National Cancer Survivors Day

Last week at work, I learned that it was National Donut Day. Despite the conversation, the laughs and the chatter about our favorite donut types, I resisted the urge to eat one. This was hard because….well, despite their sugar-overload and messiness, donuts are awesome. Yet, I couldn’t tell you the last time I ate one. After the conversation ended, I forgot all about this national day.

Today, thanks to social media, I learned it is National Cancer Survivors Day. Thinking back, I don’t recall knowing that there was a national day for this. Perhaps, like National Donut Day, I took part in conversation around it the day of and then forgot about it. Perhaps I didn’t read too much into it because the thought of cancer sucks and it was often hard to talk about. Perhaps I didn’t check social media that day to learn about what day it was. Regardless, today I know. And today it hits home.

It’s been a rough few days. I have been fighting a wicked cold for a while (finally on antibiotics!), I hurt my knee running and have been limping for a week (sigh, I’ve moved on to the elliptical instead) and I had expansion on Friday. Expansion, to put it nicely, sucks. I did another 80 cc and have 2 more expansions of 80 cc each in the next few weeks. I spent Friday and Saturday uncomfortable with muscle spasms and pressure from the expansion (the pressure is there but better today). My plastic surgeon offered to do less over a longer period of time but I’m anxious to be done and move on from this stage.

All of that being said, I’ve been a little grumpy the last few days. I try to remind myself that this phase is almost over. I try to tell myself to enjoy the day despite the discomfort. I try to relax. I try to sleep it off. But it has been getting the better of me. And I hate that. I hate cancer. I hate what it forces people to go through. I hate what it does to our minds and our bodies. I hate the way it makes us feel. I hate the way it questions our mortality. I hate that every decision that is made in life, cancer has a say. I hate that I let my mind wander to these dark places. I hate that it is getting the best of my mind.

So today, as I learned about this National Day, I took a step back. I stopped thinking about the discomfort and the pain and the sickness and I reminded myself of how far I have come. This day last year, I was two months away from learning that I had cancer. This time last year, cancer was winning because I had no idea it was inside of me, secretly growing and prospering. This time last year I was going about life as if tomorrow, the next year and the next decade were all guaranteed to me. This time last year I hadn’t taken ahold of my own future – not just my health but my hopes and dreams, my aspirations, my goals. This time last year I was not a survivor.

Today, I am.

I am a survivor who has both bad days and good.

I am a survivor that tries to see the positive in all aspects of life.

I am a survivor who will not be defined by cancer.

I am a survivor who enjoys the small moments in life.

I am a survivor who does not take time for granted.

I am a survivor that shows herself how strong she is every day.

I am a survivor who has taken hold of her life and the life she wants to live.

I am a survivor who will continue to fight and live and love.

I am a survivor who will not take life for granted.

I am a survivor who beat cancer.

I am a survivor.

So today, on National Cancer Survivors Day, I will say with pride: I am a survivor.

Because I am blessed to be here. I am blessed to have beaten this horrible disease. I am blessed to be a survivor.

A weekend away…

Pink fire truck

When we had the pleasure of meeting Will and the fellow board members for the Gina McReynolds Foundation, they invited us to spend the weekend at their biggest fundraiser of the year – a golf tournament. So this weekend, we did just that – and what an experience it was.

We arrived during a massive downpour on Friday night that caused the outdoor acoustic concert and dinner to be moved inside. The concert and dinner was held for the families they have helped and the volunteers assisting with the event. The room that we stayed in was one of the rooms that were generously donated by sponsors of the event. The moment we arrived at the golf lodge, we were greeted with big smiles and lots of hugs – and that didn’t stop all weekend.

Once checked in and settled, we headed to dinner where we met many of the volunteers and supporters of the organization. Dinner was delicious and we enjoyed listening to Tobacco Road play throughout the evening – the guitar player was even a pink guitar with Team Gina’s name on it! The guitar player promised to play it at all his events going forward too! We sat with another couple that we met upon check in and found out that we had lots in common. Will was right when he said he thought we’d get along great! The evening was lots of fun and left us excited for the following day’s festivities.

Saturday brought lots of sunshine and clouds that were so low to the sky, it felt like you could touch them. We spent the morning checking out the setup…it was incredible. The entire courtyard was transformed to prepare for the dinner and concert after the tournament. The lodge even allowed them to paint the pergola pink with ribbons! The clubhouse was packed with volunteers and all sorts of goodies that were donated for the raffle. Not to mention all of the golf carts that were loaded with donated gift bags for the golfers – over 240 golfers! The three of us got our steps in while we wandered around meeting tons of people and trying to take in all that was happening.

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Eventually naptime came and Jacob slept for a while. Afterwards, we headed back out just in time to hear the band start practicing. We had the amazing opportunity to meet the Tobacco Road band (I was too star struck to think about taking a picture – eek!) and the bass player even let Jacob play with his bass! Jacob was dancing away out in the grass having an absolute ball listening to them while setting up. He also had a ball soon after that playing with the golf balls around the putting area. Little man had a blast with all the different colors and trying to carry them all at once.

