Hear My Voice: Getting the Support You Need as a Young Mom With Metastatic Breast Cancer

photo-1terriYoung mothers living with metastatic breast cancer face unique hurdles and uncertainty. Terri da Silva provides insight on these issues and shares resources and tips for supporting your family while living with this diagnosis. 

Living with breast cancer is tough. It’s especially difficult when you’re a young woman trying to navigate your way through adulthood, building a career, starting a family, and then you find out you have metastatic breast cancer. The kind that rarely goes away. The kind that requires lifelong treatment. The kind that is terminal.

I was diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer in 2011 at the age of 37 when my daughter was only 2 years old. I had no previous breast cancer scares. No family history. I was otherwise healthy. Suddenly my life was flipped upside down.

Young moms with metastatic breast cancer face a unique set of hurdles. Unlike most breast cancer patients whose treatment has a prescribed end date, those of us with stage IV metastatic disease live our lives going from one treatment to the next. Praying the treatments will slow down or stop the progression of our disease long enough so we can see our kids learn how to ride a bike, go on their first date, graduate from school. Praying the side effects from our treatment won’t cause us to miss soccer games and parent-teacher nights. Praying our loved ones won’t tire of supporting us year after year after year. Praying for the strength to make the most of each day we are still here. Continue reading

Our New Vision and Mission

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This morning, Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s CEO Jean Sachs released the following message to our friends and supporters:

Dear Friends:

All of us at Living Beyond Breast Cancer are excited to share our new vision and mission statements with you:

Our new vision

A world where no one impacted by breast cancer feels uninformed or alone.

Our new mission

To connect people with trusted breast cancer information and a community of support.

These new statements were developed with the help of over 1,200 of you who responded to a survey we sent out earlier this year. Your input was used in a day-long retreat with members of the board of directors and staff. We learned what LBBC services are valued most and why so many have come to depend on our educational programs and services that allow for connection to others diagnosed with breast cancer.

For me, these new statements say with clarity what we strive to do every day and what we hope to achieve over time. Yesterday, I spoke with a long-time friend who had just been diagnosed with breast cancer.  She was overwhelmed, scared and shocked. Our conversation and the resources I was able to put in her hands grounded her and provided her with enough comfort and confidence to take the next step.

This is what LBBC does every day, and it is exactly what the new vision and mission statements express.

I hope you share my enthusiasm and, as always, if you have comments I would love to hear from you.

Warmly,

Jean 

Jean A. Sachs, MSS, MLSP

Chief Executive Officer

LBBC

Blessings In Disguise

LBBC would like to introduce multi-award-winning author Helen Brown as our newest blog contributor! Helen has written two novels since her breast cancer diagnosis and her latest, ‘Cats & Daughters’, will be reviewed by a regular LBBC blog contributor in the coming weeks so stop by soon for what we’re sure will be an excellent review!

Helen Brown-photo credit James Braund - SM

The best part of my life began with breast cancer.

I wouldn’t have believed that nearly five years ago when I had the mastectomy. But looking back I can honestly say the years since that traumatic event have brought more happiness and success than any other period of my adult life.

I was part way through writing my memoir Cleo when a routine mammogram revealed a large growth.

When the doctor diagnosed ductal cancer I told her I was too busy to be sick. I was writing a book about our black cat Cleo and how she’d helped our family recover from the loss of our nine year-old son in 1983.

Cleo had died a couple of years earlier at the age of 23 and a half. I wanted to honor her and give hope to other parents who’d lost children. Even though I couldn’t find a publisher and agents scattered on approach, this book needed writing.

While I was recovering after surgery, I crept back to the computer and completed the manuscript. Then to my delight, an Australian publisher sent a contract.

When an editor sent 15 pages of suggested changes, my heart sank. Still, cancer wasn’t far from my mind. If this was to be my last book it had to be my best.

I was astonished when Cleo was published in the US and became a New York Times best seller. It’s now published in more than 16 languages and a movie’s in development. I still sometimes have to pinch myself.

With Cleo’s success I received countless emails asking for a sequel. As it turned out there was plenty more to write about for my new book, Cats and Daughters.

Not long after the mastectomy, a rambunctious Siamese burst in on our lives. Galloping through the house, smashing vases, shredding the stair carpet, he drove me nuts. Jonah also made me laugh till my stitches hurt.

Our new cat’s rebellious spirit was mirrored in our elder daughter, Lydia. At the age of 23, after a brilliant academic career, she rejected Western society – and, I thought, her mother. To my horror, she shaved her head and flew to war-torn Sri Lanka to become a Buddhist nun.

