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.
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.
(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.