I did not miss you.

After my first aggressive chemo treatment, I had crazy heartburn. Antacid wouldn’t touch it and I was in pain so bad that I texted my nurse first thing Saturday morning to see what I could do combat it. Soon after that, I started taking two separate heartburn medications throughout treatment to keep it away. Despite those two medications, I had a lump in my throat for about a week after each treatment. It eventually went away but was rather annoying and made swallowing a bit difficult at times, especially if I took a big gulp of water. Once my aggressive treatment ended, so did my struggles with heartburn and I was super excited to stop taking any medication for it.

A few days ago, I started to have a similar lump in my throat, though it is more painful than before. It isn’t associated with any burning sensation that I would equate to “typical” heartburn, aside from the pain that sometimes feels like it radiates out a bit. I didn’t mention it to my radiation oncologist at first because I didn’t think it was related to radiation therapy and it wasn’t listed as a possible side effect. It’s been really started to bother me, so I decided to ask about it being from radiation.

I initially asked the technicians who treat me daily and they immediately suspected that it was heartburn from the treatment. So after treatment today, I stopped by the nurse’s station where my radiation oncologist is located (right down the hall, which is super convenient!) and after a quick chat, they suggested to try taking the heartburn medication again. If that doesn’t help, I can chat with the doctor some more.

I did not miss you, heartburn.

Hopefully the medications will help but in the meantime I’ll be trying out some of the tips and tricks suggested to help me before. Pickle juice, anyone?

 

Radiation time!

I take back what I said yesterday about the hardest part of the radiation prep process being the removal of the stickers. The hardest part was actually scrubbing off all of that marker. Ouch! I still had faint lines all over my chest when I arrived for radiation today….and then had more drawn! The technicians needed to take more films of my radiation area, particularly around my clavicle today so that’s why there were more lines drawn. Additional lines were also drawn to line up where the technicians would place the bolus, which is used to help radiate more (for me) (google it, it’s so weird looking).

This additional films took a little time; I was moved around and repositioned a bit and then we were ready to start. If I had to guess, the total amount of time that I was actually being radiated was….maybe 3 minutes? I had to hold my breath a total of 5 times, one time for only 3 seconds and the remaining between 17 – 23 seconds based on my counts. The radiation machine moved around my body to align the beams to the area being treated. It’s interesting because when the machine is over my head, I can see the lead parts inside of the machine move. The entire area of the beam is pretty large and is perfectly square, maybe about the size of a 10×10 inch tile. The lead parts (I don’t know what they are actually called) inside move around and form the exact shape that is being radiated on my chest. So I don’t receive the entire square of the radiation beam, just the area that the lead parts form. Neat, huh?

The technicians are in a room off to the side but they can see me through a window & cameras and can also hear me throughout the entire treatment. When they tell me to hold my breath, they can tell whether or not I am breathing in too much or too little based on the way the beams align to the marks on me.

As I laid on the table, receiving my first dose, I thought about how amazing this process is. It doesn’t hurt at all (right now, that will likely change in the coming weeks) and yet I know it is destroying me inside, for the purpose of helping to keep the cancer away. It is such a pretty red light that can do such incredible damage.

Next, I saw the radiation oncologist (who I’ll see every Tuesday throughout this process) and we talked again about the side effects of treatment and what to expect. I asked a lot of questions to help refresh my memory based on the notes that I had taken. I asked if she had a preference of the lotion to use, since there were about 6 listed on the sheet. She suggested a product called Miaderm, which is pricey but works best, mixed with a few drops of Calendula Oil twice a day. Since I am so fair skinned, I can expect to have a pretty decent reaction so I opted to try the better stuff in the hopes of helping alleviate some of the redness / burning. Here’s hoping!

I asked about the fatigue, which shouldn’t be as bad as it was during chemo but she did indicate that people my age tend to feel the fatigue much worse. Let’s hope it isn’t too bad.

After all that fun, I headed to my checkup with the oncologist. I had lots of questions as usual and he helped answer them all. My blood work looks great and he believes (or has no reason not to believe) that once my body is fully healed from all of these treatments, that I will move on and be completely healthy. I can’t express how good it felt to hear that.

