Life is a series of lessons

pyramid with life circles (2013_07_03 19_07_39 UTC)The older we get, the more we learn.  Life is a series of lessons, sometimes easy, sometimes hard.

When I was younger, I was a hard knock lesson learner.  I knew better than anyone older than me, and my experiences were going to be different.  (insert laugh)

As I’ve gotten older and hopefully a little wiser, I am learning to let go.  I’m learning to listen to my intuition more and trust my gut. I guess you could say I got tired of beating my head against the proverbial brick wall.

This makes it harder for my circle to comprehend but I trust, as they mature, they will follow suit.

I have learned change can be hard.  However, if we keep an open mind, we soon realize change is inevitable and most of the time, it ends up being what we needed.  For anyone who has read the book, “Who Moved My Cheese?” by the late author Spencer Johnson, a fable about how to cope positively with change, you’ll know what I mean.   WMMC is a fable about four characters who live in a maze and they all love cheese. When the cheese disappears, Scurry and Sniff (two little people) enthusiastically head out into the maze to find new cheese. On the other hand Hem and Haw (mice) feel betrayed and complain. They waste their time and energy hoping the old cheese will return. Haw realizes the old cheese won’t return so he sets out into the maze in search for new cheese. He writes what he learns on the walls hoping that Hem will follow him. Eventually he discovers new cheese and sees that Scurry and Sniff were already there. Cheese is a metaphor for what you want to have in life. It could be a good job, loving relationship, money or health. The very core message of the book is this: things constantly change so we must adapt. The quicker we adapt to a change the more satisfied we’ll be with life.

It was a required read when I was working on a project for the State of California and I quickly learned prior to the end of that contracted project, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, how much this book helped me get through everything I had to do to save my life.  If you haven’t read it, I suggest you do.  It still helps me today.

It has helped me get through all my family issues I’ve had to deal with these last few years.  It has kept me sane and even though the move to CO depressed me, I pushed through it because my “cheese” was my husband whom I love with all my heart.  I was there because that is where he thought he wanted to be until his “cheese” moved! Luckily, we were gnawing on the same piece and when it moved, we both found it in GA!!

My step son’s cheese moved this past weekend and he finds himself now living with his sister.  My only hope is he doesn’t keep gnawing on that cheese when it grows old and moldy.  I hope he keeps his options open and moves through the maze of life following different brands of cheeses. Time will tell.

Life is not only a series of lessons but it’s also a series of changes.  The sooner we learn from our mistakes (life lessons) and the sooner we embrace change, the happier we will ultimately be.  Don’t lie on your death bed filled with regrets, leave this world knowing you did the very best with what God gave you.

It Doesn’t Take Body Parts to be a Woman

Donna: “You think that if you got no uterus and no breasts, you’re still technically a woman?”
Erin: “Sure you are. Yeah, you just…you’re actually a happier woman because you don’t have to worry about maxi-pads and underwire.”

This quote from the Erin Brockovich movie resonated with me to the core.  In 1991, due to female complications, I ended up having a total hysterectomy.  I would tell my girlfriends, “It’s the best thing I ever did for myself.”  But in 2002, when I found a lump in my breast and the doctor’s misdiagnosed me, I ended up having an advanced stage of breast cancer, causing me to have a double mastectomy. As I was being wheeled into the operating room, these words played in my head.

At the age of 47, I was single for the first time in a very long time, an empty-nester, working a job I hated but going to school to start a new career I was excited about. 

It was surprising, once I heard those words, “you have cancer” how nothing else would permeate my mind.  Even though I had been getting mammograms every year from the time I was 40, the outcome was always normal.  How could this be?

Once the shock wore off, I got to work.  I started doing research on my cancer, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma.  I saw the words, “Mammographically occult…”

I remember when I found the small, pea size lump at the 8:00 position on my right breast.  I was doing a breast self-exam (BSE) and when I found the small hard invader, I immediately made an appointment with my primary care doctor.  She felt it too and sent me over to the radiology department to get a mammogram and an ultrasound.  The radiologist, a woman, told me she wasn’t able to feel a lump and asked me to place a lead bb where I “thought” it was. 

After the results came back, she told me it was a fluid filled cyst, come back in a year for a follow up.  That was in April of 2002.  In December of 2002, I felt the lump had gotten bigger.  Now it was the size of a quarter.  I wasn’t worried, after all, it was a fluid filled cyst and probably had more fluid buildup.

