Friday, December 12, 2014

What Does Breast Cancer Actually Look Like? IMAGES

Now that I am cured, I can show you my initial test results. When I found the lump in my breast and my armpit a year ago, I knew I had found something bad.  You'll remember I talked about that last year in this post.  I called Susan G Komen and got my diagnostic testing done.  Once the doctor confirmed that I had a lump, she scheduled me for a mammogram, even though she said it wasn't breast cancer.

Anyway, I talked about the mammogram, but couldn't explain very well what I saw at the time.  Now I have the actual images from my own mammogram and ultrasound.  What you will see is very dense breast tissue, which is all the white streaky area within the breast.  Second, what you may see is the indented area below the nipple.  That happened just in the time from finding the lump until seeing the doctor, which was approximately a week to ten days.  You'll also see tiny white micro-calcifications within the breast.  This was an indication that there may be a problem.

What you will NOT see on the mammogram are the SIX tumors I had in my breast.  Why?  Dense breast tissue. Remember that 59% of breast cancer is missed on mammogram because of dense breast tissue.

Easy to see the density of the breast and the indentation

Scattered white calcifications

Questionable density and at the top right are enlarged lymph nodes

Following this mammogram, I was immediately sent to another room for an ultrasound.  In that original post, I joked about this being the technician's lucky day, as she was training someone, and I was providing an excellent study.  The following images show what cancer looks like on an ultrasound.  The first is in my breast, and the second is in the lymph node in my armpit.   You can tell they are solid due to their grey color.  Fluid is black on an ultrasound.

This has an odd shape and grey color.
A cyst would be black and round in shape

Enlarged grey colored lymph node in axillary

That's a lot of cancer going on right there.
And several only formed in the prior week.
It was extremely aggressive and fast growing
KEEP IN MIND THAT EACH CM OF CANCER IS ONE BILLION CANCER CELLS

As I talked about in the original blog post, they found a total of six tumors in my right breast that day.  And several enlarged and grey lymph nodes.  They knew at that point it was cancer, but still had to do a biopsy to determine the type, grade, proliferation rate, hormone receptor and Her2 status.

One thing I did learn is that you are given a BIRAD number when you have a mammogram.  This tells you what you are dealing with.  Many women have a mammogram and wonder how it went.  Look at the bottom of your sheet when you leave, and you will see your BIRAD number.

BIRAD 3 means that the mammogram was normal
BIRAD 4 means that there is something suspicious, but not sure
BIRAD 5 means there it is 95% likely to be cancer
BIRAD 6 means confirmed malignancy/cancer

When I left that day, I already knew it was cancer.




When I went home, I looked everywhere on the internet, and there are only a couple images of mammograms or ultrasounds with breast cancer.  I don't know why they all want it to be a secret.  I find it helpful to see what it looks like and to know what was going on in my body.  I hope you do too.  

Friday, November 7, 2014

The Year of Enlightenment

This is it! Today was my very last treatment for breast cancer.  Since September of 2013, I have been making regular trips to the hospital's infusion lab to get treatments.  Initially it was for chemotherapy only.  And then in November of last year, alongside another four rounds of chemo, I began a year of Herceptin treatments, a specific protein blocker. Every three weeks I spent a couple hours hooked up to an IV that pumped this chemical into my body.    

The experience was more than just sitting there with an IV in my arm though.  I've come to know the wonderful nurses and staff that see patients day in and day out.  I love that they remember me and we can all laugh together, hoping to lift others around the room that are suffering through their own trials. Sometimes I see friends I've made, sometimes I see others nearing the end of their life, and sometimes I see the scared new faces of those just diagnosed.  I respect and acknowledge this dose of harsh reality that the world is not always kind or just.  And there are moments that I feel completely guilty for doing so well when others suffer.  I feel guilty for sitting there with my hair, my strength, and now having my health.

But here is what I remind myself.  I too suffered.  I fought an enormous battle for my life.  Not one single day of it was easy. That is not to be ignored, overlooked or diminished. Yesterday, I went back and read some of my posts from the thick of the storm, and I cried for what I suffered.  I never pitied myself while I was going through treatments.  However, to see now, to read my words with this new perspective, I am overcome with grief and sympathy for that woman.