So, day one done. Only 29 more to go! Actually, maybe less. I learned today that I will have 25 “normal” rounds of radiation and then 5 “booster” rounds that will target the scar tissue around that area. Scar tissue is where cancer tends to return so she plans to booster the radiation during the last week. However, the entire 5 days may or may not be necessary…it all depends on how my body reacts and the amount of scar tissue. Hopefully I won’t need all 5!

I’m going to attempt to remove this marker again…anyone have a good trick?! The rubbing alcohol and makeup removing wipes are not working wonders yet…

The best day of my life…

Two months ago I woke up and wrote about having a song in my heart. Today, I feel a song in my heart once again. This one not only says that “it’s a great day to be alive” but also this is “the best day of my life” (by American Authors). I have had a handful of best days so far in my young life and today has now been added to that list.

As of last Tuesday, I am officially cancer free.

My anxiety was up a little today when I went to the oncologist for my pathology report. I have been praying hard but fear of the unknown is a scary fear. I mostly worried that the report wouldn’t be finalized yet and I wouldn’t have any answers.

One of the things that I love most about my oncologist is that he genuinely cares about me and my family. When he walked in today, he immediately asked me how I was doing and if this was my first trip out of the house. He was surprised to hear that I made it to the beach on Saturday and commented on how well I’m moving about post-surgery. Then, with a big smile on his face, he looked me in the eyes and said those magical words: You are cancer free.

Cancer free.

Say it with me – cancer free.

One more time now…I am cancer free!

The tears started immediately (and haven’t stopped!), as a huge smile spread across my face (also hasn’t stopped!). I don’t know that I have ever felt such a massive weight be removed before. Joe & I hugged and thanked him. He reminded me to rest up for a while and to not push myself too hard.

We discussed the pathology report in detail. The tumors in my breast (1 large and 4 smaller tumors) were still cancerous and rather large (even larger than the MRI suggested). The chemo treatment did not impact it as much as it typically does for my type of cancer and we aren’t sure why. There were a total of 22 lymph nodes removed and 3 of those were cancerous. BUT! They removed it all.

How do we know it’s all gone? My oncologist explained it like this: When the tumor is removed, a margin of the surrounding tissue (presumably cancer free / healthy tissue) is also removed. Think of the cancer like a tomato, with the surrounding tissue being the skin of the tomato. They want to ensure that the skin of the tomato is not broken. If it isn’t, meaning the margin is clear, then they successfully removed all of the cancer.

And they did. They successfully removed all of my cancer. It’s gone.

So today is an incredible day. The path forward is the same as it was, Herceptin for a year total, radiation begins next month and reconstruction 6 months after radiation ends.

Ya know why else today was awesome? I was able to hug my husband AND Jacob today to celebrate my cancer free news!

I’ll post an update on my recovery tomorrow (hint, I’m still feeling pretty good!) but for now I wanted to share this incredible news with all of you. Your love, support and prayers continues to give me strength and I couldn’t wait to share this excitement with all of you!

Here is our best “CANCER FREE!” face!  (Little man’s molar might be stealing some of the excitement.)

Cancer free!  020816.jpg

 

The lonely Herceptin

It was odd going to treatment today. I didn’t need to bring a bag of fun with me to occupy my time, just a book to read. My appointment was a little later in the day, unlike the usual 745am that we need to be there. I was able to check a few things off my pre-surgery to-do list while trying to drink enough water to hydrate myself in preparation for treatment.

The infusion center was running a little behind today, which I didn’t mind much. One of my fellow warriors, a woman I look up to for her strength, courage and kind heart, was also at the treatment center today for an infusion. It was great to see her and give her a nice big hug while waiting to be called.

Joe was with me today, as he always is. My biggest supporter and the man who gives me strength daily throughout this journey. I don’t know how I ever got so lucky to have him by my side for life.

My blood work looked great, which was good to hear. Thankfully, I was lucky that my blood work remained in the good “low” range throughout the first 6 treatments. I received a little hydration while waiting for the blood work results and then for the pharmacy to fill the Herceptin request. Herceptin is the drug that is blocking the HER2 receptors in my body, therefore prohibiting the cancer from growing.  I will continue to receive it every 3 weeks through September.

I was excited that my Herceptin was given in just 30 minutes today!! The first treatment it was given over 90 minutes and the subsequent 5 treatments it was given over 60 minutes, so I was anticipating the 60 minutes again. The gradual decrease in time is done to ensure my body doesn’t react negatively to the Herceptin. What a difference that 30 minutes made, the time flew by once the Herceptin was started.

