Welcome to the club

My friend, Lyd, had her tests on Monday and got the call from her doctor today. Her cancer is back. I’m having a hard time wrapping my head around this news. It doesn’t seem possible. I’m so sad that Lyd has to go down that crazy cancer rabbit hole again.

Lyd’s initial diagnosis was in 2005, lumpectomy & radiation followed by Tamoxifen for 5 years. They told her the Tamoxifen would reduce her chance of recurrence to something like under 2-3%. Yeah, right. Lyd has recurrent infiltrating breast cancer. Tomorrow, she’s scheduled for a sit-down w her surgeon to review her options.

I have a lot of friends who’ve had recurrences. It’s comforting to know they are doing fine now.  I have hope Lyd will do the same. I just wish she weren’t in that club too.

Cancer is such a strange journey. After we finish treatment, we like to believe that we did our time and put the cancer behind us. We identify and move on. I don’t live in a place of fear. But days like today are kind of unnerving. Did I dodge that bullet forever or just get a temporary reprieve?

Thank goodness that at least for today, we’re all doing alright.

Say a prayer for Lyd’s good health.

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This is a fantastic idea – Happy Birthday Paul Rudd!

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Finally, some good news….

I love this chart! Cancer deaths are declining.  The two statistics that stand out for me are those for Non-Hodgkins lymphoma and lung cancer. The rate of decline for Non-Hodgkins lymphoma is more than 3 percent. Fantastic! Although it’s a less deadly cancer, Non-Hodgkins lymphoma takes a horrible toll on people in their 20s and 30s. That’s a time in your life when you should be thinking about babies&careers and not sidetracked into making life&death decisions about chemo etc.

I’m especially excited to see the statistic showing the first ever drop in lung cancer deaths among women. They say it’s related to the drop in the number of people smoking cigarettes.  A recent study in The Journal of the American Medical Association reported that 7 percent of U.S. adults were heavy smokers in 2007, compared to 23 percent in 1965.

23 percent in 1965? That makes perfect sense to me. Raise your hand if you remember the Marlboro Man commercials. Yup, me too.

My mom used to smoke about two packs a day, which was pretty normal back then. My most vivid childhood memories are of her and all of the other moms in their aluminum beach chairs. While we played in the sand, they smoked endless cigarettes and enjoyed their surf side coffee clatsche. Every so often, one of them would stick her pack of Pall Malls or Chesterfields into the strap of her bathing suit and wade in the water to cool off. I’m not sure if the reason they didn’t dive under water was because they didn’t want to mess up their perfectly lacquered Mad Men-esque hairdos or because they didn’t want to get their cigarettes wet. I suspect it was the latter. As I recall, every single mom  smoked cigarettes. I guess w/all of those big Irish families, they needed nicotine to maintain an even keel. They didn’t realize the price they’d pay down the road. My mom spent her last months on round-the-clock oxygen. She said she wished she’d never touched cigarettes. That coulda, shoulda, woulda makes me sad. In her chain-smoking days, she had no way of knowing cigarettes would later kill her.

I’m glad to see that nicotine isn’t most people’s drug of choice anymore. But the increases in liver and pancreatic cancer are said to be due to increased obesity in our society. Yes, food……a drug of a different sort. But that’s a story best saved for another day. Today we should just celebrate these wonderful numbers.

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It’s their problem, not mine

Yesterday, I came across a bunch of pictures taken while I was bald because of chemo.  I see now that I looked kind of crazy. But back then, the bald, emaciated look felt oddly normal.

When I lost my hair, I hid under baseball caps until my 4th grade daughter begged me not to, “Mommy, you’re so beautiful when you’re bald.” Clearly, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

But she had a good point; I realized I was covering up mostly for other people’s sake. Why should I have to hide under a wig or scarf on a boiling hot summer day to ease other people’s discomfort? If I don’t care that I’m bald, why should they?

I can understand why so many women opt for scarves and wigs. But sweating under a wig was my idea of hell. And being bald in a weird way, can be a call to action. Apparently, the sight of a bald mother picking her kids up at the elementary school gives other moms the heebee jeebies, “Wow, she’s got little kids, she’s fit, and she still got cancer.” Dozens of women told me they scheduled mammograms because of me. And several women later told me they started working out because they decided “If that cancer lady can do it, so can I.”

So, if you’re tired of hiding under a scarf, go for it; take it off. Baldness is a temporary state and this too shall pass. Why not be comfortable if that works for you? For sure, you’ll get your share of awkward stares and you’ll overhear people whispering, “Oh, that poor woman.”  But why should you care? It’s their problem, not yours.

