Hello.

We’ve set up this blog to help family and friends learn about, and keep up with, Jen’s fight with breast cancer. We also wanted a space to document and track everything for ourselves. If this is the first time you’ve visited this site, we know it might be overwhelming. We’re overwhelmed, too! But most of all, we’re grateful that you’re interested in learning more, and might join us on this journey. Read more about this blog.

Subtlety

kaiserTomorrow I have my second appointment with my oncologist, post-diagnosis. In the meantime, I’ve had a battery of tests, including a bone biopsy (to confirm that this is the same cancer as before) and a brain scan, which is both troubling and fascinating.

Apparently, the full-body bone scan revealed an abnormality on my skull. I’m not a doctor and don’t know if whatever is going on in my skull can make its way into my brain, but I guess that’s one thing we’ll find out tomorrow.

My oncologist has a few things to learn about subtlety.

I like my oncologist; he is honest and forthright and I appreciate that in a doctor. But on our last visit, he prefaced his remarks by saying, “I have been dreading this appointment.” He went on to tell us (mostly) good news, but what can one expect to hear when one’s doctor is dreading a meeting? He then showed us the pictures from the full-body bone scan and again, oddly, stated, “I was hoping I could avoid showing you these.”

The pictures, I admit, were alarming. To my untrained eye, they looked like those of a severely ill old person. Several vertibrae were dark, as was my hip bone, and a chunk of my head, places where there was a lot of bone death and growth, indicating a fierce battle with cancer cells. They went a long way toward explaining why I’d been feeling so lousy. He expressed surprise that I hadn’t been in more pain than I was.

My drug regimen now includes Tamoxifen (again), and I have to say, it’s reduced the pain quite a bit. I hardly need the gigantic bottle of painkiller my oncologist prescribed for me. Some days, I wake up and it takes me a bit to remember that I have this problem. Most of the time, I can just go about my day and not think about it too much.

Days like today, though, when an appointment is imminent, I fall into an emotion that I can’t describe and can’t pull myself out of. Oncology visits bring knowledge and a plan, but they’re also milestones that change everything.

College

ed-enoMy daughter just started college. She is attending school at a campus about forty-five minutes away from us by plane. Facing this new cancer challenge while she’s away reminded me of something that happened in my life before.

Just after I earned my Associate’s degree, I decided to move here to get a degree in Marine Science. I got into UH-Hilo, the school our daughter is attending now, and was packing my things and making plans when one day my dad came home, walked through the front door, and said, “The xray showed a spot on my lung.”

Coming to Hawaii was suddenly out of the question. There was no way that I could leave. I told my parents that I would take a year off from school and try to find a four-year school closer to home.

They were having none of that.

Dad did not have lung cancer; in fact, he was perfectly healthy and lived another twenty-three years. I moved here, meanwhile, grateful to still have my dad in my life, and never took for granted that one day, he wouldn’t be around anymore.

So it seems like some kind of practical joke that the Big C reared its ugly head just as Katie was about to leave. Life is full of moments like that.


Tomorrow I get my routine yearly mammogram. My oophorectomy has also been scheduled. When I was on the phone with the nurse yesterday, they told me that I’d need a phone appointment with the anesthesiologist first.

That frightened me a little. The OB made the procedure seem so simple, like they could do it with a minimal amount of medication, but I guess it’s all the way under after all.

Tests

socksThe last round of tests have been strange. My periods resumed just after my diagnosis, which worried my oncologist. He referred me to an OB/GYN for some tests as well as my annual exam, which was overdue.

I went into the office thinking I would get a confirmed date for my oophorectomy, but was told instead that they needed a tissue sample, which would be “crampy”.

I think male OB/GYNs are the masters of the understatement. Not being owners of the parts involved, perhaps they are less in tune with the way some things feel. So they basically took some tweezers and pinched off part of my uterus. This, he explained, was to rule out any chance that the cancer has migrated into my uterus. This procedure was the second most painful thing I’ve ever experienced. It almost ruined my day.

On the other hand, I was dreading my bone biopsy, which was accomplished very quickly. I didn’t feel a thing. It was very unlike my breast biopsy in 2012.

Afterward, Ryan and I went to Aiea Bowl. I had my very first oxtail soup. It made up for the uterus nightmare.

I wish I was getting a more accurate picture of what’s going on. I’ve been examined head to toe and inside out, and nobody has told me what they’ve found. I don’t know how much I should be worrying and I’m starting to feel optimistic.

This could be a problem. It’s when I get optimistic that things happen.

Work

city-mill-at-nightWhen I was diagnosed in 2012, I had been a stay-at-home mother for many years. This time around, I’ve been employed at the same company for almost three years.

My situation is not one I discuss with many people at work. I have a few friends to whom I confide about my health and I am keeping all of my supervisors up to date. I don’t like sharing things like this. This diagnosis, though, has been harder to keep quiet about.

For almost a year, I had been a sales associate, which involves crazy amounts of heavy lifting and walking and climbing. Becoming a sales associate was a physically demanding change, so much so that I knew I couldn’t continue to perform these duties given my recent challenges. I went back to being a cashier. My coworkers have questions about this. I don’t know what to tell them.

