Hear My Voice: Remembering Us in October

SheilaJohnsonGloverSheila Johnson-Glover blogs about the importance of discussing breast cancer in the African-American community and recognizing people who are living with metastatic breast cancer.

When people hear I have stage IV breast cancer, I wonder if they automatically think I’m going to die. No one has ever said that to me, but I still wonder this sometimes. I am a stage IV breast cancer survivor, and I’m proud to say that, because after 5 years, I’m still striving and thriving. I want people to not immediately think of metastatic disease as a death sentence. I want people to understand I still fight just as hard as people with stage I, II or III breast cancer. And as long as researchers continue to develop new medicines, we still have HOPE.

I was diagnosed with HER2-positive breast cancer in September 2009 while I was still on active duty in the military. When my doctor told me I had stage IV cancer, I asked, “How many stages are there?” She said, “Sheila, you have the top one.” Is stage IV breast cancer really a death sentence? My answer would be NO.

Still, when I found out I had metastatic breast cancer, my first thought was to ask God, “Am I going to die?” As the years passed, there have been so many different targeted therapies that have been approved for treating HER2-positive metastatic breast cancer. The advances in medicine have had a huge impact on my survivorship: I’m currently on Herceptin and Faslodex, and these two medicines have been working amazingly for me. My mother died of stage IV breast cancer in August 2004, and I wish I would have known more about the disease then. I wish she had had the medicines that I’ve been on these past couple of years – maybe she would have lived longer.

I’ve met so many amazing women with metastatic breast cancer and their journeys are truly amazing, as amazing as anyone diagnosed with this disease. However, as an African-American stage IV breast cancer survivor, I haven’t met many other African-American women with this diagnosis. When my mother faced this disease, cancer was not talked about too much in our community. It goes to show that it’s a subject that needs to be addressed and discussed in the African-American community. For African-American women, our mortality rate from breast cancer is much higher than it is for any other races. We need to talk about it. Continue reading

Hear My Voice: The Silver Lining in the Malignancy

Susan RosenSusan Rosen writes about staying positive in spite of her diagnosis with metastatic breast cancer. 

 

When I was diagnosed with stage III breast cancer on August 10, 2010, I never questioned the diagnosis. I never asked, “Why me?” I would deal with the diagnosis and treatment and move forward.

Not this time.

In September 2013, my cancer metastasized to my bones, liver and dura (the outer covering of the brain). After more testing, a primary thyroid cancer was also discovered.

I went through a range of emotions. I was angry, I was mad. How could this happen to me when I took all the right precautions? My oncologist reassured me that I did all I could. It didn’t matter.

When my oncologist delivered my diagnosis, he brought up an image on a computer screen. It was the image of my body, all lit up. He looked sad. 
He said the cancer has spread. He was so sorry. My oncology nurse cried. I cried. My husband looked lost.

We then needed to tell our children. My daughter is 19, and a sophomore in college. My son is 15, and a sophomore in high school. It was not easy telling them last year, as they both adjusted to their freshman years. However, we have been sharing all news, good or bad, with our kids since the beginning of this journey.

Within a few weeks we all adjusted as well as we could to this devastating news. It was time to move forward, and begin treatment. I started chemotherapy right away. I felt weak and tired, but I did not lose my hair! I am now on hormonal therapy and a bone medicine.

I am feeling fine and handling my situation well… most days. I have my moments, especially when I think of my husband and kids.  Continue reading

Surprise

crashRonda Walker Weaver continues her series for the LBBC blog by discussing the three major challenges she faced after being diagnosed with cancer: Rise, Surprise and Adventure. Here she discusses the surprises she faced including a more recent, non-cancer related surprise (photo)…

My life has been filled with surprises – those gifts that show up on my back porch, uninvited, asking to stay. I usually have to choices with surprises – accept in awe and learn, or reject with a whine, “That’s not what I wanted!”

Learning I had cancer came as a huge uninvited surprise. I was in shock for months and in some ways I am still shaking my head in disbelief. Nothing I’ve ever felt – surgeries, pregnancies, or illness could have prepared me for the assault on my body – from cancer. That’s where the surprise came – nothing, nothing prepared me for my treatments and the side-effects. But I quickly stopped my whining and began to see it as a gift filled with surprises – the beautiful surprises that were, still are, a part of my journey. The Surprise is in the Goodness that holds my hand along this journey. The goodness in knowing, and in not knowing -

Knowing I didn’t cause this, and I acted quickly – I am healthy, and my healthy choices made this process more simple than otherwise – no “wish I would have” for me.

