Tuesday, December 16, 2008

12/16/2008: Infection Strikes

I am convinced that the world is a rollercoaster and that I am not strapped in. I thought my emergency surgery last Tuesday was going to be a breeze. I imagined that I would wake up from surgery, have some tightness in my chest with a little discomfort, be reunited with my family, order a semi-edible meal and sleep in a semi-comfortable bed, then head home the next morning. I was sorely mistaken.

Before my surgery several nurses came into my room to prep me. They used these sanitizing wipes to wash my entire body before I got into the bed. They said because of my compromised immune system from chemotherapy that they had to take every possible precaution. Shortly after I was cleaned my plastic surgeon arrived and marked my body to get me ready for surgery. My parents sat with me in the final moments before they took me back. Once I was in the room a large man entered. It was my surgeon, Dr. Kenneth Mason who originally diagnosed my cancer. He was there doing other surgeries but wanted to see me before they put me under. We chatted briefly about how far I had come in my journey and my black hair. The anesthesiologist started my drip. The room started to swirl, Dr. Mason leaned over and kissed me on the cheek telling me that it was all going to be okay and I felt the tears swell.

I woke up in recovery with horrible pain in my left breast and side. I had a huge, white blow-up contraption lying on top of me that looked like a floatation device for the pool that you use to float around and sunbathe on. It was pumping in hot air. The nurse explained that my temperature was incredibly low and they had to get it back up quickly. She continued checking my temperature and stayed with me in order to gage my pain. She explained that my plastic surgeon Dr. Wendy Gottlieb had done a lot of work on my left side and said that I would be very uncomfortable when I woke up. I continued asking for pain medicine and inquired as to when I could go to my room. She said not until I could go longer than eight minutes without asking for painkillers.

I watched as the woman across from me who had just had a mastectomy tried desperately to pull out her drainage tubes. Several nurses ran over and strapped her arms down as she screamed. My heart ached. Another nurse came into my curtained-off area and said an acronym starting with ‘S’ and ending in ‘D’. I proceeded to respond to her in a loud voice explaining that I was clean and did not want any STDs. I told her to “keep her bugs to herself.” Then the nurse next to me mentioned something about a scrotum which made me laugh like a 10-year-old and I then yelled “scrotum” at the top of my lungs. I’d like to say that most of this was due to the medicine, but honestly who knows. I decided I needed to pee and was given a bucket to sit on. My attempt was unsuccessful as my bladder was not cooperating, so when I laid back down I noticed the whole left side of my gown was covered in blood. I screamed for the nurse. She ripped my gown off, applied a folded gauze pad and told me to apply pressure. I was pressing on my breast as the pain pulsed through my whole body. The nurse ran to call Dr. Gottlieb. The gauze pad was reinforced with lots of sticky plastic tape to keep pressure on the leaky incision and I was given a new gown and a warm blanket.

Once I arrived in my room I was given a morphine button which allowed me to administer pain medicine once every 10 minutes. My pain was now under control. I had two contraptions strapped to my legs that continued to fill with air then deflate in order to keep me from getting blood clots. I must have been allergic to them because I broke out in hives and welts all over my legs and could not stop scratching them. I finally ripped them off that evening and tucked them under my covers. I finally had to pee and called the nurse. She told me that I needed to go in the bucket in my bed. I assured her that “my cup would runneth over,” but she insisted. I was right and she was wrong. The nurse told my mom not to make a big deal about me peeing all over my bed since she didn’t want to embarrass me. My mom laughed and said, “You don’t know my daughter.” We all had a pretty good laugh about it. The next time I told the nurse I had to pee she helped me out of bed. Guess she learned her lesson. When you gotta go you gotta go.

It is no surprise that I am cranky and miserable being slowed down and achy only a week after surgery. Not to mention that the results are not to my liking at all. My surgeon opted to go with the smaller size implant that I had picked out, however my skin is still very tight so the implants are smooshed. My left breast is very swollen and black and blue. The swelling runs all the way down my left side to my hip bone.

On Friday I had a follow-up appointment with Dr. Gottlieb and she informed me that when they went into my left breast that there was a lot of “gunk” that had built up between the expander and my skin due to the radiation. She said they had to scrap and clean and scrap and clean again. I told her about how unhappy I was with the results and she told me that I need to wait 1 to 3 months for the implants to settle into place. She said that if I am still not happy in 3 months that we will revisit the issue but right now I have to heal. I am devastated by the way I look physically and am trying desperately to be patient, but I am wearing thin at this point.

Thankfully my family was there by my side and my friends came to visit me. They all dealt with my Percocet infused blabber and tear-filled rants about how I am miserable and hate my body. Just like my mastectomy, this surgery has brought with it insecurities, psychological challenges, anxiety and depression. I’m not going to create an illusion that this is all easy and that I am happy. I am all out of faith at this point and that’s simply how I feel. I am not sure how much more I can endure.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

12/7/2008: Surgery Moved

Update: Surgery has been moved to tomorrow (Tuesday) at Virginia Hospital Center at 2:40pm. I will be spending the evening in the hospital due to my skin complications. I will most likely stay with my parents Wednesday evening since I won't be totally mobile still.

I fear that things have gotten worse. As I was getting ready for a party on Saturday night I noticed that my incision across my left breast was black and blue and the blood vessels were bright red. I called my plastic surgeon on her emergency line and she told me that my skin was compromised from radiation and that my incision was starting to open.

I went to Reston Hospital Sunday morning and my plastic surgeon, Wendy Gottlieb was there in sweats with her three-month-old little girl in tote. She checked my incision and then placed a large needle through my breast into my expander. She removed 25cc of saline and then while pulling the needle out stopped outside the expander and pulled out fluid that had built around my expander. She removed 35cc of fluid total in order to alleviate pressure on my incision where my skin has become incredibly thin.

My plastic surgeon and I selected two sizes of implants and most likely I will have to go with the smaller size due to the fact that my skin is so compromised. Dr. Gottlieb says that the fact that my boobs are retaliating now is odd, but not completely unheard of. She said that radiation breaks down the skin over time and that mine is apparently happening now. Just in time for surgery … lucky me! In the interim, if my incision opens further I have to pack it with Neosporin, keep it covered and start taking an antibiotic. I am keeping my fingers crossed that it will hold up one more day.

I have real mixed emotions about this surgery. I wish I could say that I was in a great frame of mind, but I'm not. I feel deafeated although I know that is not the full story when looking at the big picture. I am simply exhausted from fighting and I want so badly to be done with all this. These expanders have been incredibly uncomfortable and I long to be able to sleep on my stomach or even my side comfortably. It is hard to explain how they feel. I guess the best description is that they feel like bricks sitting on my chest. They are hard, don't move and are incredibly heavy. But I have also grown accustomed to them and finally accepted the way my body looks. Now I have to fight that vanity battle all over again.

Keep me in your thoughts tomorrow and I will write a blog entry when I am on the mend.

Friday, December 5, 2008

12/5/2008: Thankful List

Thanksgiving marks some difficult moments in my life, such as when my grandmother passed away and when I found the tumor under my arm that resulted in my cancer diagnosis. It was only a year ago that before going to bed I rolled over on my left side and felt a sharp pain in my armpit. I knew at that moment that something was seriously wrong with my body, but I never expected it to be cancer. It is hard to believe that I have been sick and fighting for my life for over a year. It is overwhelming, even now.

My friend Bronwyn said it best when she texted me on Thanksgiving morning and told me to try and celebrate how far I’ve come and all of the Happy Thanksgiving memories I have made in the past. Despite the difficult moments in my life, I took this holiday to relax and truly reflect on all the wonderful things in my life. If you know me, you are aware that I am not one to mope and be negative, especially with so much yummy food beckoning me. So on Thanksgiving I ate, drank, watched football, texted my friends Happy Thanksgiving, laughed as our tiny Yorkie, Abigail Marie barked at herself in the fireplace and curled up in my parent’s big comfy chair while my Mom played with my hair.

I decided to make a list of the top 10 things I am thankful for in my life. I shall not leave you in suspense any longer for this list is quite epic.

10. FaceBook: I know, being thankful for an online social network seems ridiculous in theory, however FaceBook has brought so many good friends back into my life or simply gave me access to their pages where I can stalk them for hours at a time. Either way, it has been entertaining, consuming and satisfying. Thank you Mark Zuckerberg for creating FaceBook from your Harvard dorm room.

9. Dancing & Singing: I have attended weddings, birthday parties, going away events … you name it, and I have done it over the past few months. I have even gone so far as to sing for four hours straight and lose my voice playing Rock Band at a party. I belted Tina Turner ‘Private Dancer’ and ‘Don’t Cry for Me Argentina’ from Evita karaoking. I have been out with my girlfriends dancing until 4 a.m. and even breaking it down in my underwear in the living room by myself. I have a new lease on life and I am partying like a rockstar.

8. Traveling: I can’t sit still for too long and being grounded in Northern VA during treatment and surgery was painful for me. Not that I don’t like it here, but I get bored easily and require a change of scenery. I blame it on being a Sagittarian. One weekend in November I visited my sorority sister Nicky in New York City and the next I was in Los Angeles with my friend Bronwyn. These trips reinforced that I am not a victim, but instead am a survivor. I was renewed, although I came home and got a terrible sinus infection. It was totally worth it!