It took a while to realize Lydia hadn’t abandoned me. She was simply redefining our relationship, insisting I pull back and allow her freedom. These days we’re very close.

Likewise, it wasn’t till I learned to relax about some of Jonah’s outrageous behavior that life with him became easier.

At an age I thought I’d be tending roses I’m traveling the world meeting publishers, readers and media. Emails roll in from Russia, Italy, Brazil.

If it hadn’t been for breast cancer and the determination it brought to make the most of life I doubt any of this would’ve happened.

Breast cancer made me take risks. I stopped putting things off and stretched my abilities to the limit.

With a good prognosis now, I savor beauty in every moment, open my heart to strangers and never leave a loving thought unsaid.

For these reasons I’m deeply grateful.

***

Helen Brown was born and brought up in New Zealand, where she first worked as a journalist, TV presenter, and scriptwriter. A multi-award-winning columnist, Helen now lives in Melbourne, Australia, with her family and feline. Cleo, her first novel, rose to the top of the bestseller lists in its first weeks in the United States, United Kingdom, New Zealand, France, and Australia, and has been translated into more than sixteen languages. It is currently being made into a major motion picture by South Pacific Pictures (the makers of Whale Rider). Her new memoir, CATS & DAUGHTERS, came out on March 26, 2013. 

Visit Helen Brown online at www.helenbrown.com.

Cats & Daughters

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.

Difficult Challenges can Make You Strong

I would like to introduce myself, my name is Lindsay Beckmeyer and I am the new Marketing and Public Relations Coordinator here at LBBC! Going forward  I will be managing the LBBC blogs and I’m very excited to share the stories we receive with all of you! That being said, Cameron Von St. James is an avid reader of our C4YW blog and he approached me about writing a piece to share his experience as caregiver for his wife who was diagnosed with Mesothelioma in 2005. While we focus on breast cancer, I felt that Cameron’s story would be appropriate to share for our readers who are currently in the position of caregiver because no matter the specific diagnosis the role of caregiver can be quite similar. Here is Cameron’s story…

VonStJamesFamily

It’s hard to realize just how much cancer can change your world until your own family is confronted with a diagnosis.  My wife Heather and I were proud parents of a new daughter, Lily, and we weren’t prepared to receive the news that Heather had mesothelioma on November 21, 2005.  I was now a caregiver to my wife and daughter, a job that I had not been prepared for by anything else in my life to that point.  It felt like chaos was setting in.

As our doctor discussed the disease with us, he provided us with some choices for treatment.  We would need to see a specialist, and we could opt for a local university hospital, a regional facility that didn’t yet have a good mesothelioma program, or a reputable specialist in Boston.  The disbelief in my wife’s face was heartbreaking, and as I looked at her and waited for some sign of interest in any of the three choices, I realized that she was paralyzed by shock and fear.  I told our doctor, “Get us to Boston!”

Our next two months were rough.  The familiarity of our daily routines was gone as we devoted all of our attention to Heather’s medical needs.  She couldn’t work after the diagnosis, and we had both been accustomed to our full-time schedules prior to this.  Now, we were arranging child care for Lily so that we could deal with the medical steps we must take.  I was afraid of losing my wife to cancer, worried that we would lose everything in the process.  More than once, I broke under the pressure and dissolved into tears in private, but I didn’t let Heather see the worst of my meltdowns.  I needed to be strong on her behalf.

However, not all of this experience was bad.  Through our struggles, we encountered so many positives that helped pull us through.  First and foremost was the community that rallied around us in our time of need.  Friends and family came out of the woodwork offering help and support.  We were so touched by their generosity, and it was this kindness that allowed us to make it through the most difficult times. Complete strangers even provided assistance and support.  Comforting words were priceless, and financial help was certainly appreciated, as the bills kept piling up and our income was significantly lowered.

When you are faced with the overwhelming impact of cancer, take advantage of every little bit of help available.  People who care will sincerely offer.  Make the most of their support. The help and support of our community was invaluable in our fight with cancer.

Second only to the love and support of our community, our greatest tool to help us through was hope.  Throughout all of the struggles, all of the bad days and moments of fear and despair, we never allowed ourselves to give up hope for a better tomorrow.  A positive attitude and outlook can go a long, long way.  My wife has frequently said that she sees life through rose-colored glasses.  This positivity was key to her survival, as it encouraged both of us to never give up, even through the toughest times.