Reading my words from my days of chemotherapy,  "... there were moments this day that I have never experienced in my life. And I actually wondered at the time if I was dying. I kept saying to myself, "Is this what dying feels like?", and I have to admit I was panicking a little. ", makes my stomach turn, because I remember the feeling.  I remember being so scared and feeling so alone in that moment.  Laying on my bathroom floor shaking, asking God if this was it, was utterly terrifying.

And then I looked back at my New Year's post, and how I said, "I know this is the beginning of a new year full of possibilities. Without this struggle, I would lose sight of all the small intricacies that make my life beautiful. I think this cancer is God's way of double-checking to make sure I want to be here, like a parent threatening to take back a gift from an ungrateful child. I get it. And I will fight every single day with all that I have, to prove that I want to be here. 

The pain will go away. The cancer will go away. And 2014 will forever be known as my Year of Enlightenment. It will be the year I started life over with a more grateful and empathetic soul. For others that have walked a path of turmoil and struggle, and come out the other side as a better person, you have my greatest respect and admiration."





As I read my own words of determination to win against this cancer and make this year something special, I now take a moment to look around at what I have.  First, I have the most amazing support system of friends, family and even strangers that look out for me, help me and guide me.  I value every single interaction, and I know that's what got me through the worst time of my life.  I have my children.  I'm still fighting a battle to get them home again, but when I see their faces, I am filled with so much love and strength.  And that means everything in the world.  It makes me want to fight even harder for their return home.


My perspective has also changed over the course of the past year for what type of energy I allow in my life.  I have defined not only what's important for me now, but what I want my life to become.  I no longer let negativity and stress get to me like it did in years past.  That's not to say it's not still present; it just doesn't affect me in the same way. I have surrounded myself with the people I want to emulate, the people that know that kindness, happiness and success come from helping others and not complaining or tearing others down.   

This shift in attitude, and my own self-esteem being raised by the sheer act of defeating my biggest enemy, cancer, has led me to even more wonderful things in my life this year.  Four months ago, I met a man that embodies all the characteristics I value to be essential in my life going forward.  He's humble, kind, compassionate, intelligent, funny and, like myself, is a jack of all trades....not to mention he's gorgeous. He amazes me every day with his thoughtfulness and unwavering support. I feel beyond lucky to have this man in my life, and know it's because my perspective enables me to recognize and appreciate who he is and what he offers on the inside. And he has the ability to see me in a way that I am now seeing myself, strong and beautiful.

Who would have thought of finding such a special person in the wake of something so horrific?  I think it was because I finally saw my own worth, allowed myself to be vulnerable, and had a little bit of help from some guardian angels.  Whatever it was that led him to me, I'm so very grateful and happy.



This past year of cancer has scarred me, both mentally and physically, in massive ways.  At the same time, it has given me more strength, self-esteem and character than I ever thought possible.  I look in the mirror and see a woman that has conquered and withstood so many trials in her life, and I am still standing. I'm filled with love, compassion, gratitude and yes, even forgiveness.  2014 is not done, and I still have a multitude of things to accomplish before the end of the year.  But so far, I have done almost everything I planned.  I am many steps closer to becoming the person I want to be.  I am surrounded by the people that I want to influence me.  And I feel like things will all soon be in their right place.

SEPTEMBER 2013 


OCTOBER 2014 CANCER FREE

So in saying all of this, I am officially done with cancer as of today.  Seven rounds of chemotherapy, five surgeries and twenty-two infusions of Herceptin all in a year's time. Without guilt, I am standing proudly, ringing the bell, and saying, "I DID IT!"  No more treatments. No more cancer. That battle is over and every single one of you helped me win.  Free at last!!! AMEN!    




Hugs and love to everyone at the Infusion Lab!!! 

FREEDOM!


And as a reminder to you all:  Check yourself!!  Please.  Don't wait until they say you're old enough to do a mammogram.  Don't expect the doctor to find anything for you.  Don't avoid it because you're scared of finding something.  Every day I read story after story of women and men my age and younger finding cancer by self exam.  And there are record numbers of younger people getting diagnosed with breast cancer every single day. When they say early detection is the key, that means one single month or even a week can mean the difference between life and death for you.  Sound scary?  It is!  Cancer can grow as fast as you can breathe.  So please, stop what you are doing and do a self exam right now.... unless you're at work.  That might look weird.