7. Yoga: I started taking yoga about three years ago with my friend Marisa and never before has it been such an important part of my life. On days when I could barely walk or talk, I would lie on my yoga mat and follow some simple breathing and stretching exercises. I was able to meditate and from time to time would even cry during the sessions from letting negative energy and thoughts go. I was focusing solely on healing my body, empowering my mind and strengthening my soul. It made me feel better and for those moments I was able to leave cancer behind and connect with myself.

6. Peanut Butter & Jelly Sandwiches: I didn’t realize how bad my taste buds had become from the chemotherapy and all the testing. Everything had this weird vegetable-like taste or metallic flavor. It wasn’t until the afternoon I arrived home from New York that I had my first peanut butter and jelly sandwich in years. I drooled down my face as I relished in the powerful texture and sweetness that the sandwich possessed. I know it sounds stupid, but imagine everything tasting like brussels sprouts for six months and then all of a sudden you can taste a PB&J. It was amazing! I have had seven PB&Js since.

5. Jurassic Park: Now I know this seems completely absurd and especially listed over PB&J, but Jurassic Park heals all my wounds. If you know me well, then you know that I am psycho for JP. “Clever girl” gets me every time and although I have watched the movie 50-some times; I still sit on the edge of my seat and yell at the TV for the kids to hide in the kitchen while being stalked by the velociraptors. Without Jurassic Park, I don’t know where I would be. (Kori, Lord of the Rings is right behind JP. I am psycho for it, too.)

4. Hair: I HAVE HAIR … and just in time for winter!!! Although I believe that I look like a fourteen year old boy, I cannot begin to tell you how thrilled I am to have soft, thick, dark brown hair. I have about 2.5 inches of hair now and it is growing really fast! Not only that, but my eyelashes and eyebrows have returned and although they are not as thick and long, they are so much better than having nothing. The vanity issues are finally resolving themselves and I am so thankful.

3. Friends (laughter): It’s like in the movie ‘Sex and the City’ when Carrie is certain that she will never laugh again after her saga with Mr. Big. “You will,” Miranda assures her, “when something is really funny.” Although not as dramatic, my inner comedian lay dormant and I wondered if she would ever come back. Oh, she certainly did. There were a couple of times that I even tried to fight it, but laughed so hard I piddled. (Yes, piddled.) Like Carrie, my friends brought me back to life with their quick wit, making fun of me unrelentingly and holding my hand every step of the way … even when I was too proud to grab for it first.

2. Family: How can I possibly make this list without including my family? I am thankful for my Cheerleader (my father) who has been at every single appointment (except for the boob ones, because that’s just too weird). I am thankful for my Rock (my mother) who from day one assured me that “it’s ok” and even on days when it wasn’t, she made it feel like it was. My Sweetness (my brother) who always told me how beautiful I am even with a bald head, no eyelashes, swollen face, five drainage tubes and the ugliest bra you’ve ever seen. My peanut (Abigail, our Yorkie) who kept me entertained while in my darkest of hours by stealing my glasses off my face and hiding them throughout the house. My family is my everything and with their love and support we beat cancer.

1. Being Cancer Free: It is one of those things you really cannot understand unless you have lived through it. Hearing the word “remission” and knowing that death had you in his grasp and you fought like hell and won is the most incredible feeling. Cancer is the worst thing I can possibly imagine. And it isn’t simply what it did to me physical, psychologically and emotionally, but how it affected my family, friends, work, school … my entire life. Cancer pulled the rug out from under me and without my team of doctors, a strong will power and endless support … I would not be here today. I am thankful and truly blessed.

Monday, November 24, 2008

11/24/2008: Lymphedema

When Laurie and I drove up to the store we joked that the name sounded similar to "rectal." That should have been our first clue. Nothing good can come from a store that sounds similar to anything having to do with your butt.

I was referred to Vienna Rexall Drug to be fitted for a sleeve that I have to wear when I fly. There was some urgency to get it soon because my trip to Los Angeles was quickly approaching. The sleeve comes in different compressions in order to keep your arm from swelling due to lymphedema. My compression is 20 percent and it is TIGHT! Sleeves are cotton, but are made with a thick microfiber. I don't have lymphedema, but as a preventative measure I will have to wear one on my left arm any time I fly on an airplane for the rest of my life.

After checking in, Laurie and I waited for the woman who would be fitting me for my sleeve. This means that we proceeded to find the most ridiculous and inappropriate items and make fun of them while giggling like ten-year-olds. What else can you do when you are dealing with cancer? … Hold up a hernia belt and make gestures that our mothers would frown upon. A woman approached us wearing jeans and a denim button-front shirt. Holy double denim! This was clue number two.

She ushered me back into a small area that looked like their storage room. Laurie stood outside the curtain with her eyebrows raised waiting for me to give her the okay to join me. I ushered her in referring to her as "my lady." The woman reviewed my prescription and looked at me in confusion. She said, "What are you, like 12?" "Um, no. I'm 26," I responded annoyed. Just like everyone else, she was shocked at the severity of my cancer at such a young age. With that came a series of questions, such as "Did you find it yourself?" "How big was the tumor?" "How were the lymph nodes involved?" Then out of nowhere she asked, "Do you have any children?" "No," I replied. "Well, I hope you have a good support system then," she said next. I looked over at Laurie and her expression encompassed my frustration and annoyance.

After a call to my plastic surgeon to verify the necessary compression, the denim clad lady returned to take my measurements. I slipped my arm out of my sweater and with a small measuring tape; the woman carefully measured my wrist, forearm, bicep (which I flexed for her amusement) and the length of my arm. I fell into the tiny end of the small sleeve bracket on the back of the package. Surprise! Surprise! I was given two sleeve options: one with a silicon grip at the top and one without. I tried on both with the denim clad lady's assistance. The sleeve is extremely difficult to get on without help. Once I made my decision (which was the sleeve with the silicone grip at the top) I was then instructed to try to put the sleeve on myself. She explained how you can use a trash bag to help roll the sleeve on. It was ridiculous. I just looked at Laurie and tried not to giggle as this woman demonstrated putting a bag on her arm. This should have been clue number three.

You have to put sleeves on a certain way because all of the compression can't be in one place at once because it can cause trauma to the arm. Of course putting on the sleeve for the first time was a challenge, but I managed to do it without the silly trash bag. The visit to the butt store was successful, but let's just say Laurie and I were happy to finally leave and return to normalcy.

Monday, November 3, 2008

11/3/2008: Fellow Survivor

When I was a freshman in college and a new member of Alpha Omicron Pi I was learning about some of my older sisters. In doing so, one of them shared with me her favorite quote.

"In the depths of winter, I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer." -- Albert Camus

I loved it so much that I used it as MY favorite quote from that moment forward. And as new AOIIs came through the chapter I shared with them this quote. I believe that it is only in our darkest hours that we truly see ourselves for who we are at the core and embrace the beauty that lies within each of us.

As we dined over fajitas and enchiladas, Jennifer and I spoke of our survival with cancer. Jennifer is still undergoing chemotherapy and has an indescribable passion about life and helping other women facing breast cancer. I listened as she recounted her story and the traumatic experiences, like losing her hair. She and I both agreed that losing our long, beautiful hair was one of the most difficult parts of the journey. We were planning our hairstyles while we grow our locks back out and discussing how many years we think it will take to get it back to the length it was pre-cancer. We thought three to four years seemed about right.

Jennifer and I had only spoken over e-mail and this was the first time we had met face-to-face. After a lunch that lasted over four hours, we were old friends. We talked about the most personal of topics, including intimacy after a mastectomy, weight gain from steroids (holy bloating!) and even our inner most fears about the cancer returning. (I even give myself daily breast exams even though I know I don't have breasts anymore.) However, our conversation wasn't all consumed with the horrible aspects of our cancer. Instead we continued to say, "Cancer is the best thing that has ever happened to me."

I know, it seems like such a strange sentiment, but with all my heart, it's true. Jennifer spoke about how she would drive in the car with her children while on the phone with her friends. She realized that no one was getting 100% of Jennifer's time. This disease has afforded her the opportunity to re-evaluate her life and put her priorities back into place. She is more present in the moment. She believes that cancer has made her a better daughter, mother, wife and friend.

I shared with Jennifer that I have taken a step back and really looked at my life. What do I want? I feel as though I have been given another opportunity at living my life and I am so excited about what's to come. I still have so much growth work, but who doesn't? Instead of following a timeline set by society, I am taking the yellow brick road less traveled (thanks Jana) and enjoying my journey … wherever it may lead. I have never felt more centered in who I am and what I deserve. I am genuinely happy.

My journey is far from over and just because my reconstruction ends in February/March it doesn't mean that cancer is no longer a part of my story. The depths of winter have unveiled an invincible summer that will guide me in helping other women who face this same journey. Because like Jennifer, I can show them that cancer can be the best thing to happen to them, too.

Monday, October 13, 2008

10/13/2008: Surgery Scheduled

MY SURGERY IS SCHEDULED FOR DEC. 17. That's right … two days before my 27th birthday!

Happy birthday to me! Happy birthday to me! I finally will have boobies that are big and squish-y.

This past week I met with my oncologist, Dr. David Heyer and touched base with him now that my radiation is over. He examined my expander implants, lymph nodes (neck, groin, armpits and stomach) and how my skin is healing. He was shocked at how well my body is bouncing back. He still calls me his Bionic Woman.