By April of 2003, the lump was now the size of a large lime and the skin around it was itchy.  It had been a year so it was time to call the doctor and schedule my follow up.  When I called to make the appointment, I told the scheduler about the lump and how it had gotten bigger.  She immediately found me an appointment for that day.  My primary was on vacation so I had to see a different doctor.  As I sat on the table, wrapped in my paper gown, he came into the room.  He had a kind face and a professional demeanor.  He asked me a few questions regarding my past appointment the year before and then he moved the paper gown to the side and started doing a clinical breast exam.  As he was examining me, he was asking me questions regarding family history and personal habits. He sent me for a mammogram and ultrasound that day.

The same radiologist who had examined me the year before and claimed she couldn’t feel a lump, could now feel the lump.  While she went over my file, I could tell from the look on her face, she wasn’t happy.  As the technician was doing my mammogram, she was extra careful to be sure what she was getting was the entire lump, so much so, I was bruised from the machine squashing my breast so hard.  But the pictures came out clean.  Nothing showed up on the mammogram.  She was just as puzzled as I was.

Next stop was downstairs to get an ultrasound.  And there it was.  A large, black mass that seemed to have fingers coming out of it as if to say, “here I am, come and get me.”  A core needle biopsy the following week confirmed our fears, it was breast cancer. 

Treatment was surgery, aggressive chemo, and radiation.  I opted for a double mastectomy because lobular breast cancer is not detectable with a mammogram.  Nineteen lymphnodes were removed from my right side, and seven had cancer.  My tumor was 7x6x3 cm, stage 3B.  Six rounds of chemo and 60 rounds of radiation and life expectancy was two years.  So much for finding that true love; so much for working that dream job; so much for growing old and seeing grandchildren.

The support of my family and friends was phenomenal.  We cracked jokes, they cleaned my house, they cooked me meals, they kept me company.  They formed a team “I love Lucy” and we walked 60 miles for the cause.

I wrote my first book “One in Eight” and did a workshop in high schools for seven years telling my story to young women so they could become their own health advocates.  Everything I didn’t know then, I taught them now.

This year I will be celebrating 16 years of being cancer free.  I found true love five years ago when I met my husband; I went to school and graduated Cumma sum laude with a BA degree in Creative writing and English (my dream job, to be a writer); and I have several beautiful grandchildren, thanks to my kids and my husband’s kids.

It doesn’t take body parts to be a woman, it takes a fighting spirit, a loving family, and a good heart to be all we can be.  I can honestly say, I am one lucky woman.

Fit (Fat) for Life

 

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Before Breast Cancer age 40

I’ve been obsessing the last 2, no make that 14 years, of my life on my weight.  I don’t mean mildly, I mean severely.  I can just look at food and I gain weight.  I’m sure you are all saying, “yeah right” but once I tell you what I have been doing these last 14 years, maybe there is something to what I’m saying. Continue reading

Fight for Life

 

Twelve years ago almost to the day I received a phone call and heard the three most devastating words a person could receive in their lifetime, “You have cancer”.  Shaking uncontrollably, tears rolling down my cheeks, I feel to my knees and sobbed.  All sorts of questions started popping up in my head like balloons bursting from a pin prick, “How long have I had it? Was that small lump I found 15 months ago in my right breast, cancer after all, even though the doctor said it was nothing? How long do I have to live? How do I tell my parents?”  Not one to sit on a pity pot for long, I started re-tracing the events that led up to this moment.

In December of 2001, while watching a commercial for a breast cancer walk, I realized I had not done a breast self-exam in a while.  That evening, I did a self-exam and found a small, pea size, hard lump on the side of my right breast.  Though I had had soft breast lumps in the past, this one felt different.  The next day I put in a call to my primary care physician and made an appointment.  During my exam, she felt the lump and asked if I had breast cancer in my family.  I went over the list of cancers that my relatives had been afflicted with: breast cancer, ovarian cancer, colon cancer, thyroid cancer, all of whom died too young.  She scheduled a mammogram and ultrasound for the following day.

During my visit to the radiologist, she claimed she could not feel the lump both me and my primary care doctor had felt during my examination.  She asked me to put a lead BB on where I thought the lump was located.  She performed the ultrasound and still claimed she saw nothing.  When she did the mammogram, she was sure I did not have cancer.  She told me it would have shown up on the mammogram.  She patted me on the back and told me to return in one year for a follow-up.  I was relieved it wasn’t cancer.

