Wednesday, February 29, 2012

You are What You Eat

Acupuncture this week was a little different than what I am used to. I told Dr. Carlos Durana that I had been up the night before with a very upset stomach. The day had been very busy and productive, but due to that I felt a little scattered mentally.

He started with 5-6 pins in my back while I sat on the table with my legs dangling off the side. He told me I could lie down, but I told him that I still had the pins in my back.

Dr. Durana: “I took them out as soon as I activated them.”
Me: “But I still can feel them.”
Dr. Durana: “You aren’t feeling the pins; you’re feeling the energy I activated.”
Me: “Can you just double check?”

Dr. Durana laughed, followed my paranoid instruction and assured me the pins were all gone.

I laid down and he moved around the table, as he always does, listening closely to my pulse on my neck, wrists and ankles.

Dr. Durana: “Your pulse on the left side of your body is very different than your right side. I don’t want you to be alarmed by this word, but it’s almost as if there’s a 'blockage' on the left side.”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Dr. Durana: “Right here and here.”

Dr. Durana placed one finger on my left side next to my left breast on my ribcage and the other finger under my armpit toward the top. Both are where I have knots of scar tissue. He has never felt this area before, nor have I ever talked or complained about my scar tissue. I was frozen in shock.

He asked permission to place pins in each spot where I have scar tissue. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit apprehensive and scared, but I agreed. The first pin was painful initially and then it felt as though pressure was released from the area. The second needle into my armpit bent, which is common with scar tissue. The second attempt was successful and the pain and pressure release mimicked the first location. He placed pins on my right side in the same locations in order to balance the body. These spots are believed to connect and harmonize the body in several major organs ... the Yin and Yang. In Chinese Medicine, this path is suppose to open the portals for giving and receiving. He said I have done so much giving lately helping friends and being strong that he wanted to give this area a break and perhaps open it up to more receiving.

Next were my "happy pins." By this, I mean the pins he places in my legs and feet, arms and hands. I also had one between my eyes on my forehead and another in the center at the very top of my head. This pin made chill bumps run from my scalp to my toes. I visibly had goose bumps all over my body.

Me: “What do these pins do?”
Dr. Durana: “These are the locations for joy, happiness, calm and relaxing.”
Me: “Is that why I always see my grandmother, grandfather, Jasper, birds and children when you place these pins?”
Dr. Durana: “Yes, they are your happy places. I am trying to bring some of the positive energy to the surface to help you heal through the grief you are feeling.”

Next he wanted to focus on what I eat; after all, they say 'you are what you eat.' Part of healing the body and mind is about what you are giving your body to fuel it. Logically that makes sense to me. Everything is connected.

I told him what I typically eat Monday through Friday, which is pretty boring.

  • Breakfast: Medium vanilla latte, oatmeal with hot water, or a banana, or yogurt
  • Lunch: Soup with crackers, or cookies, or a granola bar with Vitamin Water Zero
  • Dinner: Something delicious I cook and typically diluted Gatorade

Since I usually don't have protein for breakfast or lunch, Dr. Durana believes that I am trying to "fix" the blood sugar drop and dizziness with the sugars in the Vitamin Water and Gatorade, instead of giving my body protein which will last much longer. Duly noted.

I already did a purge of my refrigerator and pantry over the holiday break and 90% of everything I have at home is low fat, 0 trans fats, organic, wheat and not processed. So, I started the process, but it appears it just needs some tweaking.

He said I need more:
  • fish
  • nuts (I can eat cashews, walnuts, almonds and pecans with no allergic reactions.)
  • berries
  • green tea with honey (to replace one sugary drink a day)
  • yogurt (with nothing fake or sugary added, then add fresh fruit, like berries)
  • apples (He was adamant about apples -- he said it's a cooling wonder fruit.)
  • lactose milk (He wants me to try it with my IBS to see how I feel. I have tried soy milk and had a horrible allergic reaction.)
  • oatmeal, but with milk instead of hot water

In addition to the prenatal/multivitamin I am on called Trimedisyn, he wants me to take the following:

If the lactose milk doesn't work with my stomach he suggested two powders I can use as a protein supplement:
  • Healthy Fit -- 100% egg protein (vanilla or chocolate)
  • BioChem -- whey protein that's lactose free

The first two parts I am going to try ... the powders I plan to hold off on until I try the lactose milk. He said in order for my body and mind to heal and get stronger from having been on chemotherapy, going through radiation, being on the Tamoxifen currently ... and everything else, I need to increase certain vitamins to replenish my body and protect it from infection since my immune system is still compromised. He told me about 80% of our body's immunity is in the stomach and intestines, so if we don't heal my stomach it will make me more susceptible to infection. He said in three weeks I will feel significantly better.