We discussed a multitude of options for my preventative regimen and the medications I am currently taking. The problem is that most studies that have been conducted have been done on women who are twice my age. I am only +2 estrogen positive, which is extremely low, however it is enough to constitute hormone therapy. My situation is so different and my doctors are doing everything in their power to take all the necessary precautions and read between the lines when it comes to my stats. The next phase of my journey is a 5-year regimen of Tamoxifen. This is a hormone therapy that suppresses estrogen in my body. I always knew I was way too girly!

So now I have night sweats again, severe mood swings and basically feel nauseous 24/7. Let's just say that I'm a real joy! Additionally, Dr. Heyer and I had a mini-therapy session where I told him about how in 2005 I went through a traumatic experience and went on an anti-anxiety medication to help me gain weight. Coincidentally, my current medication does not mesh well with the Tamoxifen. So, he switched that medication to something new and cut it in half (eventually wanting me off the anti-anxiety medication completely). It's difficult to tell what medication is causing what side effect, but I feel pretty crummy.

I suppose the only good side effect is the fact that the seven pounds I had gained during chemotherapy has literally melted away over the course of last week. Let's just hope it stops and doesn't continue the drastic plummeting. I know I have the Victoria Beckham haircut (Or rather she has mine. I'm such a trendsetter!), but I don't want the skeletal frame.

Other than the medication side effects, brick-hard boobs, doctors appointments, imaging, two-toned skin, curling hair and the fact that my new clothes don't fit now … I am doing well. I am reclaiming my life by throwing myself back into work and my thesis. I am surprisingly happier than I have been in a long time. I know that the road is still long, but instead of dragging my feet with my head hung and kicking pebbles, I find myself skipping with my face upward toward the illuminating sunshine.

Monday, September 29, 2008

9/29/2008: The Outer Banks

Twenty-foot high white waves crashed into the shore of the Outer Banks. With my feet buried in the sand I felt the cold water engulf my ankles and shoot up my legs. I sucked in air as the icy cold water caused goose bumps to form all the way up my body to my scalp. I watched as the waves would swell into intimidating walls of water and then crash in a spiral of fury with a large rumbling roar. I thought to myself how appropriate that Jennifer should mean white wave. I opened my arms, arched my back and looked to the sky. I embraced the strength and beauty of the ocean in that moment and felt more centered then I have in years. A gust of warm air wrapped itself around my neck and trickled down my back like a sun-lit scarf. A warm tear ran down my cheek.

A seagull limped along the foamy edges of the sand. He had a broken foot that faced backwards which made it difficult for him to walk, so instead he hobbled uncomfortably. He finished sunbathing, lifted both of his feet and soared above the waters break. Despite his deformed foot, he flew with no problems and gracefully dove and spun in delight. He was magnificent.

The recent storms had eroded the beach and left some of the homes on shaky foundation. These homes take so much pounding storm after storm. How many times can they break before they shatter? Instead of throwing their hands in the air and giving up, these home owners placed new foundational beams next to the old one’s and reestablished the base of the home. A new foundation was laid in order to face the next storm.

This was a trip for my family to get away and regroup. We laughed until our bellies hurt chasing our Yorkshire terrier puppy, Abigail around the house. We yelled at the TV and cheered on our Skins as they defeated the Cowboys. We were shocked to find out about the death of Paul Newman and talked about his life over breakfast. We discussed the presidential debates. We reminisced about beach trips in year’s past. We ate amazing food, drank sweet martinis and complained about not getting our bread fast enough. (Well, that last one was just me.) It was just a normal vacation without cancer looming over us. I think my mother said it best, “The glow in your cheeks was not from chemotherapy and radiation … but from Carolina sun.” We will never be the same, but we will move on and embrace that powerful and beautiful white wave, soar high despite a crippled foot and lay a new foundation.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

9/24/2008: Radiation is Over

Multi-vitamin, Aquaphor, Vicodin, L’Oreal day and night cream, vitamin C, emu oil, Ambien, Mary-Kay firming eye cream, protein powder, Aveeno body lotion, Lexapro, Aveeno skin brightening daily scrub, Visine, Pepto, Burt’s Beeswax Balm, organic aloe, Neosporin, Cortizone 10, IBS stomach powder … and occasionally Xanax with a small glass of orange juice with no pulp.

If I were to watch someone else lay out this evening routine night after night, I think I would be concerned that perhaps they are overdosing, or psycho. I suppose I wouldn’t be too far off in my judgment.

I have finished all twenty-eight radiation treatments and now suffer from severe third degree burns on my chest, breast, back and underarm. I am doing everything in my power to ensure that I am healing from the inside and outside. This is my new focus now that treatment is over. My last week of treatment was incredibly intense. I had quarter-sized blisters on top of other blisters that popped and bled. The skin under my armpit burnt and quickly dried causing it to bleed when I moved. I couldn’t eat, sleep, or function, and all the doctors could advise me to do was use my creams and take pain pills. Luckily, the pain has subsiding and my skin is improving. The doctors said it could take 4 to 6 weeks just for the redness to subside.

My plastic surgeon said due to the severity of my radiation reaction, she won’t do my next surgery (swapping the expanders for the permanent implants) until early January. At least the whirlwind slows and I am able to take a breath and enjoy the holidays. I have one more fill to get me fully expanded (scheduled for Oct. 3) and I must say … my cups runneth over. I am really pleased that I had reconstruction done immediately following surgery. I am beginning to embrace my new body and appreciate the work that my plastic surgeon has done.

I head to the Outer Banks next week and I think it will be the perfect time to start working through some of the psychological damage caused by cancer and my bilateral mastectomy. I don’t plan to have it all figured out and packaged up for storage in the life experiences section of my closet, but at least I can start the process and get myself in a better state of mind. If only packing all my medications and lotions was so easy.

Monday, September 15, 2008

9/15/2008: First Haircut

"STOP IT!" My whole body shook and my eyes widened. I wasn't expecting to scream out loud or, for that matter, for my voice to be so high pitched. I sounded like a 12-year-old girl throwing a tantrum because her Mom wouldn't let her go to the mall with her girlfriends. My pulse was racing, the beads of sweat were forming on my nose and cheeks and my ears started ringing. I felt sick to my stomach and dizzy … a panic attack set in. I looked to my left and noticed that the man sitting in the blue Corolla next to me in traffic was staring at me. I managed a smile and envisioned the scene he must be witnessing inside of my car. "Jesus, he must think I am a nut!" I thought. Well, aren't I? Who gets this worked up over something SO stupid!? Ugh. I propped my elbow on the edge of my car window and covered my face with my hand. I tried to convince myself it was to protect my eyes from the sunlight when in actuality I was hiding from the man in the Corolla. Traffic started crawling again and the driver witnessing my tantrum moved ahead of me. Whew.

I arrived at my destination and sat in the waiting room. My stomach was now in my throat and my foot shook intensely making my thigh jiggle under my charcoal-colored dress. The minutes dragged and I sat there thinking of excuses to leave. "I feel sick… or my Mom just called and I need to rush home … or my friend is having a baby … or simply, I just can't do this." I kept ignoring the urges to run for the door and kept myself planted. "You can do this. You can do this." I kept repeating these words over and over in my head. Mandi turned the corner and saw me. Without thinking she ran, grabbed me and squeezed me as hard as she could. "Not too hard!" I yelped and she quickly apologized, calling me Baby Girl and loosened her grip. "I haven't seen you since …" her voice trailed off. "It's just so good to see you. Are you healthy now?"

As soon as we started chatting the fear and anxiety washed away and I was completely at ease. I shared my feelings of reluctance and Mandi quickly sympathized telling me that she has two other cancer patients and can understand. The appointment only took about 45 minutes. Once it was over I stood up and surveyed the floor. I saw my hair laying there in a little 'C' around the base of the chair … and I didn't freak out. I felt nothing. Psychologically, this was a huge feat for me. When I left the other women in the salon were gathered around me, sharing in my story, suggesting I wear large earrings, calling my new haircut "fierce" and even rejoicing in my health and praising God openly. Once again, I survived.

These past few weeks, my family and friends have recounted my story. They remember so many distinct details, both good and bad. I am simply shocked at how my story has affected others, especially those close to me. We will forever be changed. Some of the things I have said and even blogged about surprise me now that I can look back objectively. I cannot believe how completely erratic I was over the silliest of things. I know now that psychologically, I chose to focus on my weight gain, not having a boyfriend, my hair and things that were tangible rather then the fact that I was fighting for my life. I needed to control something and "cancer" was much too big. Now I am focusing on the big picture and trying to come to terms with the whirlwind I have experienced the last eight months. I keep living by my mother's words. She said them the moment I was diagnosed and I will never forget them … "It's going to be okay. We will get through this together."

I have only five more treatments of radiation which means by next Thursday I will be finished. I have second degree burns on my chest and my skin is blistered, peeling and bleeding. Treatment has been excruciating. I noticed yesterday during my radiation treatment that despite working with the same technicians daily, I don't know their names. As that thought crossed my mind, I looked at the woman's nametag. Darlene. Everyday she has been examining my skin, complimenting my shoe collection, pushing and pulling on my body to get it centered under the radiation rays … and all along I have distanced myself. It's not that I am oblivious; it is that I purposely am trying to not get personal. I keep my interaction minimal in hopes of blocking this out of my memory as soon as it is over. I even plug my nose when I put on my layers and layers of skin cream to not recall the smell.

