Sunday, October 25, 2009

I renovated!

Thanks to a friend who suggested a free blog background site, I now present to you my renovated format! I must admit that I'm pretty impressed with my technologically-challenged self to have figured this out.

I'm flattered by the amount of followers I now have. I thank you all so much for your constant thoughts, prayers and support. It really means the world to me.

Busy week for me...blood work and another PET scan on Wednesday to determine how well the chemo is working to shrink my tumor, and my third round of chemo on Thursday. Hopefully (although I'm not holding my breath) we will be able to finally move into our new home on Friday. Stay tuned...

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My Pretty New Jacket

It's been a busy week getting things ready at the house for our pending move in, which has been great for keeping my mind off of the inevitable. I feel like making appointments is my new part time job--between window treatment measurements and plastic surgery consultations, it's a good thing that I increased my cell phone minutes last month!

I had an appointment today at my new salon for my eyebrows. I'm supposed to lose those, too, so I met with their make-up artist to learn how to draw in my brows. It was nice to be pampered. The only thing that made my day better was my new jacket! Brian and I were at Nordstrom shopping for a birthday gift, and I spotted what just may be the cutest jacket ever. Even though we both agreed earlier that we needed to curb our spending until our credit card closed since we've been buying so much for the house, Brian was kind enough to concede when he saw how happy I was with it.

As I was buying it, the saleswoman said how nicely the cream complemented my dark hair (my wig!) And here it is...

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

My New 'Do

My doctor and the literature both stated that breast cancer chemotherapy drugs cause hair to fall out between days 14 and 21. While I had no reason not to believe them, even at day 13, I wasn’t losing any more hair than normal. When I woke up on that 14th day and showered, I knew my luck had ended. Every time I touched my head after that, more hair would come out.

I had scheduled an appointment with Kathy, my breast cancer guru who also, amazingly enough, is a hair stylist, to cut my hair short to lessen the dramatic impact. She actually made a house call since it was just a couple of days after my second round of chemo, to cut my hair (see, I told you she was awesome!) I was looking forward to my short new hair cut, thinking that I could rock a Halle Berry look for a couple of weeks until it got too patchy and I’d have to let it go. That morning in the shower, I was horrified to feel a huge clump of hair wash down the back of my body as I rinsed my head. I got out of the shower and sobbed in Brian’s arms.

Kathy arrived and started cutting. The more she cut off, the more we both realized that already, in just a few short days, I had lost too much hair and the short hair cut wouldn’t work. She brought out the clippers and buzzed away. Even though it was hard to see my hair go, it was much easier than seeing clumps of it come out every time I touched my head (plus, Brian was relieved not to have to sweep any more hair off of our clothes and the bathroom floor!) After Kathy cut my hair, she fitted my wig, and gave it a nice trim. I really like it a lot…it will be nice to have straight hair for a change without having to go through all of the effort to get it that way.

The worst part of losing my hair is that now I actually look like I’m sick. There’s absolutely no denying now, every single time I look at myself in the mirror, that I have cancer…there’s no denying that I’m in the fight for my life.

He's Finally Home!

It was so hard for me to take Brian to the airport in Hawaii for him to return to the Middle East. Even though I knew I’d see him again very soon, with all the challenges we now faced, I hated letting him go.

His couple of weeks to pack up his stuff turned into a month of him being gone. Because of the end of military fiscal year money, he didn’t get formal authorization to come home until 02 October. It took a week after that arranging to pack out his things and getting a flight back to the US. Finally, on 11 October, almost exactly a month after I left him at the airport in Hawaii, and more than 50 hours of flying, Brian was finally home.

It was amazing to see him and be back in his arms! We were able to enjoy a nice week together before I had my second round of chemo. I was so happy that he made it back while I was feeling good and still had hair.

Round One

I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous for my first round of chemotherapy. While I was anxious to get the party started, the idea of poison coursing my veins and all of the side effects I’d been told of were frankly less than pleasant.

Of course my doctor and the nurses told me what I should expect—how nice of them considering they’ve not had cancer or been through any of it personally! My best source of preparation was from Kathy. Kathy is the daughter of my uncle’s golf buddy in Eastern Washington. She had breast cancer six years ago, so when my uncle told his friend of my situation, she got my phone number and gave me a call. My conversation with her was pivotal. Sure, I had all the support I could want from my family, and a great medical team, but until I actually talked to someone who had been through what I was going through—who got every feeling that I was feeling—I still felt unsure of my journey ahead.

Kathy described the drug concoction to me in detail, and while we were given the same drugs, a lot has changed in six years. Where she had a 24 hour drip of adriamycin, mine lasted only 10 minutes. The anti-nausea medication has improved a lot, too. She warned me that the chemo and the meds would make me feel fatigued, but she also gave me hope, telling me that she worked throughout her treatment, and even went on vacation to Hawaii!