I am going to try it out and be as disciplined as I can be. I know it will certainly make my stomach feel better and I’m hoping the fatigue, anxiety and everything else will follow suit.

We finished the session with him placing two needles directly in my chest. It felt as though they went deep, through my rib cage and into my lungs. I know they didn't really go that deep. He explained that this location allows you to open your heart and receive love.


"I honor the place within you where the entire Universe resides; I honor the place within you of love, of light, of truth, of peace; I honor the place within you, where, when you are in that place in you, and I am in that place in me, there is only one of us."

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Gift of Grief

“I believe you may be one of the most intelligent and high functioning patients I have ever encountered. I have never met someone as resilient and in touch with who they are. I find you fascinating.” — Nancy Whiteley (therapist)

“I have never met someone as receptive and in tune with their body. I stick these pins in you and your entire body literally vibrates with energy. Jennifer, you are empathetic and compassionate. Those are huge strengths and beautiful qualities. However, it is not your responsibility to take everyone’s issues and traumas as your own. You need to protect yourself and say internally ‘This is yours, not mine.’ in order to draw a distinction, otherwise you will be swallowed by the sorrow." — Carlos Durana (acupuncturist)

Over the last week both my therapist and acupuncturist have made similar comments about me. I am alone in my own head all day, so it really is fascinating to get an external perspective. However, it wasn’t until today that I really began to pinpoint the emotional swirl that has been occurring internally.

Nancy: “So what was the straw that broke the camel’s back? What made you make that brave phone call and walk into my office?”
Me: “Something happened deep inside of me when Jenn was diagnosed with breast cancer. It had been building up several months prior to her diagnosis, but that was what pushed me over the edge. I experienced a swirl of emotion that I could not explain, nor were my tactics for coping alleviating them. I mean, if three Xanax a day wasn’t helping, I knew I was in over my head. Matt was also concerned about me, not that I would hurt myself or anything, but that I didn’t seem like myself and he knew I was hurting.”
Nancy: “That swirl is what PTSD feels like. You are grieving. Do you realize Jenn has given you the gift of grief?”
Me: “I’m sorry. I don’t understand. Isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Nancy: “Grief doesn’t just come from death. You have experienced significant and great sorrow in the last eight years. You are grieving on a primary level for your own suffering and loss battling breast cancer. And you are also grieving on a secondary level for Jenn.”
Me: “Why didn’t I grieve when I was going through treatment?”
Nancy: “How could you? You were so focused on getting through the day or even the hour at times. There is a huge difference between coping and processing. And both have their place and are valuable. You needed to cope while you were going through your treatment … and now it’s time to process, grieve and heal.”
Me: “Is there a right way to grieve? I mean, how do I even know if I am working through these emotions or just continuing to cope?
Nancy: “Think of yourself as a flag with holes in it. You feel the impact of the wind, but it is able to continue moving through you. That is what working through emotions feels like. Now, if you pull down the garage door and don’t allow yourself to feel the wind (the emotion), that’s coping.”
Me: “OK, I understand the distinction.”
Nancy: “There is an utter loneliness and desolation in grief. You have been dropped vertically into a profound emotional depth. If you can continue to stay in this place and feel deeply, you can heal and recover quickly, but it’s going to be intense and emotionally exhausting.”

I am ready to face this thing that my friend Kere refers to as the “cancer of emotion.” I feel like if I can face these feelings, I can find peace and perhaps even live happily ever after with my amazing husband-to-be.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Swirling Hummingbirds

I lay on the table facing up and Carlos Durana, Ph.D., M.Ac., Dipl moved around the table feeling my pulse throughout my body. He felt my wrist, my ankles and my neck. He then felt the base of my skull, my jaw and my forehead. All the muscles were tight from worry, stress and anxiety. No surprise there – my jaw has started clicking recently because the anxiety has been so severe, which causes me to clinch my teeth.

He then moved his hands over my body, without touching me, in order to “see” my body. I kept one eye open to see what he was doing and realized that his eyes were closed. You know the feeling when you’re lying on the beach with your eyes closed and a cloud is blocking the sun? The breeze is cool on your skin. But then the cloud passes and you get the full heat of the sun. That’s what it felt like all the way through my body, wherever Dr. Durana’s hands hovered over me.