Subconsciously my mind has determined how much I can handle and has created these little barriers to keep me safe. I am amazed at how astonishing my body and mind are. Whether it's getting through my first haircut or separating myself from treatment … I have come to learn that in addition to my spirit, my mind and body are just trying to survive the best way they know how. And you know what? It's going to be okay. We will get through this together.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

9/2/2008: A Day in the Life ...

At happy hour I ordered a mojito from a young, attractive female bartender. She asked for my ID and after reviewing it, handed it back to me and said, "This looks nothing like you." I paused for a moment and said, "I know, right? But this fake ID's been working for years." She gave me a stupid laugh and went to make my drink.

Walking to my car at Reston Hospital after just having had my sixteenth radiation treatment, an old woman parked next to me in a handicap spot was getting something out of her passenger seat. She said, "You sure do walk well in those heels for being handicapped." I unlocked my door and thought for a moment about what she was implying. I turned to face her; she wouldn't look me in the eye. I said, "I have cancer." Still not looking at me, she closed her door and locked it. She started shaking her head back and forth in disgust and said under her breath, "It's a shame they give handicap spots to people who are sick." I refrained from physically hurting the woman. As she wobbled off I said, "You are rude and ignorant. I hope you don't ever have to endure what I did these last seven months." She continued up the path still shaking her head. I choked back the tears as the anger boiled inside my stomach.

Shopping with my mother at Banana Republic we quickly acquired a rockstar sales woman. She continued taking my handfuls of clothes to the dressing room and helped pick out items she thought would look cute on me. I explained that any dress or top with a built in band under the bust would not work for me since I was still under construction and not at my final size yet. As I continued browsing the gorgeous fall clothes, my mom shared with the woman that I had breast cancer. I am not sure exactly what their conversation entailed, but when I turned around the woman looked at me completely different. She asked if she could hug me and I agreed. I could feel her chest convulsing against mine … she was trying not to cry.

At the check out line at Harris Teeter I purchased a ton of fruits and vegetables to start my 10-day detox regimen. The young man scanning my groceries was pimple-faced with a head covered in dread locks. As I was paying for my organic selections the boy asked, "Are you a hippie?" I tried not to laugh and responded as serious as I could with, "Yep, I sure am." He said, "Righteous." I barely held myself together and upon leaving I turned to the boy, threw a peace sign and said "Make love, not war." He responded just as I expected … with a peace sign. Righteous!

Finishing my treatment I clinched the hospital gown at my waist and headed back to the changing room. I hadn't noticed the woman sitting in the chair. She said, "Oh, I was hoping I would get to see you today." This woman (whose name I do not know) has treatment right after me, so sometimes our paths cross. I noticed she wasn't wearing her wig today, although most of us don't when we are being treated. Her blonde, fuzzy hair stood about a half-inch off her head and went beautifully with her porcelain skin and rosy cheeks. She looked at me with such conviction and said, "I want you to know that you gave me the courage to go without my wig today. It's certainly not as long or thick as yours and because it is so light I still look bald." I was stunned and truly touched. I sat down in the chair next to her and said, "I am so proud of you. What happened to us isn't our fault and you shouldn't be ashamed of it. You are absolutely stunning." Her eyes were swelling. I smirked a bit and asked, "Do you know what the best part is? You don't have to worry about the rain messing it up." She laughed and instantly the mood was lightened. The technician came back to get her and we said our goodbyes. I stood in the changing room and cried.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

8/27/2008: Refresh

Refresh. That is precisely what I have done. I have clicked the refresh button on my psychological state and although it hasn't wiped clean the issues, it has put me in a better position to handle them. My mindset and spirit are in a much better place and the chaos that controlled my mind and caused such turmoil feels organized and manageable … just the way I like things.

I don't claim to have it all figured out, or to feel at peace with what has happened over the past seven months of my life, but I also refuse to let it control me. I said early on that I live by my father's words that when you wake up in the morning and your feet hit the floor you make a choice how you want your day to go. It takes just as much effort to be negative as it does to be positive … I choose to invest my time wisely.

This past week served as a turning point for me. While I experienced a heavy heart being contacted by four young women who are embarking on my same journey, I felt intense vitality and vibrancy through the happiness of my friends. One of my closest friends, Marisa, gave birth to her son, Brady Patrick Shea on Wednesday. As I received the minute-by-minute updates throughout her labor I trembled with anticipation, prayed for her and Brady's safety and my heart soared with the purest of loves. Once the news came that Brady had made his grand entrance, I felt elated and rejuvenated.

My friend Kandi, who is also fighting breast cancer, made it through her mastectomy on Friday with clean margins. She is cancer free and I am so incredibly thankful. She and I both conquered chemotherapy, surgery … and now cancer. She is such an amazingly strong woman and I am blessed to know her.

At a concert Saturday night I danced with my best friend's two-year-old daughter, Hadley. At the end of the evening she reached up for me to carry her. Walking to the car I spun her around singing the lyrics to Tommy Tutone '8675309 Jenny' that was being sung by the '80s cover band, The Reflex. She looked up and pointed to the sky saying 'plane.' I told her that they were stars and they were far away. She repeated the word, 'stars' over and over. In that moment, I was completely present and treasured every step I took down that gravel path with Hadley perched on my hip.

I find these days that I allow myself to get lost in the moment and am much more present when with my friends and family. Every minute counts. This weekend I organized a family outing to see 'The Lion King' at the Kennedy Center. Doctors appointments, surgeries, treatment sessions and medicated comas stole family time from us these past seven months. It was time to finally create a new memory of our family being together … one that was positive. As I looked down the row at the Opera House and watched their expressions I knew this would serve as the new memory of togetherness.

It's just my luck that as I start to get myself together psychologically, my body starts to fail me. I now have radiation poisoning on my chest. Basically, it is a severe form of sun poisoning/burn, but, according to my radiological oncologist, my skin is not red enough yet. My skin is pinkish red and I have broken out in a rash that is EXTREMELY itchy. (And wouldn't you know that scratching the rash makes it itch more.) Supposedly, this is all normal. I have completed 12 days of radiation and have 16 more to go. My radiological oncologist cut back my treatment from 30 to 28 days. I will continue treatment the way I have been until Sept. 12, then Sept. 15-17 they will increase treatment by 25 percent and focus it just on the center of my chest. I am counting down the days, keeping my mind healthy and taking lots of Benadryl. Ahh so itchy!!!

Friday, August 22, 2008

8/22/2008: I Miss My Hair

"How often do you have to cut your hair to keep it looking like that?" a woman asked me on the elevator. I was completely caught off guard by her question. I stared at her for a moment, and then said, "I haven't had to cut it yet, so I don't know. I had cancer so I was bald." She responded, "Well it is gorgeous and you are absolutely stunning." I miss my hair today.

I look at pictures of myself from last fall and over the holidays and I cannot believe how a couple of months can change you so much. I look completely different. I don't even recognize myself anymore. I have gotten many compliments on my new super-short 'do and plenty more stares. It's the staring that I can't stand. When I wore my wig I was camouflaged. I was able to be just one of the crowd without drawing attention to myself. Now I stand out and I wonder what people are thinking when they look at me. The weird thing is, I always loved standing out and getting attention, but this time I hate it. Maybe it's because it's not something I had control over. I wonder if people know that I had cancer. Do they assume that I am a lesbian? Do they think I am just trying to be trendy? Hmm … I wish I knew.

Perhaps if I had more strength and was rested none of this would even bother me. Radiation has quickly become very challenging. I am absolutely drained to the point of tears and find it hard to focus on anything of any importance. I meet with Dr. Moulds every Tuesday and he assures me that this is all very normal. He said he would leave my level of activity to my discretion, but that I may find that I need to cut back on some of my "social outings" due to fatigue. He wasn't kidding! Not only am I exhausted, but I am becoming irritable and cranky. Frankly, I'm a real joy. The fact that I cannot exercise to the extent that I'd like doesn't help either. It just feels like a vicious cycle. As soon as I finish one phase of this journey and start to feel better, I begin another and crash again. I am experiencing a loss of appetite, reliance on sleeping pills and an increase in caffeine intake, so my body is totally off. I need things to be normal and balanced again.

Luckily my skin has held up to radiation so far. The area that has been radiated is slightly pink, but I have no pain or discomfort. Apparently the visual effects don't surface until week three or four. I am hoping that with my vitamin C intake and using the suggested creams and ointments I will be able to avoid the burns and blisters.