Monday, September 29, 2014

I Came in Last and Still Won

This past weekend was the Susan G Komen Race for the Cure.   It was my very first 5K, and it was a significant experience as this was the completion of my one year of breast cancer.  If it weren't for Susan G. Komen Foundation, I would probably be dead by now.  They literally saved my life.

We showed up before dawn in Downtown Greenville, and it was a sea of brave women dressed in pink.  The survivors stood proudly on the baseball field in their respective sections of how long they have survived their breast cancer.  It was moving to be a part of this army, but also so sad to know that they have all suffered.


Gorgeous sunrise

That's me up there on the billboard

Some of the survivors on the field

Thousands of racers getting ready for the start


My friends and I joined to make it through this 5k together.  My boyfriend walking on a broken ankle, my friend Deana had a pulled glute muscle from a previous 5k, I had a pinched nerve, and my friend Kim's daughters were wearing cowboy boots.  We were all decked out in tutus, wigs and anything obnoxiously pink.  We were loud with laughter and oblivious to the constant passerbys.



By the halfway mark, we realized we were at the end of the pack of racers.  A quick look behind us, we realized that the sweeper ambulance was creeping slowly behind us, pushing us a little faster.   We even paused for a moment, debating the idea of leaving the race route and heading towards the farmers market.  But we stayed course, determined to make it to the end.


Yep, there's the ambulance


Under an hour to hit 2 miles!! 

As we finally approached the finish line, I look up and with complete shock, see my children waiting there for me.  I was immediately overcome with joy.  Previously, I was told that my daughter would not be allowed to walk with me.  And it was such a wonderful and unexpected surprise to see both my children there, homemade sign in hand, waiting to walk the last 50 feet with me.






As a team, we all strode across the finish line, the very last stragglers of the race.  As we were crossing the line, the race officials were behind us tearing down signs and moving tables.  Firemen waited patiently at the end though, just to hand me a pink flower.

I didn't care that we were the last people across that finish line.  We made it together.  And much like this past year of cancer, I couldn't have made it without the help of my family and friends.  I have spent the past three days with the happiest heart I've ever had.  I am a winner in every sense of the word.






Sunday, September 28, 2014

What I Did to Win Against Cancer- Summary

This week marked a major milestone in my life.  I have survived one year of Breast Cancer.  I have been hesitant to feel bold and actually say "Cancer Free", because you never know what your body is doing while you're being smug.  But after this week of tests, appointments, and information, I feel like I can finally stand up and shout, "I AM CURED!"

I started last September with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, Her2neu positive, hormone receptor positive, grade 3, fast growing cancer, that had possibly metastasized to my bones.   This cancer was highly aggressive and the prognosis was grim at best.  And at one point, I thought there is no cure.

But I took a logical approach.  I took my time and listened to what the doctor had to say.  I researched and read as much as I could.  And I had a virtual army of over 500 to help support me in my fight.  I feel like I was equipped with everything possible to fight cancer.  It was left to me to make it happen.
I did my best and what I felt in my heart were the right things.  The steps I took weren't always what the doctor's suggested or even knew about.  And I was seriously taking chances with my own life by making these choices.  But I trusted God and my instinct, and know now that I did the right things. Thankfully all test results confirm that as well.

About treatment....

I've gone into more detail in prior blog posts about the treatment I received.  But to sum it up, I received seven rounds of chemotherapy prior to having breast surgery.  The first three rounds were dose-dense Adriamyacin/Cytoxan every two weeks.  The following four rounds were a new chemotherapy product just approved in October 2013 called Perjeta.  That was combined with Taxotere and Herceptin.

My doctor has noted several times now that he has no other patients that have received this combination.  Was the magic cocktail what made the difference? Or was it more?

Fasting....

During the four rounds of Perjeta/Taxotere/Herceptin, I chose to do something bold and still not yet scientifically proven.  I had read about mice experiments of fasting during chemotherapy, and heard there were human clinical trials in the works, but nothing has yet to be confirmed.  However, my understanding was this.  When you fast, your normal cells go into starvation mode and basically hibernate.  They close themselves off, and in essence, protect themselves from toxins in the body.

On the other side of that, cancer cells do not have a "starvation" mode.  They are damaged cells with mutated DNA, and they are constantly looking for food/glucose to stay alive.  When you fast, they basically freak out.  And the premise is that these cells are highly susceptible to chemotherapy because they are already in distress.  In the mice trials, the mice that fasted had more cancer cells killed than the non-fasting.  And the mice that fasted also lived twice as long.