I got to the hospital eager to get started. The whole process was pretty uneventful, and I even felt good enough afterwards to stop by the wig store and pick out my new ‘do. I was really happy with the wig I chose, but not ready to debut it until I actually needed to.

For the next few days, I felt like I had a combination of the flu and a bad hangover. I never got sick, but didn’t feel great. By day five, I was feeling much better…almost completely back to pre-chemo normal. I had enough energy to walk every day. I even did a Making Strides Breast Cancer 5k ten days post treatment!

Madigan…My new home away from home.

While I was on the plane flying to Seattle, my new Medical Oncologist called me a few times and left messages, giving me directions to arrive first thing the next morning to start my check in process at my new hospital—nothing like hitting the ground running!

My mom and I showed up bright and early, and met with my new doctor, got checked into the oncology unit, and had a tour and a brief on the chemotherapy process. I spent the rest of the day making appointments for my upcoming mammogram, PET scan, MRI and port placement surgery, which would all occur on Monday and Tuesday of the following week.

I was nervous about my PET scan…this test is to show if I had cancer anywhere else in my body. Since I had received so much bad news in the past few weeks, I just couldn’t allow myself to even think past my current situation. Metastatic cancer would be an absolutely devastating diagnosis, one that I just didn’t want to consider. My PET scan was Monday morning. I had to follow a carb-free diet for 24 hours leading up to it (no fun when watching the Seahawks game with no beer or chips on Sunday!) It was an interesting process. First, the tech injected my with a radioactive glucose isotope. Then I was required to lie very still in a dark room for an hour for the isotope to work its magic (this was a great nap, by the way!) The idea is that since cancer is a mass of rapidly dividing cells, it needs lots of energy and sucks up the glucose. Once in the scanner, the tumor, and any other cancerous cells in my body, light up nice and bright.

I had told my doctor that I didn’t want the news of the PET scan until I came in for my first chemo appointment on Wednesday. I didn’t need any bad news over the phone. He called Monday night…the PET scan showed no metastases and also revealed limited lymph node involvement! Finally, some GREAT news! I was ecstatic. I celebrated with my parents that night over champagne and oysters. It was a good night, and I knew I was in good hands.

My Family Rocks!

Seriously, they do. As soon as the news of my diagnosis spread, I received lots of thoughtful emails and phone calls with words of encouragement and love. And I’m not just talking about my relatives…I consider my Hawaii friends my family, too.

It was really hard for me taking Brian to the airport after we found out my surgery was cancelled. Knowing that I would need chemo and this was going to be a long road to my recovery, Brian had to head back to the Middle East to begin his check out process so he could be here for me. My mom had planned to come out after Brian left to help get me home, but since the cancelled surgery bumped up Brian’s departure, there was almost a week of overlap with no Brian and no Mom. Enter my amazing friends. I had all kinds of support from my second family (they definitely got more than they bargained for when they agreed to take me in for the summer!) It ended up being a pretty challenging week, as I had to undergo a second biopsy, and also had a horrible allergic reaction to the pneumonia vaccine I needed for my compromised immune system. They didn’t miss a beat, driving me to and from the doctors I had to see, and letting me borrow their car. Amazing, really…a true blessing in my time of need.

When my mom arrived in Hawaii, we were in big time transition mode. I had to rearrange all of my household goods shipments, as well as redirect my car. I had several medical appointments to make sure that my move to Madigan from Tripler would be seamless. Finally, after more than four years in paradise, it was time for me to say goodbye. My mom and I wore matching breast cancer shirts to the airport, courtesy of my sister. I noticed people looking at us, and said so to my mom. Her comment was that they all probably thought it was she, and not I, afflicted with cancer. Funny the way life works.

The flight home to Seattle was uneventful. It felt surreal to be moving back to my roots after 11 years of being gone. It was an absolutely beautiful fall afternoon when we landed…the trees were just starting to change colors, and Mt. Rainier was out in all its glory. I gathered my things and joined everyone in the aisle anxious to disembark the plane and hug my sweet nephew.

As I rounded the corner of the jet way, I was greeted by a sea of pink at the gate. Everyone was clapping and cheering…for ME!!! My family—28 members of it—was standing there at the gate with roses and balloons and t-shirts that said “Erin’s Support Crew.” I felt so incredibly loved. It was the coolest thing ever.

We topped off the night by having a great big family dinner at the Spaghetti Factory. It was awesome to see everyone, talk and laugh. It was great to tell my story, and great for them to hear it. I am on the biggest journey of my life right now, and have all the support in the world to help me. It’s an amazing feeling.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Three Strikes...

The day of my diagnosis was followed by a whirlwind of tests and exams. I was tested for specific breast cancer-causing genetic mutations. I had to have an MRI and talk to a medical oncologist and radiation oncologist. I definitely saw a lot more of the inside of a hospital than I cared to.