If the exhaustion doesn't drive me off a cliff, perhaps my psychological state will. I was talking to my girlfriend Laurie over lunch the other day and was expressing some desires, such as traveling, losing weight, moving, and wiping clean my wardrobe, along with other things. She is so smart … she was able to see through my whirlwind comments and decipher that what I am trying to do is "start over." After a life-changing event people seek to wipe the slate clean, go where no one knows them and start anew. I have this unrelenting desire to start over and it consumes me. I feel as though I have been dropped into a void and that my recovery is still just beginning (which it technically is). It's almost as if when I went into remission people were saying, 'oh, you must be so relieved you're getting well, this is so great.' However I just cried a lot, and thought, 'I can't believe what I just went through.' I've read a lot about the grief experienced after breast cancer treatment and realized I suffered from something similar to posttraumatic stress disorder. It didn't all hit until it was already over. I believe things will get better in time, but that I greatly underestimated the psychological effects of this journey. However, I will continue to let God be my compass and celebrate my tiny victories.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

8/12/2008: Radiation

"Oh my God! Oh my God! Oh my God!" I screamed in the phone. My mother's voice responded in sheer panic as she listened to me going ballistic on Saturday morning. "What's the matter? Are you okay? What happened?" she said flustered. "I started my period!" I exclaimed. The tears rolled down my face as I jumped up and down on my mattress. Ah yes, the tiny victories...

I had been sick all last week with horrible stomach pain, vomiting, loss of appetite, pure bitchiness (which wasn't too abnormal, haha)... and I was absolutely perplexed as to what was wrong. But everything became clear Saturday morning when I awoke to the lovely visit of "aunt flow" who had been missing since chemotherapy began. Some women never have their period return after chemotherapy and stay in a state of menopause for the remainder of their lives. Other women take 6 months to 2 years for it to return ... for me, it only took 2 months after I had finished chemotherapy. My body is absolutely amazing and it isn't going to go dormant without a serious fight. Thata girl! The fact that my period returned means that my body is resuming a healthy state and that my fertility may have been saved. Now, I am sure I won't be on a normal schedule for awhile, but at least my body is fighting hard, and that is great news!

This morning I had my first radiation treatment. Many people have already asked me what it was like and I will try my best to describe it.

I was very anxious this morning arriving at the radiological oncologist office and my Mom had not arrived yet (due to horrible traffic) to see me before treatment. I started getting nervous, so I reached into my purse and withdrew my little bear. My mother and I have little breast cancer bears that keep us connected when we are not physically together. The bears are named Hope and Faith and I would take my bear to chemotherapy when my mother would have to work.

When my name was called over the loudspeaker I took a deep breath, clutched my bear in my hand and walked through the door. I was ushered back into a small changing room. I undressed from the waist up, locked up my clothing and purse in a locker, put on a robe and sat in a smaller waiting area for the technician to come get me. I still had my little bear in hand. Part of me was pretending that I was going to get a hot stone massage or facial. Mmm ... that would have been a wonderful treat! Once in the treatment room, I sat my bear on the ledge with my locker key around its neck. I unrobed, laid on a slender table, and the technicians (there were two) put my arm, wrist, shoulder and head into the proper position.

The machine that is attached to the table is shaped like a 'C' with two round plates on each side. The lights dimmed and the machine sprayed a green grid across my chest. I could watch the grid's reflection on the glass face of the plate above me. The technicians pulled on the sheet underneath me to put me in just the right position. They used the stickers that were placed on my skin last week as markers for the green grid. Dr. Moulds entered the room prior to beginning the radiation to give the final "line-up" his approval. We were given the go ahead.

The technician soaked a towel in warm water and molded it to my breast. She explained that they fool the lasers into thinking that the towel is skin, so it penetrates the tissue deeper. I wasn't even listening to her. My heart was racing and I tried desperately to slow my breathing. All I could think was 'What if I am breathing too hard and they radiate my heart by accident?' They exited the room, I glanced to check on my bear saying a little message to my Mom and radiation began. Inside the plate metal pieces moved shifting and contorting into different shapes shining light onto my breast. The noises the machine made sounded like a robot over the big band music they were playing in the room. What was with the music choice? I thought to myself, 'Joey would love this machine because it reminds me so much of Transformers.' The technician came into the room and removed the wet towel which had turned cool now. The machine then circled around me and began radiating my back. Radiation only lasted about five minutes and the 'C' moved around my body as the shapes continued to change and dance across my skin. You know the feeling you get right before a limb falls asleep, like a numb/vibrating/tingling feeling before it starts getting intense? That's how radiation feels ... a mild case of a limb falling asleep.

Before I knew it, radiation was over, I was back in the small room getting dressed, joining my mom in the waiting area (showing her that I braved the treatment with my bear and knowing that she was right there with me) and heading off to work. Well, one radiation treatment down and 29 to go. I know that radiation is cumulative and that it will get harder, but I feel like nothing can stop me now. With God as my compass and my little bear, I am ready for anything.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

8/7/2008: Simulation

Monday was my "simulation." I wasn't sure what to expect from my radiological oncology team, but the process was pretty painless. Two technicians had me fill out paperwork and consent forms to begin my radiation on Monday, August 11. Once I was undressed they took many pictures of my newly reconstructed body. I then laid on a CAT scan machine and they spent almost a half hour trying to find a position with my left arm raised, neck bent, shoulder rotated and wrist slanted that was comfortable enough to hold for several minutes each day of treatment. Once we found the right balance, they wrote down all the information of the angles and positions in order to put me in the same spot each time I receive radiation. The beams coming off of the CAT scan machine lined up onto my body. They centered me with the beam by taking the sheet under by body and just pulling me where they wanted me. Then they took a red permanent marker and made three tiny x's. One x was drawn between my breasts, and the other two along the sides of my rib cage. The radiological oncology technicians worked with such professionalism and precision. I was beyond impressed with how thorough they were and how kindly they treated me.

Once they had me all lined up, they did a CAT scan which lasted about 10 minutes. I closed my eyes and imagined myself lying on a secluded beach with a warm tropical breeze and the heat of the sun invigorating my body. Just as the cabana boy walked up with my Bahama Mama in hand, the technicians re-entered the room and slowly brought me out of the machine asking me not to move. They gave me two options for my radiation marks. I could either have three tiny permanent tattoos done that would look like freckles, or if I promised to be really good, they would place small, clear stickers over the three red x's and I would need to keep them on for the duration of the radiation treatments. Once I received confirmation that the technicians didn't care which option I chose in order to do their jobs, I quickly opted for the stickers. I have been wearing them for two days and so far so good. I feel like I should be in some espionage or pirate movie with these three red bulls-eyes on my body.

Friday I have my heart scan that I have repeated every three months to make sure the Herceptin isn't affecting my heart too severely, and then I have to go back to the radiological oncology office to have "films" done. I am not sure what all that encompasses, but we will find out soon enough. Monday is the start of the third phase of my journey. I am excited to begin and be completed in six short weeks.

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

8/6/2008: Filled to Capacity

Having just been "filled to capacity" my friend was enquiring about how my newly inflated left breast looked. (Just a reminder, my plastic surgeon could only fill my left breast due to the need of radiating the center of my chest.) We snuck into the bathroom and once inside the handicap stall I lifted my shirt revealing my newly stretched breast. "Holy crap, Jen, that's huge!" she said. "I know, right? Look at it from the side." I turned showing her my newly defined profile. "I cannot believe how great it looks," she responded. "You can feel it if you want," I offered. She raised her hand, and then drew it back in hesitation, and then she lifted her hand again and touched my breast. "Oh my God, it's hard as a brick. It doesn't feel like my other girl friends that have had implants," she said. We both laughed and I explained that it was "brick-like" because the expanders are made with hard, thick plastic unlike the final silicone implant that will be squishy and breast-like. Not only that, but my skin had just been stretched an hour before so everything was extremely tight and sore. I then took my friend's hand and pressed it against the side of my right breast that hadn't been filled. I felt the implant ripple under my skin and pop in and out. She quickly jerked her hand back and said, "What was that?" I think she was worried that she had hurt me. I laughed and told her that's what the implant feels like when it hasn't been completely filled. When I roll over in my sleep at night the implant that hasn't been filled dips and pops continuously ... it is the weirdest feeling in the world.

I think more than a dozen people have been privy to checking out my "transitional pair." I consider it a learning experience for my family and close friends. They have had to experience and endure a lot of this journey with me and I want them to know that I am really okay. Most people are surprised with how good my "transitional pair" looks. I think we all expected it to be much worse than it is and they really do look good.

Although being lopsided is not ideal, it is just temporary and not the end of the world. I have learned how to work around it and no one else can tell besides me, anyway. It is just not that important in the scope of things. I need to get through this third phase of my journey, and then I will be evened back out again. I look forward to that, but I am not obsessing about it. I finally feel like the old (but improved) Jennifer is resurfacing and I really must admit that I have missed her.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

7/29/2008: The Fill

"Is this going to hurt?" I asked my plastic surgeon. "Most people don't feel a thing," she responded as she steadied the metal detector over the top of my breast. The metal pendulum steadied … it found the port beneath my skin. She picked up the large needle on the table. She was moving quickly and I was trying to stall her with chit-chat. She said, "Here we go." I looked away, bit my index finger and filled my mind with a lovely beach scene. I exclaimed, "I didn't feel that at all." Dr. Gottlieb smiled and asked, "What does it feel like?" as she slowly filled my expander with saline. I could feel the edges unraveling while filling up and it felt as though someone was pushing against my chest. My breast grew tighter and tighter. It was like watching National Geographic when they speed up a bud turning into a flower. How on Earth do you describe that feeling?

I had horrible anxiety about having my first fill and it was a piece of cake. Life's little annoyances seem to just be a walk in the park these days. It's hard to complain about anything after going through 18 weeks of chemotherapy.