Not all experiments that work on mice also work on humans, but this was something I was willing to try in moderation.  I fasted 2-3 days prior to chemotherapy, drinking only unsweetened green tea and water.  Then, I fasted for 24 hours after chemotherapy to allow my liver opportunity to dump the built up toxins.  Adding food earlier than that can cause too much stress on the liver.

The result for me was two-fold.  First, my normal cells were not as damaged by the chemotherapy.  Yes, it was still horrible, but many of the side effects were reduced.  I didn't have neuropathy in my hands and feet.  I didn't lose any weight overall during treatment.   And I was able to regain strength in a very short amount of time after treatment.   I could go from not being able to move one day, to getting on the treadmill to walk by the next.  I believe that resilience came from fasting.


Building my body back....

During chemotherapy, I was advised not to take herbal supplements, especially anti-oxidants, as they could affect the function of the drugs.  I did take a multi-vitamin and probiotic during that time, as the doctor explained that they can help.  After chemotherapy however, I waited a month for the drugs to leave my body, and I started an herb and vitamin regimen.  This not only builds my immune system, but also rids my body of free radicals, replenishes vital nutrients missing from my diet, and most importantly, kills cancer cells.  Part of my list is found here, and I will be writing about new additions to the regimen in the near future.

I always ate pretty well to start, so it wasn't a huge change.  I started an organic garden in my back yard to help reduce the amount of toxins I put in my body.  But I've not really been a fast food eater or someone that eats out every night.  I can't even imagine the toxic load that could cause.  I stick to making my own meals from scratch when I can, and I've ramped up my vegetable consumption ten fold.

And of course, I exercised.  Not much, just walking 30 minutes every day on the treadmill.  But it was a start, and it continues to make a difference.  Thick and sedentary blood makes a perfect habitat for abnormal cell growth.  Remember that.


Surgery....

Almost two months following my last chemotherapy, I had a breast MRI to see what cancer they had left to address.  When I first found out I had cancer, they found six tumors in my right breast, and another 3-4 in my lymph nodes. In total, that area alone had over eight billion cancer cells.  When they did the MRI after chemo, they didn't see anything left.  This was promising news, but not yet ready to celebrate, because a tumor smaller than the size of a pencil eraser will not show up.  We had to wait for surgery.  Typically, cancer is still there, and the surgery removes what's left.

I had a full mastectomy on my right side, with removal of nine lymph nodes.  When the pathology report came back a week later, I found out the truth.   Not a single cancer cell was left.  Meaning, the prior treatment worked completely.  The doctor's term was Complete Pathologic Response, which they said was rare.  They told me that 80% of people do not have this response.  It's even possible I didn't have to have the mastectomy at all.  But I wasn't willing to take that chance based on just the MRI.

The following three months consisted of building strength, using my right arm from the very day of surgery.  The pain was there, but I pushed through, and the more I used my arm, the better I got.

Radiation...

This is typically the next step in the process, but was another area that I went against what the doctors' standard protocol.  In all previous patients, they recommended local radiation for 5 weeks, 5 days a week.  It has been proven to keep cancer cells from growing and recurring.  I respected that completely.  But the doctor said they didn't know whether I needed it or not.  They said it was my choice.

My instincts told me to refuse radiation.  Not only was the cancer completely gone, which the doctors had not really had any experience with Complete Pathologic Response.  But I have been exposed to a great deal of radiation in the past due to my own tests and exposure during my son's tests.  It all adds up, and I am the only one that can look out for myself in this regard.

I debated this decision long and hard, and understood that it could mean life or death if I chose incorrectly.  I respected all of the doctors' opinions, and I did not take any of this lightly.  If you want to see my thought process and more detail, you can see that here.


Reconstruction...

In my very limited experience, I thought I had three options for my breast.  Leave it flat, which was not really an option I wanted.  Put a saline implant in there, which I didn't want anything unnatural in my body.  Or do a Tram Flap, which is using your belly fat and skin to make a new breast.  However, they use your stomach muscles, so I would not have been able to pick up my son or do a sit up.

I wasn't satisfied with those options, so I read and I searched.  There are actually a few other options, but once I found the DIEP Flap, I knew that was it.  The DIEP Flap procedure also uses your stomach tissue and skin, but leaves your stomach muscles in place.  Basically, it's a tummy tuck, and a new, natural breast.  There was only one doctor within a 100 mile radius that had the ability to do this surgery.