Knowing I have insurance. As the bills are still rolling in, we hit our individual out-of-pocket max in one week, I am blessed with healthcare. I give to the roadside panhandlers, and I’ve joked that one day perhaps I’ll stand on the side of the road with a sign that says, “Need boob job,” to see how much money I can make. But medical care is a necessity of life, and I count my blessings.

Knowing I can trust those who are providing my medical care. This has been such a comfort – they have a proven track record, are the kindest folks, they are proactive, and they are happy to work with me and my requests. As well, I have friends who are circling around me to hold me up when I’m falling, to lay beside me when I am alone.

Knowing I have emotional and physical support. I am so blessed to have family and friends and colleagues who care about me – I have so little to give right now, and they are giving so much (two types of soup in the fridge, a loaf of homemade bread, and warm apple cake, e-mails, cards, messages, music, a book).

Knowing Scott (my husband) is devoted to me. Oh he is a good man, he serves me gently, lovingly, patiently. I vacillate between tears of gratitude and tears of frustration and pain, and Scott holds me close. He is my rock. Even with the death of his father during all of this, he stands strong.

Knowing there is a plan – there has to be a gold lining in all of this – and I am hyper-aware that I need to be learning and growing from my experiences, so they are not in vain. While I have counted down my treatment calendar, I have not wished this time away. Writing, as a way to sort things out has been great therapy for me. This really is an “age of miracles and wonder.”

Goodness also comes in the not knowing as well:

Not knowing who or where I’ll be nine months from now, or even tomorrow – that’s part of the adventure and risk I’m willing to take on this journey. It’s part of the surprise – it is the excitement, even in the thick of things.

Not knowing what the plan is – I don’t believe “God must really love you to give you this,” or “God only gives you what you can handle.” Nope, not gonna buy this, there’s too much pain and hatred in this world, and knowing these statements, well, that’s discounting agency, choice, beauty, reality. This is not the God I believe in.

Not knowing has forced me to live in the moment, and this is something I must learn – I must learn it is good to not know.

 ***

A week post radiation my husband and I bought ourselves a post-treatment gift – hybrid bicycles – for road and trail riding. We put them in our pickup and headed to Southern Utah for a week of rest and relaxation and riding. I have fallen into materialistic love with my bike, and I have enjoyed the freedom it allows me, and the knowledge that this exercise is goodness for my mind and spirit. Until . . . two weeks ago I crashed on my bike. My bike flew one way; I flew the other, landing on my left side, elbow first. I am writing this post with one hand. I had emergency surgery to reassemble my elbow. I have stress fractures in my wrist, my hand, and my right foot. I also have some nice bruises! Crashing is the surprise, the goodness comes in the knowing that heck, I’ve had cancer; I’m not going to let a boot and a cast ruin my happiness. But I am going to rest! And no more surprises – right now I prefer “knowing.”

Ronda is 54 years old, she eats right, exercises daily, and there is no history of cancer in her family, yet she was diagnosed with breast cancer on Thursday, Sept. 6, 2012. She teaches folklore and writing at Utah Valley University and works for an online education company, LearningU. She loves reading, listening to music, gardening, walking and riding her bike, traveling, and spending time with her grandchildren, children, and her dear husband – who has been her pillar of strength through her journey. She also writes her own blog called Folklady’s Adventures. Be sure to check back soon for the 3rd installment of her story!

The staff at LBBC would like to wish Ronda a speedy recovery!

For more information about Living Beyond Breast Cancer please visit www.lbbc.org or like us on Facebook.

Give LBBC Your Feedback About Peggy Orenstein’s New York Times Article, “Our Feel-Good War on Cancer”

2012JeanSachsHeadshotVer2WebBy Jean A. Sachs, MSS, MLSP, Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s chief executive officer 

Journalist Peggy Orenstein ignited a debate when she explored the limits of mammography screening and the dangers of overtreatment for breast cancer in her New York Times Magazine article, “Our Feel-Good War on Cancer” (April 25, 2013).

For many in the breast cancer community, Ms. Orenstein’s observations come as no surprise. We know survival rates for women with metastatic disease have not changed, despite the widespread adoption of breast cancer screening. That women with ductal carcinoma in situ, or DCIS, often receive the same treatments as those with invasive disease—along with the related side effects and emotional distress. That more and more women choose prophylactic mastectomy after a diagnosis of DCIS or early-stage disease. And that our sisters with stage IV breast cancer remain silenced, isolated and underserved.

Still, the article introduced thousands of people to the realities of breast cancer today. As we talked about it at the LBBC office, we had many questions. How did this piece impact you and your loved ones? We want to know:

  • What is your perspective?
  • What questions does this article prompt for you?
  • What are your concerns for your health or well-being, based on what you learned?
  • Which issues deserve more discussion?