The next ten months flew by.  I had made new friends in my apartment complex.  We sat at the pool every weekend working on our tans.  During the week though, my stress level was beyond what anyone should have to endure.  My commute to a job I hated was over two hours long each way.  Trying to rush home to get to school in the evenings was taking a toll on me   In other words, life was getting in my way.  I didn’t pay too much attention to the lump in my breast.  Every now and then I would feel for it but it didn’t seem to change in size.

It wasn’t until December of 2002 I realized the lump had grown to the size of a quarter. By April of 2003 the lump was now the size of a large lime.  With the rapid pace of the growth of the cyst, the skin around it became itchy, it felt like I had a hundred mosquito bites in one area.  My ignorance turned into educating myself.  There was definitely something amiss here, and it was time for me to find a different doctor.

Because my insurance was an HMO (horrible medical options), I had to see a doctor within my plan.  I called and requested to see a different doctor.  When the receptionist asked me what my medical issue was, I briefly told her about the small lump that wasn’t so small anymore.  They made the appointment for that day.

Sitting on the papered table with a paper blouse around my torso (opened in the front), the doctor walked in very nonchalant.  He introduced himself and asked me why I was there.  I explained my medical history from the previous year.  He opened my paper blouse and began giving me a clinical breast exam.  When he felt how big the lump was in my breast, he asked, “Do you have breast cancer in your family?” I replied, “Yes”. I went over my family’s medical history.  He then said, “Well, I think we may have something to be concerned about.  I want you to have a mammogram and an ultrasound immediately, today if possible.”

The mammogram showed nothing.  No matter how thorough the technician was, she could not find one sign of the lump in the picture.  The ultrasound showed something much different; a large, black mass with tentacles spreading all through the breast tissue.  A core needle biopsy was scheduled for the following Wednesday.  At this point, I still had not told anyone, not my mother, not any of my girlfriends of what I was going through, but I was very optimistic.  I was young and I had my whole life planned out.  There was no way I had cancer.

It took nine days to get the results of the biopsy.  The news wasn’t good, Invasive Lobular Carcinoma, which meant the cancer was in the lobes of my breast which is not detectable with a mammogram alone.   The phone call from my doctor rocked me to my core.  The initial shock lasted a few hours.  When the word got out, my house started filling up with friends and family and my anxiety seemed to ease a bit.  I wasn’t alone in this fight and several of my girlfriends started pulling information from the internet as to what I needed to do next.

My first step was to find a good, competent surgeon.  Dr. Lomis was a young guy with a wife and two girls.  After examining me, he told me he was going to take good care of me.  We talked about my options, either a total mastectomy or a lumpectomy.  After going over everything at length, my choice was to remove the entire breast (total mastectomy).  The surgery was scheduled for May 21, 2003.

The second step in all of this was to find a knowledgeable oncologist.  Dr. Reyes was a young woman who specialized in breast cancer treatment.  She had no children and referred to her patients are “her kids”.  She was dedicated to her profession and made me a priority.  She told me she was going to treat my cancer very aggressively.  Seventeen days after my first treatment, my hair started falling out.  I decided to shave my head.  I never wore a wig but I did wear beautifully made scarves and would match them to my outfits.  When my eyelashes fell out, I purchased false eyelashes, when my eyebrows went, I colored them in with a nice, brown filler.

The third step was to find a plastic surgeon who had experience with creating breasts from scratch.  Since I had opted for a complete mastectomy, which meant they took the entire breast off down to the chest wall, this surgeon had to be creative in forming a new one.  Dr. Smoot in La Jolla came highly recommended.  My first of four reconstructive surgeries was for them to put in expanders.  Expanders are saline filled sacs that are inserted into a pocket made in the muscle to see if the tissue can be expanded.  Mine would not expand.  The second surgery was to remove them.  The third surgery Dr. Smoot took my back muscle, tunneled it under my arm and created a breast, he inserted a silicone implant to round it all out.  It was during this third surgery when I asked him to remove my other breast.  This procedure is called a skin saving prophylactic mastectomy.  They opened up the breast, took all the tissue inside and replaced it with an implant. My fourth surgery was to create new nipples for both of my new breasts.

This entire experience took a year of my life.    But in that year I educated myself on everything I could about breast cancer.  Two years after my ordeal I was asked by a non-profit organization to be a speaker in high schools, to teach young girls about breast cancer, their risks, and how to be proactive in their health.  Out of these workshops, I wrote and published my book, “One in Eight – A Teens Guide to Understanding Breast Cancer”.  This book is currently being sold all around the world in many different languages.  Today, I am thriving in my survivorship.