I feel pretty good so far. It’s a nice feeling to not be dreading the next few days and how I would feel if it were a full round of treatment. I’m quite tired and took a nap as soon as I arrived at home. I felt a little nauseous but took medicine to help. I’m curious to see if I have any noticeable side effects over the next few days but either way I know it will be easier compared to what I’ve been through so far.

Since today was my first Herceptin only treatment, I thought I’d share a few photos from my last treatment – when I was able to ring the bell. I was blessed to have my husband, my baby sister and my friend by my side that day – not to mention all of the incredible nurses at the infusion center. These pictures are a nice reminder of how far I’ve come on this journey.

Radiation

Today was another day filled with learning new things. Joe & I met with the radiologist oncologist to discuss the ins and outs of radiation. The appointment was lengthy, which we appreciated. The doctor took her time discussing everything related to radiation, helping to answer our questions and we were even able to look into the radiation treatment room. I’m feeling a bit like information-overload from this week but I’m grateful to be at the step where I can learn the details of what’s next. A few things we learned today:

  • Usually when I meet a new doctor, I am asked to share my journey to diagnosis (how the lump was found, what happened when/next, when I was diagnosed, chemo dates, etc). I have all of this pretty much memorized at this point but today the doctor came in and (from memory) told me the story. It was an exact recap of my experience last summer, all the way up to finishing chemo and my future surgery date. She even asked about my son. It was an interesting change of pace to me, having my story shared with me versus me being the person sharing it.
  • I have a follow up visit 6 weeks after surgery. This will be used to chat with the doctor again, have scans done to determine where the radiation beams need to be placed and to have me fitted for my…pillow? I’m not sure what the medical term was but basically I will need to lay still while my head and arms (above my head) lay on a “pillow” that is then vacuum sealed around me. It is used so that I stay in place while I receive the radiation treatment. I could see all of these molds hanging on a rack in the back of the room. Interesting to think that my name will be hanging amongst them in a few weeks.
  • We discussed the side effects of radiation, both immediate and future.
    • Immediate side effects include rash and skin irritation, similar to a sunburn but from photons instead of UVs; a sore throat because the lymph nodes in my clavicle will be treated, which is next to my throat; and fatigue, though it shouldn’t be as severe as it was during the 6 chemo treatments.
    • Short term side effects include a raised breast (this has a decent chance of occurring at 30%). There is also the chance of scar tissue becoming worse over time, resulting in the need for an additional surgery to potential remove the damaged tissue. This would be after reconstruction.
    • Long term side effects include a risk of heart attack, since I will treated on my left (I think the percentage was 1 – 3% chance); future localized cancer in the area treated (this percentage was minimal, around .5% but would occur in 10+ years, if at all).
    • Lymphedema is a side effect of removing my lymph nodes and the chance increases with radiation. Basically, if I injure or cut my left arm/hand, lymphedema may occur. This is basically swelling in the affected area but the risk of lymphedema will never go away. Your lymphatic system is used to move fluid around your body, such as fluid to help heal a wound. The analogy shared today, is that when your lymph nodes are removed, it’s like removing a part of the highway. The fluid needs to find a way out and so it starts using different routes, which may not work as well. When radiation is mixed in, that highway – that already has pieces missing – is completely congested, making it even more difficult to move the fluid out. Manual massage is used to help remove the fluid, if swelling occurs.
  • At the planning session 6 weeks after surgery, I will be tattooed three times. These tattoos are basically tiny dots, one on each side of my body and one in the middle of my chest, which will be used as a starting point for each radiation session to guide the beams (and me) to the right position.
  • I have a list of lotions to use that will help with the skin irritation, all of which are bought over-the-counter. As the irritation worsens, the doctor will provide additional moisturizers.
  • Radiation will be Monday through Friday for 6 weeks. The radiation itself will only be a few minutes long. The prep and post radiation activities take longer than the actual radiation, making my total appointment each day anywhere from 15 – 30 minutes long. I will see the radiologist oncologist once a week as well, which will probably be an additional 15 – 30 minutes that day.
  • During the treatment, I will need to lay completely still. In addition to the standard use of the beams, my treatment will include deep inspiration breath-hold, where I will need to hold my breath for 25 seconds at a time with 20 seconds in between. This will be done a few times as well and will help ensures that my heart is protected from the beams. Guess I better practice my breathing techniques!
  • Oh, and I won’t be radioactive, baby!!

