2nd Birthday

Hooray! We’re alive! Is it strange to also be excited about not dying? We’re accustomed to celebrating life in our culture but how often do we get to also celebrate not dying?

They are the same, after all; living and not dying. Marinate on that for a minute.

On Friday, June 7, I will reach the 2 year mark from my final Herceptin treatment, the date after which my doctors started the clock on my survival. Most breast cancer recurrences happen within 5 years. Because my cancer was HER2+, 2 years is instead an enormously important milestone for me. (Five years is still a big one for me too.)

Why? HER2+ breast cancer is aggressive and has a higher rate of recurrence than other types of breast cancer. Because it tends to be faster growing, the time to wait for it to come back is also faster. At 2 years, my doctors take a big sigh of relief and so do I. It didn’t come back yet so there is a better chance it won’t.

If you get to the 2 year mark without a HER2+ recurrence, you’re not in the clear. You’re never in the clear. But this Friday is the day a tiny bit of this planet I’ve been carrying can be put down. That tiny bit sure has been heavy!

As the unpleasant anniversaries of my illness begin this summer, I’m taking a different approach. Instead of moping through days of sad and scary memories, this year I have a day to truly celebrate living and not dying! It even feels a bit like a 2nd birthday.

My day was given to me by my doctors. Maybe we should all have one just because.

I don’t need a gift more than that but if you want me to squeal with delight at my big “2nd Birthday” Party called Art Bra Austin supporting the Breast Cancer Resource Center, I’d sure appreciate it. Art Bra is SATURDAY!!!

Photo by VINICIUS COSTA from Pexels

My uneventful Tamoxifen experience

In late July, I took my first dose of Tamoxifen. It was strangely ceremonial because I had for so long considered the drug just short of a nightmare. It was one of those moments where you just do it because you’re told and don’t have any other options…like chemo…like surgery. I was terrified but, frankly, just too worn out on the topic to resist any longer.

Because I’m pre-menopausal, my body is still creating plenty of estrogen. But, my type of cancer thrived on estrogen. Removing estrogen from my body can “starve” any pesky cancer cells that may be still floating around trying to take up shop somewhere in my body and kill me. That’s where Tamoxifen comes into play. The 5-year daily pill is able to target and protect breast cells (or rogue breast cancer cells) from estrogen uptake without tinkering with other important things that need estrogen like bones.

Why was I scared of a drug known to significantly reduce chances of recurrence of estrogen receptive breast cancer? Some women do not tolerate the drug well and I had heard of a myriad of awful side effects. The official list of side effects were very similar to going through natural menopause, but more severe. Loss of libido, mood, and skin changes were top concerns for me. I was afraid it would turn me into a tired, cranky, dried up piece of toast.

My doctor told me that I should at least try Tamoxifen. My other options were removal of my ovaries or doing nothing, treatment options that felt either extreme or careless.

The first month on the pill I had night sweats and mood swings. Luckily, my experience was nothing like what I’d heard from other women. It wasn’t a total breeze. Hormones are delicate things after all. But my body adapted. It was much, much easier than I expected.

Lexapro, which I had already been prescribed, can help with some of the side effects. My 3-month supply helped level out the bumps I believe.

I’m nearly 6 months in and I feel good. I have energy. My skin is in good shape. Sex drive is in full swing. Not so much as a hot flash to mention anymore. One added bonus is that it has nearly cleared up my debilitating menstrual cramps and lightened and shortened my periods significantly. I cling to these sorts of silver linings.

I did the right thing…kept an open mind, had sex regularly, maintained fitness, all the things that a healthy girl my age should do anyway. The peace of mind alone should have been enough, but, as always, it wasn’t enough for me. I want to enjoy life, not just live it.

Yesterday I went back up in the aerial silks for the time in 18 months. Being back up in the air, feeling a tiny bit of the strength I used to have, felt so blissfully familiar. As enormously as things have changed since May 2016, it was a relief to know that some things, the important things, could stay the same.

 

I’ll do it a thousand times again

June 7, 2017, my (hopefully) last chemo treatment ever, came and went. I completed 6 rounds of TCHP and 12 more rounds of Herceptin. I’ve been doing this every 3 weeks for 1 year. Add 3 surgeries, probably a hundred needle pokes, nearly a million dollars, and over a bagillion tears and it ends up being quite an eventful year. It must sound like a monumental understatement to say that I’m glad it is over.

I anticipated it being a day of immense relief and joy, like I would have pride in accomplishing something so hard and celebratory to not have to do it anymore. Instead, I felt tired, ready to get on with it, and very, very worried. Treatment is over. There is nothing more I can do to keep cancer from coming back. In fact, if the cancer comes back, it could be Stage 4 and terminal. Instead of feeling elated at my last treatment, I felt solemn as this realization sunk in.

Immediately, my busy mind got to work cataloging coughs and aches and blaming a metastasis. A sore spot on my spine landed me back at Radiology for a bone scan.

Negative. Likely a result of the Shape of You Videodance class at Ballet Austin. Or was it that fall on the boat? Maybe it was that heavy, new bathroom door installation.

Remember, Rach, life is getting back to normal. Sore backs are normal for someone who dangles from aerial silks, stumbles around on boat docs in various states of sobriety, and flings herself across dance floors in 7 inch platforms.

Worrying about this for the rest of my life is just simply not going to be sustainable. I never worried about being hit by a bus or murdered before cancer so why start now?

When my busy mind starts to get the better of me, I remind myself that I did it. And I’ll do it again if I have to. I’ll do it a thousand times, for myself and my parents and Cindy and Cinco, for all the people that helped me this year. I’ll worry about it when it happens, not before.