Two months after my mastectomy, I went under the knife again to have the DIEP Flap breast reconstruction done.  You can see/read about it here.   The procedure was extremely successful, and the results are very natural.  I joke to people all the time, "I would give my right breast to have a flat stomach again".  Well, I did it.

I also had a follow up surgery a couple months after the breast reconstruction.  It was mainly fat transfer from my thighs and waist to add to the new breast.  Sounds awful, doesn't it?


Drug Treatment...

Because my cancer cells expressed the Her2neu protein, I have been on a protein blocker called Herceptin since Nov 2013.  I get this infusion every three weeks at the hospital.  I only have two treatments left to complete my one year.

And here is one more area that I am going against the doctor's standard protocol.  The other medication that the Oncologist has requested I take is Tamoxifen for five years.  This is an estrogen blocker, and would put me in a state of menopause.  It's important because of the estrogen receptors in the type of cancer I had.  The doctor was not adamant about me taking Tamoxifen, he said it was my choice. I have refused this.  I don't have a really valid reason for doing so, I just honestly feel that the cancer is gone and will not be returning, so there is no reason to block estrogen currently. And the doctor is pleased with my currents tests.


Building the Body again...

I have remained on my supplement regimen for seven months now, and I have never felt better.  I have energy.  I have strength and stamina.  And I truly believe this has been a life saver.

In addition, I walk every day.  When it was summer, I was swimming up to 30 laps.  I do Yoga three days a week.  I do resistance training two or three days a week.  It's not hard to spend 5-10 minutes stretching or pulling on resistance bands.  I don't get all sweaty and worn out.  I get my body moving, even if it's just dancing in the living room.  That's the important part.

-----------------------------------------------

And now, one year after being diagnosed with what I thought was a death sentence, I am cancer free.  I am being told that there is only a 1-2% chance of the cancer returning in the next ten years.  Do I take that information for granted?  Not in the least.  I know I have a responsibility to myself and to my children to remain healthy.

I feel like this year was a lesson.  A lesson in how to be healthier.  A lesson in humility, self-respect, compassion, and most importantly, faith.  I've relied on faith in God and faith in myself.

My advice? Have faith that you're doing the right things and being true to what you believe.  It doesn't matter if you make the wrong decisions.  Bad things happen to everyone.  It doesn't make you weak.  Being strong is about facing your fears and being true to yourself no matter what anyone thinks.  If you win, great.  If you don't, nobody will think less of you.

Cancer, or any other storm, doesn't define us.





Thursday, September 25, 2014

What What?

Okay, here's the big news from the doctor today. He said that, based on my body's response to treatment, and the fact that the cancer had complete pathologic response, there is only a 1-2% chance of the cancer coming back in the next 10 years! This is extremely good news!!!

And the doctor knocked off the very last infusion, so I only have three more treatments of Herceptin left instead of four!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Almost Famous... Yeah, right!


Well that's something I never thought I'd see.... my picture, with hardly any hair, as big as day on the side of the road!  It's a vulnerable, yet very empowering feeling.  Hope to see you all soon at the race!  






This is the feature in the September issue of Talk Magazine......




Friday, August 15, 2014

Tummy Tuck Progression in Reverse- Graphic Photos

You will not want to see the photos near the end if you are at all squeamish. The journey isn't glamorous!  


When I did the DIEP Flap breast reconstruction, they did a modified tummy tuck to use the tissue and fat as my new breast.  Then, after a couple months of recovery, they did liposuction and fat transfer from my waist and thighs to add to my new breast.  I have spent the past three months healing.

This surgery, the subsequent surgery, and recovery have been beyond difficult and painful.  But the results are increasingly wonderful.  Each week, I am able to do more, and the pictures reflect not only the surgery, but the effort I've put into getting healthy with diet and exercise.

Looking back at the photos, I cringe at the thought I was dealing with so much pain.  But now, three months after that initial shock to my body, I'm stronger and leaner.  I'm getting better daily.  There is still quite a bit of swelling from the liposuction three weeks ago, but that will take six months to go down.   The massive scars will fade in time, and I will be sporting my new, hopefully toned, body by next summer.

Anyway, here are the photos of the tummy tuck progression in reverse.  The newest, most recent photo is first.  I've come a long way in three months.





After Liposuction Surgery