That’s all I can think of for now. I’m off to enjoy a glass of red to celebrate this week being over. Hope you all have a happy, safe and fun weekend!!

A larger version of myself

Four years ago, when my little sister traveled to Florida to participate in the first ever Brown-Hall-Rivers- Thanksgiving-Extravaganza, Joe & I learned that Rachel makes the best fried chicken and mac-n-cheese. Not having ever tried hers, she offered to make it for us. Whoa, it sure was amazing!! With her visiting again, I asked her ahead of time if she would make it for us while here. She gladly agreed – yay!

When first diagnosed, I had a vision of pants falling off of my hips and sunken eyes…basically a scary, sickly version of myself. A version that screamed – I have cancer! The version of myself that I wasn’t expecting, was the one that has a hard time buttoning her pants. I did not anticipate the weight gain.

I figure there are at least two reasons behind this.

  1. It’s no secret that treatment makes me much less mobile than I normally am, which is why one of my goals for this year is to be more active. Treatment is exhausting, especially the two weeks following. As my body recovers, I gain more energy each day but I still find myself exhausted at the end of the day. It’s challenging to find a balance between the things that I want to do and the things I have the energy to do.
  2. I think we all know how much I love food. The 7 – 10 days after treatment, it’s hard to eat. I am so hungry and yet it’s hard to enjoy food because of the food aversions and metallic taste. And why not make up for that deliciousness in between treatments by overcompensating? I literally dream about which foods I want to enjoy once my taste buds are back – and then I indulge in all of that fabulous food the moment that I can!

I am sure there are other factors, such as my body focusing on other (more important) tasks like killing this horrible disease. But either way, I am continuing to find a balance between enjoying food, moving regularly and not exhausting myself in the process. Plus, I don’t want to invest in a new wardrobe to accommodate an expanding waist line.

All that being said….my sister made her famous food tonight for dinner and let’s just say, I might need to rely on the old pregnancy trick of using a rubber band to expand your pants slightly. The chicken was oven-fried and I walked my mile today so that counts, right?

Oh, and Mom’s cooking tomorrow….mmm…

Pumpkins

Behind their yard, my grandparents grew a vegetable garden. My grandfather would plant rows and rows of all types of vegetables and they grew like weeds, thanks to the love and care that he gave them. I’ve never seen such a massive vegetable garden. My grandfather would send home anyone who visited with a basketful of the freshest vegetables. Toward the end of the vegetable season in New York, he would grow pumpkins.

Every year, a few weeks before Halloween, all of the cousins – dozens and dozens! – would venture over to my grandfather’s house and pick out their absolute favorite pumpkin. The one that would be theirs this year. There were dozens upon dozens of pumpkins to choose from; more than enough for everyone. But there was always that one…the one that we each knew was perfect for us because we were able to pick it out ourselves.

I remember running amongst the rows of pumpkins, determined to find the one that I loved the most. Sometimes it was small and round, other times it was fat and heavy. I would move it around in the dirt to see if it had any imperfections. I would try to lift it and it would take all of my might to pick it up – and it wasn’t even done growing yet! Once I was convinced that I found the perfect pumpkin, the one that was just right for me, I would let my grandfather know. He would pull out his pocket knife and carve my name in it. Not too deep, as to pierce through the pumpkin, but just enough for my name to be visible. Over the next few weeks, the fresh carving would start to heal and the pumpkin would continue to grow with it.

When it was time to start carving our pumpkins for Halloween, my sisters and I would return to the vegetable garden. We would run through the pumpkins once again, past the names of all our cousins etched into the bright orange skin, trying to remember exactly where our perfect pumpkin sat. By this time, our names had become a part of the pumpkin. No longer an open wound but instead a brown scar, healed by time.

Today, we cut open one of the pumpkins from our hayride (late, I know). We scooped out all of the seeds and set them out to dry overnight to bake tomorrow. The other pumpkins? They’ll be placed out on the side of the house to decompose, with the hope of growing new pumpkins next year. Perhaps one that is just right for Jacob’s name.