Monday, April 14, 2014

Raising Awareness

There's been a rash of silly Facebook statuses recently ranging from $7000 scratchy wins to subbing socks for toilet paper--I finally came to the bottom of the weirdness a few weeks ago when a friend explained to me that it's some sort of breast cancer awareness campaign for 2014. It's been stewing in my mind since that time and my thoughts have only grown as I see more of the culprit statuses. Not to be rude to those of you who have participated in the "campaign," but I have to admit that I'm very put off by the idea; I'm honestly not sure what good it does to raise awareness in that way. I mean, we all know breast cancer exists, right? Do we need reminders from obscure posts? And what does it mean to raise awareness anyway? Is it a way of poking your neighbor and saying, "Hey, don't forget--breast cancer is a disease that a lot of women struggle with." Um...I think we know that--what purpose does that conversation serve? What can we do to really raise awareness for something that costs lives and puts many women through months or years of grueling treatment?

In the course of my cancer journey, I've had a lot of people tell me that I'm too young to be going through this. At first, I appreciated the sympathy, but now it just seems a little odd to me--obviously I'm not too young, because it happened. And it's been a strange and surreal journey with no doctors being able to give me a satisfactory reason for why it happened--I had absolutely no genetic predisposition and none of the typical risk factors beyond a high level of stress. And so here's where the real awareness comes in, friends--any woman currently reading this blog could find herself in my shoes some day. It can happen to any of us. I don't want to freak anyone out by saying that, I just honestly wish that I had known it could happen to me. Because if I had known, then maybe I would have done something about it much sooner. That, my friends, is awareness. And while I don't want to consider myself an expert or an authority on all things breast cancer related, I do want to offer a couple suggestions on how we can be aware and make a real difference.

Perform Self Exams
I hope this section isn't awkward for my readers, because before being diagnosed (and even shortly afterward), I never would have dreamed of discussing something like this in a public forum. Somehow, the shyness leaks out after repeated exams and discussions with a panel of doctors. Anyway--here goes nothing...

Mammograms aren't usually recommended for women under 40, so where does that leave the unfortunate young souls like myself who are still at risk for breast cancer? Well, I want to tell all young women out there that they need to be performing regular breast self-exams. Because you know what? I never did--not once. And maybe many of you are wiser than I was, but perhaps you are similar to me. I vaguely remember a seminar for ten-year-old girls where they talked to us about breasts and menstruation. I think exams were probably mentioned. Of course I thought it was silly and embarrassing and wouldn't have dreamed of doing it. I was increasingly aware of the idea as I got older, but I still dismissed it as unimportant. I mean, what woman in her twenties is thinking about getting breast cancer? Honestly, it's now the biggest regret of my life. If I had been more aware of my breasts, I could likely have saved myself a few months' worth of treatment instead of feeling like an idiot when the doctors discovered a hugely swollen tumor that had been ballooning inside my chest for at least several months. Please catch it early, girls--the full treatment plan that I've been subjected to is not a lot of fun. And I was beyond blessed that the tumor still stayed localized in spite of its size and other characteristics--not everyone will have that same outcome. This disease can kill even young women--don't mess around with it.

Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure
If you aren't already familiar with the Susan G. Komen foundation, it's an organization dedicated to raising real awareness and funding research grants to better understand treatment and prevention of breast cancer. Each year, the foundation has a 5k run/walk that raises a lot of money for their cause. I believe that every state has a race attached to the foundation, and I'd invite you to look up information for your local run and to sign up for it this year. The one in Utah is on May 10th, and you can sign up for $35 right now as well as pledge to raise further funds to benefit breast cancer research. Run it for a friend or a family member who has been affected by breast cancer. Run it for yourself in an attempt to contribute to research that could save you someday. Run it for me, if you really want to. Just know that contributing money to the foundation and participating with people whose lives have been hurt or maybe miraculously helped by breast cancer is something that truly matters. I dearly want to participate in the run myself, but because of where it falls in relation to my last chemo treatment, I'm not sure if I'll be well enough to make it--even walking. So maybe I will be a little selfish and reiterate asking you to run it for me. :)

The Bassett Foundation
Shortly after my diagnosis, my dear cousin created a foundation that he'd been thinking of starting for a number of years. His own father passed away from colon cancer a few years back, and my cousin created the foundation in an effort to help defray the costs associated with cancer treatment. It's not exclusive to breast cancer, as my other two recommendations are, but it's a wonderful foundation that could truly bless many lives. They will also be having a 5k/10k on June 14th for all of the Utah folks. I'm hoping to be well enough to actually participate in this one! Please check out the site for more information on other ways to contribute.

So there it is--my two cents' worth of breast cancer awareness advice. Be aware that it can happen to anyone and be aware that while survival rates for breast cancer are typically quite good, treatment for cancer stinks. Beyond that, once you've had cancer, it has a way of lurking in the background of your life for a number of years--there's no way around it. And whether you're diagnosed at a stage one or a stage four, it's a scary thing to live with. So while I can't save anyone from getting cancer in general, I hope this post generates some ideas on what we can do to really campaign against breast cancer in 2014. There's something out there that can prevent cancer from happening, friends. Let's try to find it.