Based on your feedback, Living Beyond Breast Cancer will design a program to help further discussion. Please post your comments below, and our staff will review them.

What, Me…Cancer??

On Tuesday we introduced first time contributor Sandi Dennis to the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Blog.  Sandi is a long time supporter of LBBC who grew up in Philly and attended Philadelphia High School for Girls (where she is looking forward to her 40th reunion in 2014!). She majored in journalism at Penn State and worked as a TV news reporter in Columbia, South Carolina, prior to attending University of South Carolina Law School. Today she practices FDA/healthcare law, and policy, including work for companies and nonprofits in oncology and patient advocacy.  She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, daughter and a dog named Lulu. Here is part two of her story.

SandyDennis

On that day of the LBBC Yoga on the Steps Fundraiser in DC,  my sneaky triple negative breast cancer in fact was not gone, only as yet undetected.  And that 95% chance of non-recurrence? Well, somebody has to be in that 5%.  So much for my faith in statistics.   In early November 2012, a trip to the dentist and a routine x-ray showed something odd. “You don’t have a history of breast cancer, do you? I had a patient with breast cancer that metastasized to her jaw . .  .”  Well, my jaw dropped open, and then clenched through a roller coaster week of scans of my head, bones and brain (all normal), and a full body pet scan that showed metastases of my breast cancer to four sites—all soft tissue/lymph nodes.  In the world of Stage IV disease, I am very very early . .   . my cancer is virtually in its infancy. And I have every intention of keeping it there.  I am stunting your growth, you little b . .  .d!!

Wrong assumption # 5: stage IV is a death sentence.  I did not know that stage IV could be livable.  I truly thought that—except in rare instances—stage IV patients were down for the count.  I now understand that with current treatment I am likely to live for 20ish years (at which point I’ll be 75, which sounds way far away to me), and with treatment advances that are likely to emerge in the next decade, I’ll likely live longer than that–maybe even to my original target age of 90. (For some reason at age 45, I decided that 90 was a good ending point.)

I have just completed five rounds of chemotherapy, and am nearing the end of treatment.  The chemo was actually less fatiguing and I experienced fewer side effects this time.   I kept my hair, which shallow but true, makes me feel good about myself.  And I really, really don’t look sick at all, unless one notices my port.  I do suddenly have lymphedema in my right arm, a side effect of having fewer/less functional lymph nodes—even though those lymph nodes were removed surgically almost three years ago.  It’s always something.  But most importantly, the chemo is working! After three rounds, a scan showed that all four cancer sites had decreased in size by about 50%.  These numbers I can handle.  Hallelujah!  Thank you higher powers, and thank you drug developers, doctors, nurses, and everyone else that played a role in this.  Cancer, you’re going down.

Granted, I don’t always feel or act so tough.  Having a lifelong chronic disease is a life change that I haven’t quite wrapped my arms around yet. How exactly does one move on with life, and yet live from scan to scan? I feel like my cancer is a stalker that we may have driven away for awhile, but that is lingering nearby and can move back in at anytime.  My lifelong goal will be to keep him away from the good body parts.

In the meantime, I will continue to do the work I feel passionate about; work out, practice yoga, learn to meditate; be a loving mother, wife, sister, aunt, and friend; get pedicures, and buy rockin’ shoes.  Albeit, I will do all of these things as a cancer patient.  It’s not what I wanted or planned on, but it’s what I’ve got. And we don’t always get to choose.

You can continue to follow Sandi’s story by visiting her own blog, Cancer Diva 4 Ever and be sure to visit the LBBC blog for future posts by Sandi!

As we mentioned on Tuesday, LBBC will host its Annual Conference for Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer  Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14 at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.  The conference is designed to address the complex medical, social and emotional challenges that women diagnosed with metastatic disease, their families and their caregivers experience. To learn more about the conference visit lbbc.org.  In addition, on April 17, LBBC and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation will conduct a free webinar at 12:00 p.m. EST.  Also accessible by phone, the webinar’s featured guest is Dr. George W. Sledge Jr. Chief, Division of Oncology, Professor of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine.  During the call, you’ll hear about today’s standard of care in treating breast cancer that tests negative for the estrogen, progesterone and HER2 neu receptors and gain insight on making the treatment decisions that are right for you.  In addition, how to access clinical trials and get an insider’s look at the latest research on the horizon will also be discussed. Register online or call (610) 645-4567.

What, Me . . . .Cancer??