Smile as you walk by

Last year on this day my life abruptly changed forever. I sat in the gynecologist office and only remember him saying, “It’s bad.” My boyfriend sat in my hatchback with me in the parking lot while I cried. My charmed life was over. I just got a lot more interesting. The transition was a lot like driving into a brick wall.

There was only one way to proceed: one foot in front of the other until the end, just like before, only a little harder.

As independent as I like to believe I am, I knew I couldn’t do this alone. I called the person I knew could handle a crisis of this magnitude and she dropped everything for the next 6 months to help me.

The single most important piece of advice I can give to the women who come after me is to surround yourself with capable people before you need them. Cultivate meaningful friendships, especially with other women. You never know when you’ll need to call in your troops. Make sure you have them. I simply could not have done this without her.

As this day approached, I anticipated cringing at the date May 17. Terrible, no good day! This day caused me and many others so much pain. I wanted to skip this day. This day…I can’t even.

My boyfriend wisely reminded me that tough girls would take their day back. It doesn’t have to be a reminder of the pain but instead a reminder that I’m still here, a day to celebrate all that we did. So, I’m taking it back. My mom, so charmingly, said it is my day to say, “I won!” and then make lots of noise.

Okay, then. Noise starts now! Loud.

♫  Your life will be just fine and troubles do not stay. They get replaced with good times. Now you got a great life! Smile as you walk by. Thinking about the Day.  ♫

Fear is Relative

I put on the suit and harness, walked out to the plane, and watched the ground disappear as the plane rose. I hadn’t wanted to. I’m not a thrill seeker. We were celebrating the very special woman who orchestrated my cancer survival so I did what I was told.

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White knuckles anyone?

They opened the door and I took deep breaths of the fresh air. I felt tears. This, my mind’s voice reassured, was not nearly as scary as the last 12 months. But, the sensation felt familiar.

The feeling of powerlessness and anxious anticipation, not knowing what will happen but doing it anyway, is commonplace to me now. This isn’t like the old me. I used to be in control and preferred it that way. I’ve changed.

Fear is apparently relative. I’ve already done something incredibly scary, perhaps the most scary thing I’ll ever do. Nothing can scare me more. Not standing in front of an audience with no pants, not spiders or sharks, not even skydiving.

The night before wasn’t sleepless. I felt oddly calm before and during my jump, even during the free fall. I didn’t scream or close my eyes. I’m so glad I didn’t let the fear ruin it for me. I looked around and it was beautiful. I let go and it felt okay. It is a good lesson for all of us.

And at the end I hugged my people. Will Smith was right…the best things in life come after the maximum fear.

You know? You know.

Nearly everything I own fits far differently or not at all. My friends are having fun shopping in my closet. I’ve given away many of my tiny sundresses, bathing suits, and even my pretty lingerie. My bra drawer took the hardest hit. I’ve got nothing but a sports bra that was too big before my mastectomy.

This week, after I got the A-OK from my plastic surgeon that surgeries are finished and this is the size I can expect to stay, I went bra shopping. Petticoat Fair is known across the country as one of the leading bra fitters so I couldn’t wait to support my local bra slinger in person. They were charming when I went in pre-mastectomy to get info on therapeutic bras. They even work with insurance! These ladies are simply the best around.

My patient and gentle fitter asked a lot of questions so that I got not only what I wanted but also what was allowed per my surgeon’s instruction at this stage of my healing. She measured me and brought in a ton to try on. She stayed to adjust straps and check fit, making sure that every detail was supportive, comfortable, long-lasting, and pretty. I was glad she expected my new bra to be ALL those things equally.

I ended up with an every-day molded cup wireless bra that would be smooth even under tight, thin knit. It doesn’t press anywhere on my breasts or incisions so it won’t be painful or affect healing. I could have probably gotten one in every color since they are so versatile. I also got a sexy, black French lace bralette from the sale bin. These things can be expensive, especially those with fancy lace or trendy design. I was glad I was able to get one fun thing at a discount. (Heads up…French lingerie is still expensive even when it is on sale. Those curves though!)

They keep everything on file, including my wishlist with exact sizes. (Just in case my beau needs gift specifics…)

One of the best moments was when my fitter told me she was herself a 20 year cancer survivor. We shared a little about our experiences and she finished by saying, “you know,” not as a question but as a statement. It felt strange to “know” just what she meant, having just met her. It also felt good. It felt reassuring. She’s still here. I will be too.

Thank you, Cinco, for my Petticoat gift certificate! And, thank you Petticoat for making the downs an up, in all the ways.

Blonde Ambitions

As I near the first anniversary of my diagnosis, I find myself comparing life now to how it was before. Quite literally, time is now noted BC (before cancer). Everything that happened and will happen will always have the distinction of being before or after that moment. I see photos from last year from this time and think, “That was before. Look how happy and unaware I am of how absolutely, devastatingly your life is about to change.”

Fear and celebration are dovetailing right now. I’m approaching the painful memory of specific dates from 2016 while trying to stay focused on the happiness of reaching the same date in 2017.

For example, I had my hair colored the day of the terrifying biopsy last year. Hair styling very shortly after became an event so luxurious and precarious that combing took infinite care and usually resulted in uncontrollable tears. Never has there been such a focus on the top of my head. Never has so much money, time, effort, and emotional bandwidth gone into this forgettable tangle of highlights.

I had my hair colored again for the first time in almost a year. I have hair to color! It was blissful.

Savoring those beautiful moments will be what gets me through the next few months. Dates like May 17 (diagnosis) and June 15 (first chemo) are forever burned into my memory like a poorly planned tattoo, regrettably, even disgustingly, irreversible.

But, things certainly are looking up. The final treatments are scheduled. Surgeries are all healed. The new gummy bears are looking pretty darn good. My strength is returning and life is getting back to normal. And, blonde. BLONDE!