable. Why them and not me? Who knows. I can tell you this much. When I walked in that parade with other women who hit the five-year survival mark, I thanked my lucky stars.

Friday, May 10, 2013

Getting Disability While Undergoing Treatment

I just received this letter that is a great resource to help you get disability while you are under going breast cancer treatment.

Good Afternoon,
I am reaching out to you from Social Security Disability Help—an informational website that works to promote disability awareness and assist those applying for disability benefits. I recently came across your blog and was very impressed by the support and resources you offer to women with breast cancer.

I currently write for the Social Security Disability Help blog and have access to some great information about applying for disability benefits specifically for women who have breast cancer and are in need of financial assistance. I think this material would make a really useful blog post for your specific readership. I’m not sure if you accept guest posts like this, but if you are interested I would be happy to write something up and send it over for you to review.
Please let me know what you think! I look forward to hearing from you.

Molly Clarke
Social Security Disability Help
326 A Street, Suite 1A
Boston, MA 02210
857.366.7629 – Direct
617.800.0089 – Office