Today, we welcome first time contributor Sandi Dennis to the Living Beyond Breast Cancer Blog.  Sandi is a long time supporter of LBBC who grew up in Philly and attended Philadelphia High School for Girls (where she is looking forward to her 40th reunion in 2014!). She majored in journalism at Penn State and worked as a TV news reporter in Columbia, South Carolina, prior to attending University of South Carolina Law School. Today she practices FDA/healthcare law, and policy, including work for companies and nonprofits in oncology and patient advocacy.  She lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, daughter and a dog named Lulu.  

 

SandyDennis

I know far more about breast cancer than I ever thought I would.  In almost three years, I have gone from knowing a bit more than the average bear (as a healthcare lawyer I have worked with biopharmaceutical companies on treatment advances), to knowing a respectable amount.  And since breast cancer has now become part of my forever, I think I’m heading towards PhD status. Much of what I have learned has altered some of my basic assumptions: of who will be a breast cancer patient (not me, of course), what treatment is involved, what chemotherapy is like, and who will have a recurrence/metastatic disease (again, of course, not me!).

I was wrong on all counts.

First, I couldn’t count on lack of family history, my generally healthy lifestyle and overall excellent health, or regular mammograms and exams.  Cancer thumbed its nose at all of that. In April 2010–while trying to print out my boarding pass for a trip to Mexico and a week of intensive yoga, hiking, and vegetarian meals—I felt a lump just above my right breast.  I was not doing a self-breast exam; I think I was scratching under my arm.  If my Internet connection had been faster, I likely would not have found it.

Second, once I swallowed the “you have breast cancer” news (and bought a fabulous pair of retro-vintage high heeled mary janes in ecru lace with black leather trim), I thought I was just meeting with my surgeon to schedule a surgery date.

photo

(said mary janes)

I went alone, planned to drive to my office afterwards, hopefully in time for a late-morning meeting.  What was the big deal? Just a lumpectomy, I thought, maybe an estrogen-lowering drug . . .  but no, a diagnosis I’d never heard of: “triple negative . .   chemotherapy . .  you will lose your beautiful hair . . . “  I could not swallow those words.  The shoes did not help.  I called my two best friends who came to get me and my car, and stayed with me until my husband could get home.  He proceeded to refinance our mortgage at a lower rate.  I have no recollection of what I did for the rest of that day.

Third, I assumed chemo patients were pale, thin, and sickly, and expected to have my head in the toilet for days. Here, the reality was better than my assumptions. While chemo is no day at the beach, it can be livable and tolerable.  I worked, continued my workouts and yoga, and never felt nauseous, thanks to the advances in treatment of chemo side effects.  I got pedicures, which I once would’ve thought were verboten for chemo patients. I actually gained a bit of weight from steroids, and I never really looked sick, unless someone caught a glimpse of me without one of my wigs on (which did occur in yoga—95 degrees and sweat are not good for wigs!)

Fourth, once I got through surgery, chemo, and radiation, my “beautiful” hair grew back, and I became less fatigued (although fatigue never completely went away), I thought I was home free.  My chance of recurrence was decreasing every year, and at this point was only about 5%.  On October 14, 2012–exactly 2 1/2 years out AND my 56 1/2 year birthday– I proudly participated in LBBC’s Yoga on the Steps fundraiser in DC,  and was the top individual fundraiser.  (Yay me, and yay, my generous, thoughtful friends and family!) I was called up to the stage and given the microphone & announced that I was cancer-free, exactly halfway through my five year milestone. Yay me, yay science and medicine, yay life!

Wrong again, Mary Lou.

You’ll find the second half of Sandi’s first LBBC blog story on Thursday.  In the meantime, you can learn more about Sandi by visiting her own blog, Cancer Diva 4 Ever.

LBBC will host its Annual Conference for Women Living with Metastatic Breast Cancer  Saturday, April 13 and Sunday, April 14 at the Loews Philadelphia Hotel.  The conference is designed to address the complex medical, social and emotional challenges that women diagnosed with metastatic disease, their families and their caregivers experience. To learn more about the conference visit lbbc.org.  In addition, on April 17, LBBC and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation will conduct a free webinar at 12:00 p.m. EST.  Also accessible by phone, the webinar’s featured guest is Dr. George W. Sledge Jr. Chief, Division of Oncology, Professor of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine.  During the call, you’ll hear about today’s standard of care in treating breast cancer that tests negative for the estrogen, progesterone and HER2 neu receptors and gain insight on making the treatment decisions that are right for you.  In addition, how to access clinical trials and get an insider’s look at the latest research on the horizon will also be discussed. Register online or call (610) 645-4567.

