The Whole You: Is it Hot in Here?

Getting good breast cancer care means caring for yourself as a whole person—understanding how cancer impacts you physically, emotionally and spiritually. This is why we’re hosting Wellness Weekend, a three-day event that combines our annual fall conference, Breast Cancer Today: Individual Treatments, Shared Experiences, and Yoga on the Steps: Denver. In anticipation of the Denver, Colorado weekend, Randi Rentz kicks off our blogging series, The Whole You, with a post about a side effect that impacts a number women of who undergo hormonal therapy for hormone-positive breast cancer – menopause.

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Ah, summertime. Long, sunny days. Outdoor cookouts. Lounging by the pool.

Say what??? Make that: Long, sweaty days. Internal cook-offs. Lunging for the pool.

Summer can be difficult if you’re in the midst of perimenopause or menopause. Geez! I first experienced menopausal experiences while receiving chemo. It got worse once I went on  tamoxifen. I also had to have a hysterectomy, which totally threw me for a loop. That procedure, of course, put me in permanent SCREAMING and KICKING menopause.

For those of you who have experienced menopause – naturally occurring or induced by cancer treatment – you know exactly what I mean when I say that hot flashes absolutely STINK!! Not only do they rock your world in a moment’s notice with absolutely no warning, but they (at least mine) are all consuming and utterly UNCOMFORTABLE! Well, let me be more specific: the truth of the matter is that my mind is a wasteland of emptiness during which I am at a complete and total loss of words when a hot flash comes on. They so overwhelm me.

Irritability, mood swings, sudden burst of crying. They’re all part of this new phase in my life. I am now menopause symptomatic (a.k.a. Itchy, Bitchy, Sweaty, Sleepy, Bloated, Forgetful and Psycho).

The number one symptom for me: hot flashes, cold flashes and night sweats. Now, these aren’t the sweats of relaxation you’d feel in a sauna, or the rewarding ones indicating you’ve just exercised This is more like: OMG, I’m on F%$#ing fire.  Call 9-1-1….Nooow! Continue reading

Good, Confident and Sexy: Becoming Whole Again

Breast cancer can impact sex, intimacy and body image whether you’re single or in a relationship. In anticipation of our Twitter Chat on Wednesday, June 24, AnaOno Intimates Owner Dana Donofree blogs about her experience regaining confidence and embracing her desirability after treatment.

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I often compare myself to a broken doll. Not the kind that was so beloved, it was carried everywhere, slowly fading and falling into disrepair over time as if it were aging gracefully. More like the kind that was once beautiful, but its owner decided to take construction paper scissors and hack its hair down to oddly shaped tufts, to accidentally (or on purpose) break off a limb or two, scar the midsection with a Sharpie and leave it half bent and mutilated in in the corner of her closet.

Because that’s what breast cancer did to me. It took a perfectly acceptable woman and turned her into a shadow of herself, and when it is all said and done, it made her feel broken, ruined and rejected.

When I was first diagnosed, what was about to happen to my outward appearance wasn’t even on my mind. I thought I had it all together, the strength, the attitude, the “let’s do this.”

See, I was never terribly attached to my breasts. I never even really thought about them all that much. I was 27. My boobs were small, but perky. They hadn’t done anything hero-worthy like nourish a child. Their biggest accomplishment was being able to exist without a bra. Their greatest time to shine was on weekend party nights when they could hang out in a super low-cut blouse and up my va va voom quotient.

So, when the time came to go our very separate ways, my friends threw a “Ta-Ta to Dana’s Ta-Tas” party and they had one last night out on the town in the lowest plunging neckline I could find.

I was pretty flippant and casual about parting with my two of my lady parts. Friends and family took bets on which of my surgeons, Dr. McDreamy and Dr. Hottie, was the better catch. I joked that they would be the last to ever cop a feel of my original breasts.

I thought I was going to be just fine afterward. That it wouldn’t faze me in the least.

But, I never could have prepared myself for what it felt like, both physically and mentally, when I woke from surgery. For something I felt I was completely comfortable with and ready for, losing them, my breasts, shook my world.

I took off the bandages, and saw this alien staring back at me in the mirror. I was mutilated. I was swollen. My scars were their own entity  purple and protruding like someone had chainsawed me up and stapled me back together.

It is not at all what I had imagined. Where was this “We are replacing your boobs with ones just like them so you can feel ‘normal’?” I hadn’t expected to look like a badly-repaired Lego. I expected to kinda come out looking more implanty-boob-job like. This body was the farthest cry from normal I could have ever imagined. Continue reading

My Mom Was Diagnosed with Breast Cancer: A Teen’s Perspective

“Your mom has breast cancer.” It’s never easy to hear that sentence, especially for young kids. Jordan Vespoli reflects on hearing those words at age 9, how he supported his family and  now, at age 16, helps other kids who learn their mom has a breast cancer diagnosis.