After the tournament ended, dinner was served and we had the opportunity to chat with some of the men and women who made the event possible. The amazing sponsors who give their time, money and effort to help make this event – this organization – possible is heartwarming. There was a live auction, a silent auction and a raffle…all made possible from donations.

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Oh, and there was a pink fire truck! Not only was it a pink fire truck but it was a pink fire truck that was signed by survivors! They offered for me to sign it and I couldn’t uncap that marker fast enough. What an honor it was, to write my name on that fire truck stating that I am a survivor.

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Once Tobacco Road Band started playing, Jacob started showing his dance moves again. We sat and listened to them play for hours – they were awesome. Eventually little man was tuckered out and fell asleep while I rocked him outside of our room. The music continued to play and the stars shined brightly in the sky above us. It was beautiful.

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And if that wasn’t enough…we were surprised with a visit from Fred Stokes! He offered to let me try on his Superbowl ring, which I couldn’t pass up. It was huge and gorgeous! Such an incredible feeling to wear that and meet him. He even signed a copy of his book for us and chatted with us for a while. So cool!

Soon after that, we met the owner of Bear Residential Construction, who was the title sponsor for the golf tournament. Aaron is one of the reasons this event is possible and it was an honor to meet him.

The entire weekend was beyond amazing. There were a lot of tears, a lot of laughs and just an overwhelming sense of belonging. These people, they do this out of the pure goodness of their hearts. They genuinely, sincerely care about helping families like mine that are impacted by breast cancer. They opened their arms and their hearts to us and we embraced them.

I think what amazes me most about this weekend is that despite how hard they were working – and they were busting their butts the entire time – they still went out of their way for us. They continued to surprise us with unexpected meetings and opportunities, on top of what was already a fabulous weekend getaway. Everything about this organization, and the people who are a part of it, makes my heart smile.

I am blessed to be a part of the Team Gina family.

A nap a day…

Do you all like naps? Jacob has a tendency to fight them on occasion, especially if there is something much more interesting going on around him. If only he knew how enjoyable a nap actually is! I took a nap today. It wasn’t intentional and I didn’t even realize I needed one. I don’t think I’ve napped since the post-surgery days and that was more of an “I-can’t-keep-my-eyes-open” kinda thing. Today, I sat down in the recliner with the window open to get some things done, notebook by my side and next thing I knew it was hours later. I guess I was tired! It’s been a crazy week filled with appointments and so I guess it finally caught up with me. Dang, it felt good. Daily naps should be required in adulthood too.

Yesterday’s expansion was one of the easier ones that I have experienced. There was a little debate about how much to put in, since I’ve already been expanded to 530 cc. The original intent was at least 600 to allow shrinkage from radiation. I was hesitant to do another 90 cc at one time because of how painful the last increase of 90 cc was. So we decided to do another 60 cc yesterday and I’ll have one final expansion on the left this Monday, where we’ll do another 60 cc. It’ll put me over 600 cc and I should be good for radiation. I’m uncomfortable and a little sore but nothing unbearable. Every day after expansion becomes a little easier.

I chatted a little with the plastic surgeon about reconstruction yesterday. The hope is that my skin will not be affected too badly by radiation and my reconstruction will then be a surgery that involves removing the expanders and inserting implants. This would be the ideal scenario and would have the fastest recovery timeframe. If my skin is damaged by the radiation, then I would likely need a type of flap reconstruction where the skin and tissue from somewhere else on my body would be used in the reconstruction. This would be a more invasive surgery and would be a much longer recovery time.

I’m hoping for the best case scenario but I’m not losing sleep over it. I trust my doctor and know that he will do an incredible job regardless of which surgery is required. Besides, November seems like it’s a long way off…although, I could have said the same thing about March!

 

Wednesday’s blessings

Today I am grateful for:

1. Having enough hair to start shampooing it this week!!!
2.  Not totally dreading expansion today, though I may change my mind afterwards.  😉  This should be the second to last expansion on my left before radiation.  It means a day of focusing on being comfortable and not doing too much, which is something I’m looking forward to after the last few days.
3.  Being able to drop little man off at daycare with Joe this morning before my appointment. I love seeing him play with all of his friends and love on the teachers. Plus, it’s book fair week!!!

Happy Wednesday! What are you grateful for today?

Fiji in Five

Today’s visit to the oncologist’s office was pretty straightforward. I saw the nurse practitioner, who I love just as much as my oncologist. We talked about side effects of the Herceptin, some of the new supplements that I started taking (primrose for hot flashes, turmeric and reversatol for cancer prevention), my progress since surgery, how I’m feeling and my upcoming appointments.

I’ve been having a bit of numbness and tingling in my left hand periodically since surgery so she wrote me a prescription for a lymphedema sleeve, which I would also use for any airline travel. I also need to have a heart echo done, to check on how well my heart is functioning with the Herceptin. They don’t anticipate any changes but it helps to have one done along the way, just like the baseline that I had done in the August.