“Yes darlin’, – it does.”

crop3
                                       

If we followed format, this is where we’d introduce you to LBBC’s newest blogger, Laura Renegar, with a few polite lines that could never  do justice to this amazingly talented and funny lady.  We’re still laughing over this offering of honesty:

When I had expanders in my chest they kind of formed a shelf below my collar bone. When I was sick and in bed and would eat propped up, I would CONSTANTLY have toast crumbs or Oreo crumbs on that “shelf” on my chest. Once I found a whole chocolate chip sitting there and once I found a piece of turkey. There are funny moments during expansion and reconstruction. 

Here is the first of a planned series of blogs where Laura will share her experiences as a woman diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer.

On March 1, 2011, I received the call that every woman dreads. I was at work, sitting at my desk, holding my cell phone that showed the name of my OB/GYN calling. My mind debated about not answering the phone, but quickly considered the possibility that this phone call could be good news. When I answered that call, my life, and the life of my family and friends would be forever changed. “You have breast cancer” my doctor said, “I am sorry.” We talked for a few minutes as I sat numbly at my desk writing the name and number of the surgeon he suggested on a small piece of scrap paper.

A few days later my husband and I met my surgeon and his nurse. Right in the beginning of the appointment the doctor said “can I joke with you?” Are you kidding me? This was my kind of doctor! Not only did I want him to be able to joke with me, I needed him to be able to joke with me. No matter how serious breast cancer can be, I needed my medical team to be brutally honest, caring, and compassionate yet able to lighten some of the moments with a joke or some laughter.

My surgeon recommended genetic testing and I agreed to see a genetic counselor for my BRCA test. I had the blood test and genetic counseling and the waiting began. One week became two weeks. My insurance company was negotiating with the genetic testing company about my coverage for this $3,400 blood test. Two weeks! My surgeon scheduled my lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy because he couldn’t allow my cancer to continue to grow and spread while waiting for the insurance company to make a decision. At this point I began to realize that my cancer was most likely aggressive. I was told that my cancer would be staged, and further diagnosed, when the tumor was removed during the lumpectomy. I felt lost and left somewhat in the dark. Every day seemed as if we were hurrying up for a test or an appointment and then we were waiting. I felt like we were always waiting for a call, an answer, or a test result. I felt immediate relief the night of the lumpectomy and sentinel node biopsy surgery, knowing that my cancer had been removed. I was very happy to have the surgery behind me, but little did I know that my real roller coaster ride was just beginning.

Two days after my surgery I got a phone call from the genetics counselor. Once again, a phone call that I was hoping was going to deliver good news – but I heard hard news instead. The phone call began with “I am sorry to tell you this, two days after your surgery, but your BRCA test came back positive yesterday.” What? The BRCA2 gene mutation put a whole different spin on my diagnosis. Now I felt as if I was at the bottom of the roller coaster loop and I began researching. My odds of getting breast cancer were obviously 100% (since I already had it) and the test showed my odds of getting ovarian cancer were over 50%. But what does this test say, and prove, about my chance of recurrence? I was recuperating from the surgery yet my mind and heart were nagged by this BRCA test result and worrying already about a recurrence. Five more days passed and we still had not gotten news on my pathology report from my lumpectomy. No news is good news right? Eight days after my lumpectomy, I was at work, and my phone rang; it was my surgeon’s nurse. No news was good news! My lymph nodes were negative for cancer and he was able to get clear margins. I am ecstatic, we are all celebrating and dancing around, and now I feel like I am on one of the upper tracks of my roller coaster ride.

Clear margins AND clean lymph nodes? How blessed am I? I am on the top of the world!

The next day I receive another phone call, this time it is with the result of my her2 neu test. I was still riding high on the lack of cancerous activity in my lymph nodes and the fact that he was able to get clear margins. My surgeon stated that my her2 neu test came back negative. I got very quiet and said to my surgeon, “this means I am triple negative, doesn’t it?”

He paused on the other end of the phone and said “Yes darlin’, – it does.”

On April 17, LBBC and the Triple Negative Breast Cancer Foundation will host a free webinar at 12:00 p.m. EST.  Also accessible by phone, the webinar’s featured guest is Dr. George W. Sledge Jr. Chief, Division of Oncology, Professor of Medicine, Stanford University School of Medicine. During the call, you’ll hear about today’s standard of care in treating breast cancer that tests negative for the estrogen, progesterone and HER2 neu receptors and gain insight on making the treatment decisions that are right for you.  In addition, how to access clinical trials and get an insider’s look at the latest research on the horizon will also be discussed. Register online or call (610) 645-4567.

In addition, you can order a free copy of LBBC’s Guide to Understanding Triple-Negative Breast Cancer,  that offers helpful information, whether you have just been diagnosed or you are moving forward after treatment.

Be sure to check out Laura’s blogtoo!