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On October 30, 2008, my mom and dad sat me down on my bed to give me some news. I couldn’t imagine what they were going to say to me, but I knew it was serious.  My mom had breast cancer. Cancer? What is that? I was pretty smart for a 9-year-old kid. I knew it had something to do with bad cells in your body and I knew that it was life threatening. I sat and listened.  When they asked me if I had any question, I said nothing. I did not know what to say.

So when they left my room, I sat there motionless and deep in thought.  I went through my days as I usually did, which was going to school, playing basketball and doing my homework. Inside, I felt scared and angry. I did not know anyone whose mom had ever had breast cancer.

After some time, I decided that the best way to deal with this situation was to help my family out in any way I could. I helped set up a schedule for our friends to prepare dinner for us while my mom was going through chemo. I also started speaking to my friends about it, but none of them went through the same thing I was going through. Continue reading

Cancer and Sex

Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, regularly blogs on ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared. Learn more about sex and intimacy after a breast cancer diagnosis during our Twitter Chat, Tweets from the Sheets, on Wednesday, June 24.

dizon_don 2012As an oncologist who also runs a sexual health clinic for women treated (or under treatment), I am discovering that my perspective on both issues of cancer treatment (and survival) and life after cancer (and quality of life) is somewhat unique. I am conscious of how difficult it is to bring up cancer therapy and survivorship (let alone sexual health) within the same discussion, yet I have gained a heightened sensitivity of the importance of looking beyond treatment even while we are discussing what to do now. I have benefitted greatly from colleagues in the field of sexual health, such as Michael Krychman, at UC Irvine, and Anne Katz, in Canada, both of whom I have been privileged enough to count as colleagues, co-authors, and contemporaries.

I am even more fortunate that one of my friends here in Boston also shares my interest in women’s health. Sandy Falk is a gynecologist and sees cancer survivors for women’s health issues at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. In our practices, we both see the adverse effects of therapy that patients have to cope with. However, far from the arthralgias of aromatase inhibitors and neuropathy of some of our chemotherapeutic agents (two symptoms which we as oncologists are comfortable discussing), sexual health is often compromised.

There are common complaints encountered by those of us who cover sexual health. They include:

  • “I’m done with treatment, but now I can’t have sex. It is too painful and my sexual desire is completely gone.”
  • “Why didn’t my oncologist warn me about this? Maybe if I had known my partner and I could have worked on this early on. But now, so much time has passed now and my partner and I have lost patience.”
  • “I’m not sure how to go on with my relationship.”

Those may be extreme examples, and I hope for most oncologists that they are. However, what I do know is that these perceptions do exist—inside and outside of medicine. When the paper on AI treatment was picked up by several sites, I had read some comments posted and was disheartened to see that some of the thoughts above were reflected: “A woman should be lucky to be alive,” one stated; another said, “You can’t have sex if you’re dead.”

I believe most oncologists do not discuss sexual health with their patients and as an oncologist, I understand why. Most clinicians reading this might think (perhaps unconsciously) that the patient is “lucky to be alive.” And of course, she is. And we also know that she probably wouldn’t have had the ability to hear detailed information about sexual health during the diagnosis and treatment planning process—there were much bigger priorities then. Continue reading

Reflecting on ASCO 2015

Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Erin Rowley shares her experience attending this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, Illinois. Download the audio recording and presentation from our June 4 ASCO webinar to learn about updates from the 2015 meeting.

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The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has existed since 1964, and has held an annual conference for almost as long. ASCO created the Journal of Clinical Oncology, a publication in which many important breast cancer studies appear, and cancer breakthroughs are often announced at ASCO’s annual meeting. For years, representatives from Living Beyond Breast Cancer have attended this conference in order to hear about the latest in breast cancer research, and to pass that information on to you, to help you navigate life after a breast cancer diagnosis.

As LBBC’s writer and content coordinator, I went to this year’s conference, which took place May 29 to June 2, in Chicago. It was my first time at the event and it was an exciting opportunity to join the more than 30,000 people from all over the world who were in attendance. Some, like me, were there as patient advocates, representing people with cancer. But the vast majority of people there were cancer doctors. They came to present their own research and to learn from their colleagues.

Over the course of 5 days, thousands of studies, hundreds of which related to breast cancer, were presented; and dozens of educational sessions, in which doctors discussed what recent findings mean for their day-to-day practices, were held.

Moving between sessions about surgery, different breast cancer types, quality of life and other topics required quick navigating of McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. I’m certain I walked a few miles as I zigzagged through the crowds! In situations where I couldn’t be in two equally-interesting sounding sessions at once, ASCO’s use of technology and social media were really helpful. Many sessions were filmed, and the Twitter hashtag #ASCO15 helped me see what aspects of the conference people were most excited about. Even though ASCO has been over for about a week, people are STILL using the hashtag to continue the conversation. (Check it out for yourself!) Continue reading

The Spirit of Pageantry

Natalie Gamble is back on our blog with a post about supporting her daughter while in treatment for breast cancer, pageants and being honored with the “Spirit of Pageantry” Award.