I have one more fill on my left breast before beginning radiation. Yes, they are only filling one side because I am developing too much cleavage. Agggh … so exciting! I have never had "too much cleavage." On Friday my left breast will be filled to 250cc while my right will only be at 150cc. This way, during radiation they will be able to get "a good line" to treat the membrane and lymph nodes in the center of my chest. I don't mind being lopsided for six weeks if it means preventing cancer from returning.

My radiation begins August 11 and ends September 19 and I have it every week day at 8:30 in the morning. I have a couple of pre-radiation appointments over the next two weeks where the nurses will permanently tattoo my skin (the spots will look like freckles) and run "films" to prepare me for radiation. I don't know what all of that entails, but we will learn together.

Once radiation is over, my plastic surgeon can resume filling my right breast with saline (creating amazing cleavage), so both breasts will be at 250cc. But that doesn't mean that's the size I will end up with … that is just the maximum size of the expander my plastic surgeon used. I'll leave the final size a secret for now. The implant surgery won't be done until sometime in November.

Other than making appointments, I have been busy resuming a somewhat normal life. I am back to work fulltime, working out daily (physical therapy exercises, walking and static bike), spending time with friends, resuming work on my thesis and enjoying each day to the fullest. My hate list still exists, however it is quickly dwindling. I do know that the hardest part is over, but I still have seven more months of treatment and surgeries to go. I now move into phase 3 … radiation. I am summoning all my strength, yet again, and mentally preparing myself for this next task at hand. And so my journey continues …

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

7/23/2008: Drive Home

Driving home my mother and I sat in silence watching the sun pulse through the tree line as the roads were winding closer and closer to my front door. I knew exactly what would happen if I tried to speak. I could already feel the lump swelling in my throat. How do you properly thank someone for taking on your fight along with your pain, fears and insecurities as though they were her own and devoting her life to your caretaking? I don't know that it is truly possible. I had stayed with my parents for twenty days following surgery and they drove me to every doctors appointment, participated in my pity parties, made sure I ate well, cleaned my wounds, encouraged naptime, took care of my condo, dried my tears, told me when I needed to slow down and endlessly cheered me on, even when I could see the pain in their eyes.

Life works in mysterious ways and I continue to be amazed with how mine unfolds. I wanted so desperately to have normalcy and jump back into my life, but there was also a part of me that wanted to curl up in the safety of my parents lap and not have to think, or worry anymore. I want them to wrap their arms around me, tell me it is all going to be okay and protect me from the darkness. Someone very close to me who had cancer mid-life told me that despite being an adult, she still desperately desired being close to her mother during her journey. I don't think we ever grow out of wanting our parents to make it all better.

Despite the conflicted emotions, I did return to my normal life on Sunday. My parents prepped my condo for my return by filling my refrigerator with groceries and cleaning it from top to bottom. Monday I went back to work fulltime and had my first expander fill. I have seen several of my friends already and although I thought I had missed out on so much over the course of two weeks, I really hadn't. My hair is about an inch long on my head and is BLACK! My eyebrows and eyelashes are coming back in also and are itchy. I have lost five pounds and am using the exercises suggested by my plastic surgeon to regain some mobility in my arms, especially on my left side where they removed the lymph nodes. I have now returned to my regularly scheduled program.

I have one more fill next week, and then I will begin radiation. Radiation lasts for six weeks and I will have to go five times a week. I met with my radiologist, Dr. Jefferson Moulds, last week for the first time. He is a brilliant doctor who used to work at Georgetown. He told me how pleased he was with my chemotherapy regimen and how well my surgery went. Since he is a radiologist of oncology he was able to speak about several different aspects of my treatment and I was blown away by his knowledge. Radiation will start early August. I cannot wait to get started and cross one more piece of the journey off my list.

That drive home in the car with my mother, I reflected on the last six months of my life and how far I have come. My girlfriend Shana told me weeks ago that I have been given a second opportunity at life and that didn't really sink in until this weekend. I have the chance to reinvent myself and work towards being happy and hugely successful in all aspects of my life. Is that too much to ask? I don't think so anymore. The fact that I am now in remission completely blows my mind. I don't think I could have done it without my family and friends constantly thinking about me, tirelessly supporting me and praying for my health and strength. I want to thank my family for their endless sacrifice. I realize now that besides me, my caretakers truly take on the most difficult part of this journey. Despite the helplessness and exhaustion we feel, we continue learning, living and loving. It is a growth process that has changed us all forever.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

7/15/2008: Hate List

I haven't written in a couple of days because I have been an emotional wreck … to say the least. It's much safer to write a happy blog then to open myself up and become vulnerable with airing my difficult and insecure days. But I promised you from the beginning that I would be honest with you and I intend to stick to my word. So, I welcome you all to my pity party. (No need for presents at this occasion.)

I was diagnosed with cancer back in January and for six months I have been fighting like hell for my life … FOR MY LIFE. (It still doesn't resonate completely with me.) Cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States and I kicked its butt in six months. Part of me is exhausted and the other part is still trying to grasp the fact that I had cancer. Several years ago I went through a horrible personal ordeal. For those of you who know me, you remember this well. Driving to my parent's house that night, I remember being on the phone with my mother and screaming through my tears, "Things like this don't happen to someone like me." I know that probably sounds like the most diva comment anyone can possibly make. You must understand, though, that I take great pride in who I am, my accomplishments and the way I live my life. However, hardships and diseases do not discriminate. I know now, that I was being prepared to take on the hardest fight of my life … cancer.

For the past two days I have been crying hysterically, venting to my family, avoiding friends and visitors, refusing to leave the house … and just all around being a real joy. (For the record, I have called myself a brat several times, and my parents told me that I deserve to have bad days, too. Otherwise, I wouldn't be normal, especially with what I have been through.) I have said several times to my Mom (while venting) to "add" certain things to my "list" of complaints. Finally, today she told me that she believed I should truly make a written list of the things that I claim to hate. So, here it is … (Prepare yourself!)

List of Things I Hate

Cancer (Did you expect anything else? The week I had my mastectomy two women who are friends of friends were diagnosed with breast cancer. They are both under the age of 35. Cancer will always top my "hate" list for the remainder of my life.)

Bad Hair Days (This includes eyelashes and eyebrows, too, since those have thinned considerably. I hate that my hair is not growing faster. I also hate the fact that ADULTS stare at me in public. Children, however, don't seem to care. Just another reason why I adore children.)

Dreaded Drains (I started out with five and am now down to two that are being extremely stubborn. They stick out from under my armpits and are extremely uncomfortable. I am unable to sleep on my side because of them and my muscle aches from sleeping on my back for two weeks. Not to mention, the bulbs at the ends of the drains hang at my stomach and make me look pregnant. I blame them for my dependence and cannot wait to get them out and reclaim my life. I hate them.)

Losing "The Girls" (My mastectomy was actually much easier than I initially presumed. The physical healing is cake, but the psychological impact is only cut out for the true varsity players. I like to think that I am pretty tough, but this has certainly been a huge challenge and one that will continue to be for some time. I wonder if I will ever be normal again.)

Potential Suitors (I know I am going to regret putting this on the list, but so be it. It's my party. Short term: How do I even engage with a guy with C-A-N-C-E-R written across my forehead? My boobs are currently "under construction," so physically I am not comfortable or confident … um, so how does THAT work? Even if I can keep the C-card off the table, as soon as things escalate to a more "romantic" level, there will come a time where I will need to interject that information about my body. Long term: Having had cancer, I would assume most guys would consider me a "high risk investment." I certainly cannot imagine that my medical history would really be all that appealing. And forget about discussing having a family, because I am currently in menopause and who knows if my fertility will ever return and even so, I wouldn't be able to try until I am 32 and off hormone therapy. Whew! Yeah … I sound incredibly appealing and like a real attractive option for a long term investment. Who am I kidding!?)

The Comparison (Please don't take this the wrong way. I love my friends, family and sisters in survival dearly, but my situation is not like everyone else's who has cancer. I am only 26-years-old. I didn't have a boyfriend or husband by my side supporting me and telling me that I was beautiful and he would be there for me when it was over. I mean, there wasn't someone there who saw my boobs before and after and still loved me, regardless. Nor did I have the opportunity to have children or even freeze eggs because my cancer was too aggressive and they needed to start chemotherapy immediately. So, NO, my situation is very unique and no one knows how horrible it was to go through it missing those key ingredients. It was beyond devastating and continues to be.)

Body Issues (This is going to sound egotistical, but I don't intend for it to be. I have always liked my body and been pleased for the most part with the way I look. However, cancer, and especially chemotherapy, did things to my body and confidence level that even I am too embarrassed to admit. When I started treatment I weighed 99 pounds. Because of the steroids and lack of exercise during chemo I gained almost ten pounds. Again, I know this sounds trivial, but for someone who loved her yoga and palates regimen and took pride in her tone body, this is a difficult reality. My clothes don't fit the way they used to and I hate that. Additionally, chemotherapy did a real number on my skin, and I swear I look years older. I foresee many emergency facials in my near future to get my skin back to glowing and smooth again.)

My Lifestyle (I have been told that I have to "take it easy" now that I have had surgery. Um, do these people know who I am!? I am trying not to scratch my eyes out lying low and recovering for three weeks at my parent's house. I am on my Blackberry every minute of my waking hours starving for normalcy. I have to see a physical therapist in order to regain strength and feeling in my left arm. It will probably take close to six months before I am fully healed internally … not to mention emotionally and psychologically. Lord, give my patience.)