Heather’s mesothelioma treatment over the following months would drive her cancer into remission, and she has been cancer free to this day, over seven years since her diagnosis.  I grew and learned a lot during this time, and I can honestly say that being my wife’s caregiver has made me a better man.  Now, Heather and I hope that by sharing our story, we can inspire others in their own daily battles, whether it be cancer or any other obstacle in your way.  Never give up hope, and never stop fighting for the ones you love.

“Cameron is husband to Heather Von St. James, survivor advocate for the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, and father to Lily Rose. He, along with Heather and young Lily, had their world’s turned upside down when Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma, just 3 1/2 months after the birth of his only child. When faced with the very real possibility of raising Lily on his own, he fought alongside Heather in her battle with mesothelioma. It was his determination and refusal to compromise on doctors or treatments that led them to Boston to receive radical surgery from esteemed mesothelioma surgeon, David Sugarbaker. Heather continues to thrive 7 years later.

Like Heather, Cameron is passionate about bringing awareness to mesothelioma and the dangers of asbestos exposure. It is his hope that sharing his story will help others those battling cancer and their caregivers who provide them care and guidance in their journey.”

I Talk To Strangers, You Should Too!

randi rentz

Long time LBBC blog contributor, RANDI RENTZ, graduated with honors from The Johns Hopkins University with a Masters degree in Special Education. She was an editorial assistant for a publishing company in suburban Washington,DC before becoming a special education teacher in a school district outside Philadelphia, PA. Randi currently is an Asperger’s Support Teacher for grades kindergarten through fifth. Presently, Randi has her own consulting company for children on the Autistic Spectrum where you can see her work at   www.helpforaspergers.com. She is a proud member, supporter, and blogger for many breast cancer organizations and never leaves the house without diamonds. Visit Randi at her web site at www.randirentz.com. Be sure to check out the teaser for her upcoming book “Why Buy a Wig…When You Can Buy Diamonds!”

***

Call me crazy, but I look forward to waiting in line, and just about any opportunity to shoot the breeze with people I don’t know. I’m chummy with the guy who pumps my gas, (the only gas station nearby where they still pump gas for you), still exchange holiday cards with my 4th grade elementary school teacher, and the other day I spent a solid hour gabbing with an 81-year old woman I met at the tailor’s while having my pants hemmed.

I’m now a life-long, die-hard people person. I never used to be, though. In fact, I never enjoyed chatty encounters with people I didn’t know…until cancer. I wasn’t hostile before breast cancer.  Every day I had pleasant exchanges with strangers and acquaintances—an enthusiastic “Morning!” or a friendly “Have a great day!”  Such moments continue to be life-affirming, yet, prior to breast cancer, they were blessedly brief.

On-the-fly updates from people I’ve barely met used to drain me. Seriously.  I always felt obliged to respond with genuine emotion, to pay real attention. I would fake outrage or concern, with a performance that was definitely Oscar worthy. That meant stopping whatever I was doing, and force myself to focus. Since my laser-beam concentration was always sensed by the people stopping me, their details got longer and longer. Oy, vey! I felt trapped like a mouse in a maze.

Did breast cancer make me a people person? Well, I think it made me more aware of the little moments in life that make up the big moments. I now enjoy being a true people person—even though I’m inclined to dislike anyone who describes himself/herself this way. Go figure. I digress, sorry. Anyhoo, hear me out. Lifting your head and engaging with whoever happens to be standing next to you is worth the effort. It’s nice to see people smile and to genuinely smile back. It really feels good and refreshing. You should try it.

For one thing, you never know when you will receive priceless advice.  The 81-year-old cautioned me to get in good with my son’s future wife and to always take the dog out for an evening walk to do “its business.” Little did she know, I have no children and own two cats which use a litter-box. Needless to say, I felt it worthy to file away her words of wisdom. Maybe a stepson and a dog are in my future. Who knows? I digress. Sorry. When I left the fitting room, fiddling with the waistband of my pants, she said, “With posture like that, who needs Spanx? Coming from a stooped octogenarian, her words felt like a wake-up call to enjoy my youthful existence.

I believe my world is bigger with my random encounters. My brushes with strangers bring me the thrill of the unexpected, to glimpse a world I used to brush off and otherwise never see or appreciate. In the frenzy of life, with intense money, work and time pressure, I honestly didn’t have much conversational energy to spare.

Now, I think of it as a habit as “meeting new people,” even if I never see them again. My encounters with strangers bring me back to a place where I long to be. I never had grandparents, because they died before I was born.  But now I cherish chance meetings with people of all ages, especially older people. I find their perspective to be rather eye-opening.

Instead of rolling my eyes, I appreciate the interruption. I am so grateful for the little things in life. I now understand what being a warm person means.

And now, onto the Spanx…