 

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Cancerversary

Last Friday, was my cancerversary. Seven years ago on 3/25/04, I scratched my right breast and found a lump about the size of a walnut. Initially, I wasn’t worried. After all, I figured that after losing my first husband to stomach cancer, I’d done my time in cancer-land and was magically protected from ever dealing w/cancer again (how do you spell delusional?). Plus, I’d breast fed both my kids (from my 2nd marriage), ran 4 miles/day, ate a lowfat diet, was younger than 45, and had no history of cancer in my family. Cancer? No way.

Finding that lump was the start of my descent into the crazy cancer vortex – lumpectomy, four rounds of AC  (a drug aptly named “the red devil”), 12 rounds of taxol, eight weeks of daily radiation, 52 weeks of herceptin. My cancer was stage 3 and very aggressive. I was the queen of optimism but my life kept getting darker and darker. When I was in the middle of radiation, my younger sister, DeeDee, was diagnosed with stage4 lung cancer. We did our treatments together at Mass. General Hospital in Boston – the cancer sisters! Just as I was nearing the finish line, my husband started an affair with his college girlfriend.

Strange how things turn out. DeeDee’s cancer and my marriage were terminal. But I’m still here; going strong and cancer free.

I often wonder why things happened the way they did. I like to believe I had cancer so I could be by Dee’s side during her journey. With me, she wasn’t afraid to talk about the elephant in the room. But who knows? As for my ex, I guess I should have seen it coming. He didn’t have what it took to go through a tough time. I’ve come to learn that a lot of men ditch wives who have cancer. Sad but true. At first, I thought the demise of my marriage was the end of the world. But in the end, losing him proved to be the best thing ever for me. I hope that’s the case for other women who get dumped, too.

I have a lot of friends who have awful scars from their lumpectomies. Not me. I had two huge incisions, but barely have scars that you can see. Regardless, my cancer stays w/me in good and bad ways. I don’t live in fear, but do kind of wonder if it will come back. So far, so good. And now that I’ve faced my mortality up close and personal, I’ve been given the gift of learning how to live in the moment. I never take anything for granted anymore.

Is cancerversary even a word?

I marked the day w/a run in the woods and movie with my 13 year old son. It was wonderful. I didn’t tell him or his 15 year old sister that it was an anniversary of sorts. They didn’t need the reminder. To them, it was just another normal day, as it should be. After dealing w/the constant drama of cancer, a low-key, mundane day is something to be treasured.

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Celebrating Wina

“Death leaves a heartache that no one can heal, love leaves a memory no one can steal.” – Irish saying

Yesterday, on a dreary, snowy morning, my dear friend, Maura, and her family celebrated  their sister, Wina’s, life with a simple Mass and funeral. This lovely Irish quote was included in Wina’s obituary.

Death leaves a heartache that no one can heal….. so true. This family’s loss is incredibly poignant. I know death is inevitable for all of us. But c’mon, shouldn’t we lose our sisters later when we’re in the false teeth & rocking chair years?

And shouldn’t lightning strike only once? In a cruel twist of fate, two of Maura’s sisters were diagnosed with head and neck cancer within months of each other last year. Fortunately, Tricia responded well to treatment and now has a good prognosis. Hurrah! But to have to undergo treatment while your sister is dying? That is unfair on so many levels. My heart  goes out to Tricia – not only is she mourning the loss of her sister, but she’ll likely always wonder why she won the cancer lottery and Wina didn’t. I know that’s how I feel about losing my sister, DeeDee.

Why are some people lucky and others not? And how is it that the outcomes of two cancers can make you sad and celebratory at the same time? I am so sad about Wina, and yet delighted for Tricia’s good fortune. Let’s pray that losing Wina marks the end of cancer for their family.

Maura and I are both from Irish families. Anyone who’s ever been to an Irish wake or studied the potato famine knows that we Irish aren’t big on sitting around and moping about our losses. For sure, I am so tired of the toll cancer takes on the lives of the people I love. But I have hope.

With luck, Tricia and I will have many, many more birthdays. And so will millions of people currently living with cancer. According to the Center for Disease Control’s  Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report (3/11/11),* the number of cancer survivors in the United States climbed 19 percent in 2007 from 2001. Those are the most recently reported statistics. Hopefully, the numbers are even better in 2011.

We are living proof that research saves lives. I pray Congress makes cancer research a high priority during this budget cutting season.

I’m sorry Wina and DeeDee didn’t live long enough for a cure. As for the rest of us, live strong, live well, enjoy the day, and do what we can to work for a cure. To me, that’s the best way to honor those we’ve loved and lost.

*I know this is completely off-topic, but is it me or do you find  “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” a decidedly odd title? What were they thinking?!

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Brownies and flowers

When I was in treatment my daughter said she felt kind of guilty for enjoying the chemo weeks. Huh? Turns out, she loved the benefits that came w/cancer:  brownies, flowers, and reading books w/me in bed.

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