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?


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.


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.


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.


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......