The Timeline (I honestly feel like Humpty Dumpty and it is literally taking FOREVER for the doctors and surgeons to put me back together again. I have never claimed to be a patient woman and this whole ordeal is truly taking much too long. I like to believe that I live every day to the fullest and I typically pack my schedule tight and this cancer does NOT fit in nicely. It is irritating to the point of tears.)

I could honestly continue "the list" and I intend to, but I thought I would at least share some of my current headaches with you all. After all, you have made the decision to join my journey for the good, bad and bald and I made a promise to you to share it all.

Before this party ends and I retreat to lick my wounds, you must know that despite my "hate list" I know how very blessed I am. I know that I have beat cancer and now have a second chance at life. I understand that my hair will grow and I will feel it lightly dancing across my shoulders once again. I will lose weight and complain of achy, over-worked muscles. Happily ever after still exists and if I should be so luckily, so does my prince charming (who will love my new boobs). The pesky tubes will most likely come out this week and my life will jump back into action. I will soon forget the peaceful afternoons on my parent's back porch where I cursed the sky and felt the surge of panic thinking that I had been standing still and missing out on two weeks of living. How could I have wrestled with my list and done personal growth without this valuable time? This list is how I feel in the moment and represents some of the things I think about on a daily basis. The "hate list" unfortunately (or fortunately) is a part of my journey and overall growth. Welcome to my remission … it may not be as physically taxing, but it will test me nonetheless.

Monday, July 14, 2008

7/14/2008: Remission

My ears were ringing. My oncologist's mouth continued to move, but the buzzing was enough to cast over his words. The heat rose from somewhere in my back and I felt it surge quickly to my face. Clutching my jaw tightly I tried desperately not to cry. Did I just hear him correctly? I took a deep breath and interrupted my doctor. "I apologize, but I am trying not to cry. You have no idea what wonderful news that is," I managed to say as my voice cracked.

I am cancer free and officially in remission. Let me write that again simply to gloat. (After all I have been through, I deserve it!) I am cancer free and officially in remission. Can you believe it? I can't.

My mother and I visited my plastic surgeon's office for the second time this week to have another drain pulled. I had three drains pulled this week and only two left. Once they are all removed I can begin radiation and have my expanders filled. Hopefully next week the two remaining drains will be ready to be removed and I can continue my journey. At this point, I just really want a freaking shower.

After that appointment, we went to my oncologist's office to review the pathology report from surgery. The report showed that my surgeon removed thirteen lymph nodes from my left armpit and four still had residual cancer. The tissue removed from the breasts had no remaining cancer. Dr. Heyer explained that the chemotherapy was partially successful in that it got rid of the cancer in some areas and shrunk the lymph nodes considerably, but not completely. We discussed next steps, which consist of radiation for six weeks, Herceptin treatments every three weeks until February 2009 (one year), and five years of hormone therapy as a preventative measure to ensure that the cancer does not come back.

Once we had discussed some of my next steps, I asked Dr. Heyer, "So when am I officially in remission?" He responded, "Now." Obviously, I was elated and extremely thrown off by his response. He explained that the cancer is completely gone now from the chemotherapy and surgery. The radiation, Herceptin treatments and hormone therapy are preventative measures to eradicate any microscopic "leftovers" and ensure continued health. As far as he is concerned "our work here is done," however the journey is far from over.

I ended our appointment by unzipping my top and showing Dr. Heyer my new breasts. He looked at them and said, "Dr. Gottlieb does great work, but you need to lose those drains," … implying that the drains weren't particularly attractive. We all laughed. I zipped my top back up and we exited his office.

Mom and I met Dad back in Gainesville at our favorite restaurant called El Tio's. I find it interesting that our evening ended at the same restaurant that Dad celebrated his retirement and that we frequent on birthdays, holidays and special occasions. I could not have thought of a better place to enjoy my exciting news. Mom said, "Tonight you owe God a BIG thank you." Indeed I do. I am incredibly thankful and blessed.

Wednesday, July 9, 2008

7/9/2008: The Championship

Written by my best friend, Kere Knapp:

Since I created this website and update it weekly by posting the blogs, the pictures and the messages (and because Jen’s my best friend), I figured I would attempt to write a blog while Jen is in recovery. I can’t guarantee that it’s going to be as well written as Jen’s are, but I can always give it a shot. (If none of this makes sense, I apologize now...)

This whole experience has been a shock, for lack of a better word. I keep trying to find a way to understand what has been going on and my mind keeps coming back to relating it to one thing: a lacrosse championship. If you know me, this probably isn’t surprising that I find a correlation between lacrosse and cancer. Maybe you have just thought to yourself, how in the world is a lacrosse game remotely related to cancer? Well, let me explain the way my mind has grasped this disease and the fight against it… (and if you don’t know the game, maybe you’ll learn a thing or two about it along the way. Imagine Jennifer’s whole cancer experience of a year or so being played in a 50 minute game).

Let me start by setting the scenario of the championship day and who is playing whom.

Lacrosse is a team sport. It’s played by 12 players on a field. It’s broken down into three sections: attack, defense and goalie. A game consists of 50 minutes. Obviously, the main goal is to win the game, and to do that your attack has to continuously shoot the ball into your opponents’ goal, beating their defenders and goalie.

Team Black: Cancer
Cancer is a team sickness. They are a team of nasty fighters working together to break down their opponent. In this case, Team Cancer is known for their phenomenal offensive players with their unstoppable shots. (Team Cancer is black because it’s dark, cold and unfriendly).

Team Pink: Jennifer
Team Jennifer is Team Cancer’s opponent. Of course Jennifer has a team! Have you ever met someone that has cancer and that DOESN’T have a “team”? It’s never just one person fighting the disease. It’s everyone they know and love that fight with them. Jennifer’s on-field team consists of her family and closest friends. Team Jennifer is known for their defensive strategies. They work together in the toughest of times to come out on top with the win. (Team Jennifer is pink because frankly, she loves pink and it’s the color of breast cancer).

As with any sporting event, you have spectators/fans. Our spectators consist of Team Jennifer’s network outside of the closest friends and family who are playing on the field. It’s everyone who wishes her prayers and sends their thoughts to her; everyone who knows her and stands beside her. It’s everyone who is rooting for her to win.

Just as a side note: I, personally, would not want to be playing Jennifer’s team. Knowing Jennifer, she’s like a repeat state title winner. Team Jennifer is like Northwestern who has won the NCAA D-1 championships 4 years in a row. No one can stop her willingness to overcome, achieve, and win. For this reason, Team Cancer is the underdog. They are coming into the game shaking in their cleats, knowing that they are going up against one of the best. Who wouldn’t be afraid playing against Team Jennifer?!

Let the championship begin…

The whistle blows and Team Cancer gets the first draw. Team Cancer gets the first goal. Team Jennifer came in not knowing about Team Cancer and therefore, underestimated their skill. Team Cancer won the first draw, beat down the defense and slipped one past the goalie (Jennifer is playing in goal). Team Cancer has made itself a name and walked right in the front door. “Welcome to the Jungle ladies and gentlemen, we have ourselves a ballgame”! Team Jennifer is now awake and aware that something isn’t right. Team Cancer is not going down without a fight. So begins the journey of 50 minutes.

For the next 49.5 minutes, the goals are going back and forth. Team Jennifer is putting up a great defense and Team Cancer is putting up a great offense. The spectators want to join in and help, but all they can do is sit there and scream their encouragement. They can’t jump in the line of fire and play the game, all they can do is watch. Their words of encouragement and screams of joy and luck are being heard. They are keeping Team Jennifer pumped up and roaring to win.

Each of Team Cancer’s goals are a set back for Team Jennifer, but that doesn’t bring Team Jennifer down, it just pushes them to play harder and work harder. They are in shape. They’ve gone through the whole season of strenuous workouts and tough games. Each day has been a building block for this moment. Now is when it counts and now is what they have been working so hard for.

30 seconds left on the clock and Team Jennifer is up by 1. It’s been a whirlwind 49.5 minutes. Team Cancer is slowing down and you can see they are getting tired. They aren’t running as fast as they were 45 minutes ago and they are starting to bicker at each other because they know their chance at beating Team Jennifer is slimming down. The nerves are acting up as each player on their team is getting worried about what the outcome will be. They know it’s their last shot at beating Team Jennifer.

Team Jennifer is holding in strong. The fans have stuck with them for the entire 49.5 minutes and are stronger than ever. Their ranting and raving is breaking down Team Cancer. The field players have gotten a second wind and are ready for more. Team Jennifer is excited and ready to win this championship. They know it’s the last few minutes of a game that really count and when the energy is needed the most to win. They hear the bickering of Team Cancer and know they have broken them down. Only 30 seconds left…

The whistle blows and the draw is taken. Team Cancer gets the ball. They run it down the field past the offense, whittling past the first line of defense and make it to the 8 meter arc where the last few defenders are. Jennifer, in goal, can see everything going on. She is aware of the whole scenario of what can happen if they lose and what will happen when they win. She’s ready to win and gets fired up! They might have gotten through the defense, taken a couple shots, and gotten a few goals. They might have made a few setbacks to Team Jennifer along the way, but she and the team have worked too hard to get this far. She’ll be damned if Team Cancer wins this battle!