I learned a lot, too. I'm a reader, so as soon as I was diagnosed and given a great handbook (Your Breast Cancer Treatment Handbook, by Judy Kneece) I immediately devoured it and learned everything I could about what I was facing. It's definitely not a subject in which I'd choose to be an expert, but I'm a firm believer in being my own advocate.

From what I learned by the doctors and through my reading, I was a good candidate for a simple lumpectomy (breast conserving surgery only removing the tumor and marginal surrounding tissue) since I was right at Stage II (which is early stage breast cancer.) Opting for this surgery would buy me radiation, but that was a small price to pay for me to keep my breast.

And then came the following week...two days before my scheduled lumpectomy, my genetic test results came back. I tested positive for the BRCA-1 mutation. You can read about it on the link I provided, but in layman's terms, this mutation carries an 87% lifetime risk for breast cancer, and 44% lifetime risk for ovarian cancer. It also increases the risk for recurrence of existing cancers. Strike One.

I had an MRI done the same day. I had an appointment with my surgeon the following day, one day before surgery, to discuss the MRI results. Unfortunately, when I went to see the surgeon he didn't have the results and sent me home prepped to arrive at 6:30 the following morning for my surgery. Imagine my surprise devastation when the surgeon called at 8 that night to tell me that my MRI results showed that my tumor was sitting directly against my chest wall, and that he felt even a full mastectomy would not allow him to completely remove it. Strike Two.

Following that phone call was the first time I really, truly cried since my diagnosis. For the first time since this saga started, I felt like absolutely nothing was in my control...I absolutely hated it. I had to dry my tears quickly, cancer needed a new plan of attack, which included neoadjuvant chemotherapy (chemo before surgery) in hopes to shrink the tumor away from my chest wall for safe removal. Since I had planned to have surgery in Hawaii and subsequent treatment after I transferred to Washington, I had to expedite my move to start my chemo as soon as possible.

The Navy was able to get me transferred in less than two weeks (nothing short of amazing!) In that time, I had more tests and appointments to get more information about my cancer. I had to have another biopsy, since my first wasn't conclusive enough for the pathologist to determine my tumor markers. The day before my biopsy, I had flu and pneumonia vaccines for my soon-to-be compromised immune system. I ended up having an allergic reaction to the pneumonia vaccine and developed a nasty deep skin infection of my arm and a really high fever (topped out at 103.5!) all while healing from biopsy #2. Luckily, my mom came at the end of the week to take care of me.

Two days before my transfer, while meeting with a Gynecologic Oncologist to discuss my ovarian cancer risks (nice to be talking about risks of other cancers when I'm fighting a different one right now!) my biopsy results came up. My tumor was triple negative. This fact, combined with my positive BRCA-1 results and my MRI imaging meant that my tumor was Stage IIIB Invasive Ductal Carcinoma--advanced stage breast cancer. Strike Three.

And so the stakes were raised...

Monday, October 5, 2009

Thank God I felt my boobies!

I, like many women, was definitely not a once-a-month breast checker. I’m young, very healthy, have never smoked, and have no breast cancer history in my family.

One lazy weekend morning in March, I randomly felt up my chest. I happened to be laying in bed with my arm over my head…I felt a small lump under my armpit. After carefully feeling around both my boobs to make sure this wasn’t just my typical perky breast tissue, I ran to google breast lumps. I can’t tell you how BAD of an idea that was! Lucky for me, my husband was of sane mind, and told me it was probably nothing, but to see my doctor. I made an appointment, recapped my story to my doctor and let her feel me up. I had just seen her for my annual exam in December, and she didn’t feel any lump during that appointment. She chalked it up to my fibrous breast tissue and hormones…told me to wait it out for a few months and it would probably go away on its own.

I waited. And it didn’t go away. In fact (I thought it might have been my imagination since I touched it a million times a week even though my doctor said only check it once a week!) it seemed that it had even gotten bigger. I went back to the doctor. She measured the lump and compared it to the last results. The lump had grown…it had more than doubled in three months. She referred me to ultrasound, still convinced it was most likely a fibrous cyst and nothing to worry about.

The radiologist confirmed that my lump was a solid mass…I had a tumor growing in my breast, and a biopsy consult was scheduled for the following week. That was some really fun news to break to my husband–literally on the other side of the globe–over Skype. Lucky for me that he got on a plane that night to fly here. I had my biopsy, during which my surgeon told me that he would guess 95% that my lump was a fibroid tumor and nothing to worry about.

The following week, on September 1st, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

I’ve learned more than I ever wanted to do about the c-word in the last 10 days. I know that I have a long, hard journey ahead of me as I fight this. I’m sharing my story because it helps me to get it out, but also in the hopes that it might help make women aware of the importance of feeling your boobies and following up with your doctor. I was incredibly ignorant to this disease; I am hoping I can dissuade others from feeling the same.