Monday, April 7, 2014

Travels, Trials, and Everything in Between

I've taken to gardening recently. There's something truly therapeutic about pulling out weeds and clearing last year's dead growth in order to make room for the new little flowers shooting out of the ground. In so many ways, it feels like fighting cancer: getting rid of the bad stuff in order to make way for healthy growth. I've become almost fierce about protecting our regenerating herbs and flowers.

In spite of the ever-improving (although still finicky) weather and the signs of spring everywhere, I've had lots of reasons to withdraw into myself these past months. First, I spent the beginning of February being terrified about my surgery--was I going to wake up in severe pain? Were they going to discover that the cancer was still spreading? How would a mastectomy affect my emotions? I had a lot of questions that no one could really answer, so I just stewed and worried about it until it was all over. Then, once I was well on my way toward recovery, I had another thing to keep me locked up inside myself--we had to make the hard decision to send Roby back to Italy for a little while in order to resolve some visa issues. He left on March 26 and won't be back until May 13. I can't even express how much I dreaded him leaving and how hard it's been now that he's actually gone.

Understandably, I haven't had the heart to write lately. I've been feeling very sorry for myself and struggling to find those fabled silver linings in my life. I'm not done with my treatments yet, and the one thing that was helping me stay happy and grateful--i.e. having Roby with me--isn't even a reality at present. So why did I finally muster the courage to write today? Well, two things happened this weekend that have helped me change my perspective. First, I listened to dozens of awesome and inspiring talks this weekend during our General Conference, and one in particular shook me out of my gloom. President Ucthdorf, with his irrepressible optimism and fabulous German accent encouraged us to choose to be grateful no matter what our circumstances may be. Gratitude, he said, doesn't have to be tied to tangible things--it's a way of life. I cried during the entire 20 minutes of his talk. Then, as if to reinforce the idea of being thankful in all things, I've been reading Corrie ten Boom's The Hiding Place--a remarkable holocaust memoir that I always intended to read and just now managed to borrow from the library. And you know what? If Corrie and Betsie ten Boom can thank God for the fleas jumping around the straw in their extermination camp beds, then I can definitely be grateful for chemo even without my husband by my side. After all, as nasty as the side effects can be, it's ultimately saving my life.

So, enough of the explanations and emotions--how about a little update? Because you know what? There are more awesome things that have happened since I last wrote than most people might expect. :)

In an attempt to get my mind off the impending surgery, we took a road trip down to St. George where we stayed with my uncle and aunt for a few days. It was a brief trip, but we enjoyed some much-needed warmer weather, a trip to a temple that I hadn't visited before, and a fun (though brief--owing to my decreased energy level) hike through some lovely red rocks. It's amazing the difference a small trip can make on your mood. I came back much more prepared to head into the unknown world of major surgery.

A mastectomy can be a pretty scary thought--especially where I'm still just trying to get used to needles and IVs. But you know what? All things considered, it was honestly a breeze. I mean, I hurt a medium amount for several days, I was incredibly tired for weeks, and I've just barely gotten back my full range of motion in my arm, but the pain level was not that bad. Of course, that's actually because I've lost all sensation on the left side of my chest and even under my arm, but if nerve damage means I don't have to feel deep incisional pain, I think I'll take it for now! And as for the emotional impact, because I opted for immediate reconstruction, I don't feel that abnormal. I'm currently equipped with a rather uncomfortable tissue expander (it's something like a hard-edged balloon that they periodically fill with saline) until I can get my implant post-radiation, but it actually doesn't look too weird.

A few days post-surgery--not looking too bad!
And, of course, there was more awesome news that came with the surgery: the pathology report showed that the cancer was almost undetectable! There were only a few "pre-cancer" cells lurking about, which basically means they were individually mutinous cells that hadn't done any recruiting yet. Admittedly, though, I struggled to be excited when we got the news. You see, it doesn't change anything about my treatment plan--I still have to do more chemo and radiation, and while radiation doesn't seem so very dreadful, the thought of doing more chemo was extremely discouraging. Why would I want to put myself through even harder treatment and stronger drugs when I was finally feeling well and my hair was even sprouting in fluffy fuzz all over my head? We prayed about it a lot and even got a second opinion before committing to further treatment, but in the end, we decided that for everyone's peace of mind, it was best to bite the bullet and bring on the chemo.

At this point, I have one treatment behind me and two more to go--and the thing that's getting me through the 12 sick days out of every 21 is the thought that when Roby gets back, chemo will be OVER! Now that is something to be very excited about--the return of all good things at one time! Besides, the positive pathology report means that my chances of complete remission are very good. And you know what? I've had a deep reassurance through all of this that this cancer isn't going to haunt me forever. I've always known that, in spite of the scary initial prognosis, I was going to get through it okay--I still have a lot to accomplish in this life. And if that isn't a silver lining, then I don't know the meaning of the phrase.

Happy in spite of everything!