There are 10 seconds left… The fans start chanting: “9…8… 7”… Team Jennifer’s defenders force Team Cancer into a double team…”6… 5… 4”… Team Cancer breaks free… “3… 2”… Team Cancer takes the shot, high right corner… “1”…

A hush grows over the crowd. The field players have stopped moving. Goosebumps have made their mark on everyone’s arms and a lump has jumped into throats. Not a breath is being taken. It’s up to Jennifer in goal, to make the save and win the championship. The goalie is the last line of defense, and that is Jennifer…

JENNIFER MAKES THE SAVE! There’s the whistle and the game is OVER! The fans are jumping wild with screams and tears of joy. There is a mad rush to the field and Jennifer is swept up on the shoulders of her teammates and friends. Jennifer made the save and saved the game. Team Cancer was defeated.

Honestly, though, did you ever think it would have any other outcome? I didn’t think so….

Stupid Cancer… don’t you know that offense wins games, defense wins championships?! You chose the wrong team to play for this championship!

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

7/8/2008: Pain Sets In

Is it possible to have a day that you feel absolutely miraculous followed by a day that just the effort of breathing leaves you frozen and wincing? Unfortunately it is possible and this is how my last two days have progressed.

Monday was one of the best days I have had during my recovery. I woke in the morning in good spirits. I was, however, without my parents since they took our new puppy, Abagail Marie to the vet for a meet and greet. Their absence threw me into a full-on panic attack. I realize how dependent I have become on them in so many ways. Once they arrived home, my mother and I drove to my plastic surgeon's office at Reston Hospital to have my dressings changed over my drains. The ride was a little rough for me, but I clutched my pink pillow to my chest and yelped over a couple of big bumps. On arrival, to my surprise, Candi (my doctor's assistant) told me that although it has not even been a week since my surgery, two of my drains were below 30cc and could be removed. This consisted of taking a deep breath once she counted to three and then blowing out as she yanked the tubes free from my skin. It was not painful, but very uncomfortable. I wasn't sure what to expect and my anxiety was at an all-time high, but I figured if I could survive 18 weeks of chemotherapy, I could handle tubes being pulled out of my skin. They placed band aids over the holes left by the tubes and sent me on my way. (Today the holes are the size of a pen top.) Two tubes down and three to go now … yay!

Today was the worst day since my surgery. I started weaning myself off of my pain pills simply because I hate taking them. Then I spent the majority of the night sleeping on my left side. When I woke up at 4:00am I could barely take a breath or move. I took half a Percacet and went back to bed. When I awoke again at 7:30am the pain was excruciating along the base of my left breast. I called my Mom into my room and sobbed and whimpered hysterically. (The look of helplessness on her face just crushed me. She barely ate the rest of the day.) I took a full pill which didn't even seem to take the edge off the pain. I couldn't find a comfortable position. I didn't want to eat because I was nauseous from the severe pain.

The worst part was, my poor friend Andrew spent the day with me and I was definitely not fun to hangout with. We had plans to venture out of the house and possibly see and movie, and instead he was stuck laying on the couch playing with Abagail and watching Animal Planet. He didn't complain a bit though, because he is just that good of a guy.

Was the pain due to the removal of the two tubes the day before? The bumpy ride to the hospital? Sleeping on my left side? The new camisole I wore to bed with less support? Cutting back on my pain medication? Ugggh … whatever the culprit, the pain was beyond agonizing. I upped the pain pills to two, took a muscle relaxer, a warm sponge bath, ate a little dinner and the excruciating pressure and pain became much more manageable.

I have to keep reminding myself that my body has been through a major surgery and I will have both good days and bad days. Hopefully more good then bad though. My spirits are high and my nurses are shocked at how quickly my body is healing itself. I think it's due to the walks with Abagail, my multi-vitamin, being in good physical shape and lots and LOTS of vitamin C. (Apparently vitamin C is known for helping skin and tissue.) You just wait … I will be back to myself in no time. Please keep the warm thoughts, love and prayers coming. My family and I are incredibly grateful for all of your endless support.

Saturday, July 5, 2008

7/5/2008: Recovery Begins

My dearest friends, today is the first day I feel well enough to write. The last five days I have endured anxiety attacks, severe muscle spasms, intense pain, leaking tubes and draining pumps ... I have been beyond frustrated. However, it was the constant e-mails, phone calls, text messages, flowers and fruit baskets that have given me the strength to continue my fight. Thank you to all of you who have reached out in some way to support me. Please know that it has made all the difference in pulling me out of my darkest moments.

My mother and I have been a team the last five days. She has once again stepped forward as my rock. She sleeps outside my room in a sleeping bag and if I dare make a peep she is by my side. She has constantly been on "drain check" to empty them as they get full. She has given me daily sponge baths and even today shampooed my ever growing dark hair. She sat with me and helped as we changed my dried and bloody gauze pads to replace them with clean ones. Today I was able to remove a wire that stuck into both of my breasts administering pain medication. Once I had pull them both out of my skin, I sat on the toilet and sobbed. Mom gently took a tissue, wiped the tears and said "I know baby. It sucks." It is all so overwhelming at times, although I do my very best not to complain.

I had another first today. I finally went poop. I know, insignificant to most, but since I hadn't gone since Tuesday this was a HUGE accomplishment. I yelled the good news from the bathroom and both my brother and mother praised me like a new puppy. It was hilarious and we all had a good laugh about it.

Speaking of a new puppy ... this week we also welcomed Miss Abagail Marie into our home, which has made recovery so much more manageable. This has probably added more complications for my parents, but it is great for me. Haha! She is a year old Yorkshire terrier weighing only four pounds. She follows me everywhere I go and has become my little companion through my healing process. We even take daily walks, which helps ensure that I do not get an upper respiratory infection. She is an absolute doll and the impact she has made on me during this time in my life is one that I cannot explain. We love her so dearly.

My spirits are high and I am pleased that my body is getting stronger each day. My drains are collecting less fluid which means they can come out sooner. So far, everything is going according to plan. I will call my plastic surgeon first thing Monday morning and hopefully go in for a follow up and possibly have one of the drains removed for good.

Typing is making my muscles strain some, so I must end this note here, but please know that your warm wishes, prayers, kindness, thoughtfulness and support have truly worked. Now that I am feeling better, I am definitely up for visitors so please feel free to stop by and visit if you would like. I'd love some "entertainment."

Thursday, July 3, 2008

7/3/2008: Mastectomy

Written by my mother, Judi Kwiatek:

Tuesday, July 1 was perhaps one of the worst days of my life. When Jennifer was diagnosed with Breast Cancer I never realized the steps that needed to be taken to lead us to July 1. We knew she needed a bi-lateral mastectomy and lymph node surgery, but it was always in the distance. Work and things at home kept me busy and my mind away from it all, but only for a time being. Tuesday was a nightmare for me. Jennifer and I made a promise to not cry until it was all over, but when they began to slowly wheel her to surgery, I completely lost control and the nearest person to me to grab and hold me back was my sister. I think had she not been my sister I would have "beat her up", but instead I cried and screamed and simply could not breathe for quite a while.

Surgery lasted about 4 1/2 hours and then another hour in recovery. She arrived off the elevator to her floor at Virginia Hospital Center in great spirits asking for a cheeseburger and how wonderful her breasts looked. She remained in good spirits and I stayed the night with her. She was uncomfortable, but never in severe pain. Sleep escaped her (so naturally it did me as well) and finally at about three in the morning she asked for a sleeping pill. We slept only until five o'clock. As the day went on she made the decision to come home the next day (she had the option to remain a second). The trip home was horrible as we were driving from Arlington to Gainesville in semi-rush hour traffic and terribly bumpy roads. She cried and clutched a blanket the entire trip home and we could not pull into the driveway as it was too bumpy. She settled in and was able to finally sleep.

Every four hours is spent emptying the five drains she has coming from her breast and under her left arm. This has not been a challenge, but keeping her pain at a bearable level has been. She is not really in pain, but tremendously sore.

Today was the day to call the general surgeon Dr. Kenneth Mason, as he said he might have the pathology report. Bright and early the phone call was made and finally this afternoon about 6:00 he called. His report was as such: There was NO cancer found in either breast, although out of the 13 lymph nodes removed from the left arm, four had residual cancer. He indicated that the testing of the tissue and cells was not complete nor had they found the primary source, but he seemed confident that information would come once all the testing was completed. It appears, at present, that Jennifer has escaped Lymphadema in the left arm which is a blessing. She will still need to be fitted for a "sleeve" that she will need to wear when she travels on an airplane.

Thanks to each and everyone of you who have kept her in your thoughts and prayers and have kept our family in your thoughts as well. Her journey is by far not over, but Joe, Joey and I continue the path with her and our thoughts are with the many women who are being diagnosed daily with this terrible disease. Just today Jennifer heard from a friend that her best friend was diagnosed TODAY! This is horrible and must be stopped. We must find out what is making our young women sick. These seemingly healthy women are being diagnosed with breast cancer and the vast majority are under the age of 35. Is it the antibiotics being fed to the animals? Perhaps the radiation of chicken and eggs? Have we become too clean? Something to think about as I am off to take care of my precious Jennifer.