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Life doesn’t stop because of a breast cancer diagnosis – it goes on. How you decide to approach that life is up to you. Me personally, I never missed a step.

After deciding on a treatment plan and scheduling my surgery I was on my way to Virginia Beach with my daughter for the International Junior Miss. Some background information about this trip: My daughter Mikayla is my hero and one of the strongest, most driven individuals I know. I tease her all the time that I want to be just like her when I grow up. At the tender age of 9 she announced she wanted to be a microbiologist and will be attending U.C. Berkeley to earn her degree, and here is the kicker – she wants to pay for it herself!  Since those words left her mouth, Mikayla, now 14, has made it her mission to do just that. Besides maintaining a A/B average in school, she competes in natural pageants to earn scholarships, pageants like International Junior Miss.

As a pageant mom, I wear many hats: tailor, beautician, coach, travel agent and cheerleader to name a few. Needless to say, my cancer diagnosis was a huge hiccup in my role as her support system. Monetheless, I was determined to work around it.  On our way back from an exhausting week of competitions, I received a phone call from my daughter’s new pageant director Christina Sacha Grooms, who introduced herself to us and updated us about the rest of my daughter’s reign.  I informed her of my diagnosis and told her that no matter what I would get my daughter where she needed to be.

While I was fighting the good fight in treatment, my daughter was reigning as International Junior Miss’ Colorado Preteen 2014. And as promised she was at every event, photo shoot, and appearance as scheduled. Our pageant family was just as supportive as our immediate family and to this day, I thank God for these incredible people. Every time we saw each other it was a family reunion and it touched my heart to know they read and looked forward to my Facebook posts. Every day I tried to share my feelings and thoughts with my family and friends.  Continue reading

On Hair Loss

Last week, our Facebook followers shared hundreds of tips for coping with hair loss. Blogger Judy Weinstein wrote this post about her personal experience with hair loss and how she handled the side effect.

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When you get a cold, you feel sick right away. Strep throat? It’s obvious something is wrong! Kidney stones? You are in the hospital crying in pain. Cancer is different.  Cancer silently does its evil damage while you are going about your daily life. You are working, laughing, and likely “sweating the small stuff” while your cancer sneakily divides and tries to conquer.

One day you wake up and realize that something isn’t quite right. You have a slightly unusual lump, a little blood where you shouldn’t, or unexplained pain. Then the bombshell is dropped. “You have cancer.”

For many women who endure chemotherapy, one of our preoccupations is about becoming bald. I was squarely in that category. I generally don’t wear make-up and I don’t spend a long time pondering what to wear.  I did, however, spend a lot of energy over my lifetime thinking about my hair. I will always remember the very first time I cut my long hair up to my chin. I was in 6th grade.  One of my parent’s best friends said “Today we lost our little girl.”  I puffed with pride that a shorter haircut could make me look all grown up. Soon after, I grew it out and curled the front in a desperate attempt to look like Farrah Faucet. Then later came the big hair stage… even with a perm my straight hair didn’t cooperate!

After my third baby was born, my hair began to change. I started to become gray and over time my hair became more wavy, frizzy and unruly.  And did I mention gray?  Those wiry gray strands were the worst!

Figuring out a style that was best became a monthly challenge.  What was the right color for my changing hair? This time it was too blonde…this time too red. Should I go short? Long? Bangs? No bangs? One style was good for the winter and another for the summer humidity. One style worked for pulling it back when I played tennis but wasn’t flattering at other times! My patient hairdresser, now a close family friend, made whatever changes I asked for, knowing that I would always second guess my hair decision.

Once I had a cancer diagnosis and knew I was facing hair loss, thinking about becoming bald was admittedly terrifying. How humiliating to lose what I thought played such a heavy role in defining my looks and by extension, who I am. My cousin told me about the penguin caps one can wear during chemotherapy that works to prevent hair loss. Suddenly my emotions began to shift. The only thing I could think of worse than losing my hair, was to sit for several hours, being infused with toxic chemicals, wearing an ice-pack on my head. I was NOT willing to do that to prevent hair loss.  So maybe, just maybe if I wasn’t willing to go to such great lengths to prevent hair loss, perhaps it wasn’t as important as I initially thought.

I began losing my hair on January 1.  While I had the rest of my uncomfortable treatment ahead of me, I also had the hope and wonder that comes with any new beginnings.  What would this year bring? Finishing treatment, my middle son graduating from high school and starting collage, my youngest son starting high school and thanks to this treatment, celebrating my half century birthday! Never before did I deeply appreciate the thought of reaching this milestone.  As my grandmother used to say “It’s better than the alternative!” Continue reading