I don’t want to be That Lady With Cancer. My reluctance to discuss the change in my job description stems from sheer vanity. I don’t want them to think of me as some sick person. I’m still me. I’m still showing up to work and doing the things I’m supposed to do. I’m embarrassed that I’ve had to ask to be let out of a promotion I begged for. The idea of my coworkers being afraid to talk to me is even more embarrassing.


The tamoxifen doesn’t seem to have the same side effects I noticed at first. In fact, I feel a little better. I wish I had just stayed with it. I’m not having trouble functioning. With my job, I feel a sense of purpose, I guess, that mitigates the mushy-brain feeling.

Next up, I schedule my oophorectomy.

I heard from a high school friend recently

IMG_1556I heard from a high school friend recently. She wrote to me to tell me that she’d recently been diagnosed with breast cancer.

Shw went on to tell me that she’d been following my cancer blog, which had been sorely neglected. I kept meaning to update. I wanted to make time to write and tell everyone that I had completed treatment and was in good health. My husband urged me to post a small entry, at the very least.

I wrote in an early entry that if my blog helped one person, it would have made me happy. It did help my friend, who was diagnosed after she discovered that her symptoms were similar to mine. I’d saved her life, she said.

I’ve been spending a lot of time this week wondering why this is happening. As a recovering Catholic, I am quite familar with the concepts of guilt and retribution, and as illogical as it sounds, I guess some small part of me still thinks I’d caused this to happen, that I’d brought it on myself.

It turns out that breast cancer metastasizes into bone cancer more often than one might think. It’s not a rare occurrence. I didn’t know this. I didn’t know that cancer like mine can be treated as a chronic condition and controlled. I didn’t know these things, despite the reading and research I’d done. I suppose I thought that I was done with the whole experience. I am not, so I will continue to share what I learn at this particular rodeo. Science is discovering new things about cancer every day.

During the past three weeks, I’ve had an X-ray, CT scan, a bone scan, an MRI, a bone biopsy and an annual pelvic exam that was only slightly less awful than a root canal. Later this month, I will have my ovaries removed. The focus of my treatment at this stage is to completely remove all sources of estrogen from my body. I am told that the ovary removal process is a very simple outpatient procedure. I’ll be in and out of the office in a couple of hours.

While this is happening, my daughter is starting her freshman year of college. This round of the battle, coupled with the ache of missing her, is exhausting me. My faith in her to put her head down and get through her studies is what keeps me going. I am also still working at my part-time job, where they have been wonderful at making concessions for me and trying to help in any way they can.

So many people have been where I am now. I wish I knew how to get through like they have.

Season 2, Episode 1

The first time, cancer was scary because we had no idea what was coming. This time, it’s scary because we do.

Last week, Facebook surfaced this photo from four years ago. Happy memories, it turns out.

Last week, Facebook surfaced this photo from four years ago. It sparked surprisingly happy memories.

It’s been four years since Jen was diagnosed with breast cancer. She beat it back with a mastectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation, plus a long recovery that included suddenly curly hair and unexpectedly messy (but ultimately successful) reconstructive surgery.

It was very, very hard. I know it was, though looking back now, it’s hazy and hard to remember everything. I know it tested us, and even broke her, and me, a few times.

But we made it through. Our kids made it through. And these last four years have been some of the best years. Continue reading

The good news

I’m a working mother. I’m a cancer survivor.

I was warned by doctors and fellow survivors of a condition called “chemo brain”. More than any other possible side effect — more than hair loss, more than nausea, more than the thought of death itself — loss of my cognitive function scared me. I read that the effects of chemotherapy on the body and the mind can last for years after treatment. Hair grows back, I reasoned. When one’s mind is gone, is it gone forever?, I wondered.

11376233_821644431260761_2003051089_nThe bad news is that maybe it’s true. Perhaps one does not ever truly recover from the effects of chemo and radiation. Maybe western cancer treatment is hopelessly outdated at best and barbaric at worst. I have good days and I have not-so-good days, three years after treatment ended for me. I have a little less stamina; I’m sometimes not as able to focus as I once was.

The good news is that it doesn’t matter to me.

Cancer was a terrible experience. I would not wish cancer on anybody. As traumatic as it was, however, it taught me a few things. It taught me how to be compassionate; it taught me the meaning of love. It taught me to let go.

At one point, I realized that I’m still alive. I’d beaten the odds. My cancer hadn’t spread past my lymph nodes and I had a very good chance of living to be an old woman. I also realized that life is short and very fragile.

I have spent a very good part of my life worrying. I am a worrier by nature. I used to cope with everyday life by worrying about minor details. I still find myself stressing about things that are beyond my control. I’ve learned to control it, though. I’ve gone to therapy. I’ve learned that after the first degree burn on my chest that I got during radiation, nothing hurts. I’ve learned that I used my intuition and my brain to figure out that something was wrong before it was too late. I’ve learned what love is. All those things combined have brought me to a more peaceful place.

Originally posted on Medium.