I asked about what symptoms I need to be mindful of going forward as well. She explained that they will be doing a “blood marker tests” regularly. That test will indicate to the oncologist whether or not there is the potential for the cancer to have returned. If my blood work indicates that there is a potential concern, then I would be sent for scans to check for recurrence. I’ve read about these marker tests and was curious whether or not my cancer center did them. I am a bit relieved that they do. Though I wouldn’t want to worry unnecessarily, I think with my personality it would put my mind at ease a bit. It’s nice to have something else to rely on other than my interpretation of symptoms.

I asked the dreaded question about recurrence, something I pray every day will never happen. Since the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes and am HER2+, I have a higher chance of recurrence than some others, however that increased chance of recurrence is (hopefully) lowered by the aggressive treatment that I am taking. Continuing the Herceptin for a year and having radiation for 6 weeks significantly increases my long term prognosis for the better.

For me, one of the hardest things about having beating cancer is the fear that it returns. When making decisions about the future, I often feel a pang of fear hit my chest and catch my breath. It’s only for a microsecond and I dismiss this fear the best I can, but it looms in the back of my head, awaiting to come out.

That being said, the reality is that none of our futures are known. We don’t know what tomorrow will bring and we can’t guarantee any outcomes in life. So, despite that fact that I have had cancer, I will continue to live and enjoy the life that I am blessed to have. I will not live in fear. If nothing else, cancer has taught me to appreciate all that life has to offer.

My NP told me today that at 5 years cancer free I am considered cured. Cured. How awesome does that word sound when it rolls off your tongue?!

Of course, the moment Joe & I sat in our car to leave I immediately said what anyone else would say after hearing they are cured at the 5 year mark. I told him that we are going to Fiji in five years and to start saving his pennies now.

Who’s in?! #FijiInFive

Nuts, anyone?

I grew up disliking any form of nuts. I’m not entirely sure why, and at one point in my early years I totally loved them, but one day I woke up around the age of 5 and decided that I didn’t like nuts. So I stopped eating them entirely. No peanut butter, no cinnamon roasted almonds, no sundaes with chopped nuts on top. Yuck.

Despite my distaste for nuts, every year at Thanksgiving I helped my Dad make chocolate pecan pie for dessert. It’s a family recipe and people raved about it. They looked forward to it every year and even after I moved to Florida I kept up the tradition. Whenever people would complement the pie, I would smile and politely say thank you…but the truth is, I had never tried it. It was chockful of nuts and therefore not something that I was interested in eating. This amazed my husband for years.

When I was pregnant with little man, all of this changed. I woke up one day and ate a peanut butter granola bar. I stared at the wrapper as I chomped down on the bar, surprised that the salty sweet combination tasted so good. Then I ate another. On the third one, I decided that maybe I do like nuts after all. That Thanksgiving, I decided to try the infamous chocolate pecan pie for myself. I started by taking a bite off of Joe’s plate. Wow, I finally understood what the hype was all about – that pie was good! By the third bite, Joe decided it was best to hand me his plate and go grab his own.

The other day I compared my first post-surgery expansion to an overfull stomach on Thanksgiving. Now imagine that you finished this incredibly wonderful feast and then saw the decadent chocolate pecan pie sitting on the table. You see people grabbing a piece and savoring each bite. Before you know it, the pie is half gone and you can’t even think about eating a piece. But, then you think to yourself, what if there is none left for me?! The panic sets in and you immediately cut yourself a slice. You can’t help but begin eating it right away, deciding that your stomach will just have to find the room. It does, of course, but you are uncomfortable and you can’t decide if it’s better to sit, stand or lay down to relieve the pressure. None of these options help but dang it, that was some good pie.

I had my second post-surgery expansion today. Another 90 cc of saline was added to my left expander. The pressure from the previous expansion has been relatively normal since Sunday night / Monday morning so the pressure from today wasn’t compounded. Although I’m still mostly numb, some of the feeling is coming back. I couldn’t feel the stick of the needle, however I could feel the needle inside of my chest. I could also feel the pressure from the saline as soon as they started to inject it into the expander. I can now feel some slight pain near my skin, towards the center of my chest, which is new this time around. It is a bit more uncomfortable than before but I am glad that I am beginning to get some feeling back, even if it’s only a little.

I go back again on Monday for another expansion. Right now, my left is filled with a total of 380 cc, with 220 cc left to go for a total of 600 cc in time for radiation. The plus side of filling so much each visit is that I should only have to go once next week instead of the twice that was originally thought – yay!

The expander itself is quite hard, similar to a mango that is about to ripen. It has some give since it is fluid filled but not a whole lot. I often find myself reaching with my left arm and having to move my entire body because it’s uncomfortable due to the expander. I mostly notice it when getting dressed or folding laundry. One of my new normal that I am getting used to.

I’m able to do some stretches to help my range of motion but still no lifting above 10 pounds. I can use 2 – 3 pound hand weights to get the strength back in my arms though. That’ll help me prepare for when I can pick little man up again!

That’s all for now…I think I need to go eat something sweet.

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.)

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