His hands stopped over my stomach, right under my sternum.
Dr. Durana: “When you have a panic attack does it make you feel like you could double over in pain?”
Me: “Yes, I usually curl up in the fetal position.”
Dr. Durana: “I sense a hunger, not a physical hunger, but an emotional one.”
His hands moved to my abdomen.
Dr. Durana: “Your abdomen is shaky. Do you have spasms?”
Me: “No one knows this except for Matt, but my stomach spasms or convulses violently when I have a panic attack.”
Dr. Durana: “Do you still have your ovary?”
Me: “Oh, I forgot to mention that I had an ovarian cyst removed in 1996. I still have my ovary though.”
Dr. Durana: “Do you want children?”
Me: “Yes, regardless of whether or not my body allows me to.”
Dr. Durana: “Good.”
Me: “I have had dreams about a little girl.”

He made notes in his notebook and then he moved to the pins. He started with my left leg. I had a pin in my shin, ankle and foot. I felt “energy” move up my left leg. When he put the pin in my right ankle I just about jumped off the table.

Dr. Durana: “What do you see? What do you feel?”
Me: “A hummingbird. Hummingbirds are swirling around my limbs and my whole body.”
Dr. Durana: “What does the hummingbird mean to you?”
Me: “It’s my grandmother. She always had a feeder outside her window where she would watch them.”
Dr. Durana: “What is your relationship like with her?”
Me: “We were very close. Actually, we were alike in many ways. In her later years she was ill with horrible bipolar symptoms, but growing up she was an incredible woman. She was loving, supportive and so proud of her children and grandchildren. I loved her dearly – I still do.”

The pins were placed up and down my arms and I was shocked I actually could feel them in my left arm despite having lost most of my feeling due to having lymph nodes removed. He placed a pin between my eyes which he said would pinch since it is a denser area. I felt it and then my whole body went limp. He said, “This will relax all your nerves.” I felt like I had just taken a shot of liquor … my whole body got warm and relaxed. I said out loud, “Oh boy.”

He left the pins in and moved back to my stomach to work on my breathing. I breathed in expanding my belly like a balloon and then slowly let the air out. He used his fingers and pressed different places on my stomach.

Dr. Durana: “Where are you at?”
Me: “The hummingbirds are swirling. I can feel their feathers touching my skin. The dream is coming back.”  
Dr. Durana: “What dream?”
Me: “I had a dream last night and it’s haunting me.”
Dr. Durana: “Tell me.”

I took Dr. Durana through my dream, which you can read here.

Dr. Durana: “You can’t fix Jenn. You feel a sense of helplessness. You are not responsible. You are doing all you can do, but you can’t control this. Where are you?”
Me: “I feel so sad.”
Dr. Durana: “Stay there and feel the emotion.”

The tears began running down my face.

Dr. Durana: “Good. Let it out. You’re safe. I won’t let you drown or be swallowed by the emotion.”

I focused on my sadness and continued my deep breathing. The film strip in my mind continued moving.

Dr. Durana: “You have shifted. Where are you now?”
Me: “I’m angry.”
Dr. Durana: “Tell me more.”
Me: “Abandonment. Anger.”
Dr. Durana: “Stay there, feel the emotion. You can speak out loud if you need to. You need closure.”

The tears continued to flow without any noise, just my steady breathing filled the air.

Me: “Nope, I’m gone.”
Dr. Durana: “Where did you go to?”
Me: “I heard someone yell STOP.”
Dr. Durana: “I didn’t yell stop.”
Me: “I’m done. I’m picking up seashells with my grandma on the beach.”

Once the two hour appointment ended, I asked what the emotional hunger was that he sensed in my stomach. He said it was too soon to tell but said it would surface over time. He said it may be that I am finally ready to heal.

Welcome to Crazy Town

OK, so I never can remember my dreams. I might remember one or two a year, and even so, it's all very foggy. This dream I had last night was as clear as day.

My therapist, Nancy Whiteley LPC told me to pay attention to my emotions and dreams throughout the week and bring them back to her on Monday to analyze together.

My dream ...

Jenn Campbell was laying in a hospital bed in the gown they normally give you with an ugly geometric pattern. There was another person there. I think it was either Jennifer Lewis or Amy Shroades. The three of us were conversing and laughing. The mood was light. Jenn was wearing her wig and was attempting to pencil in her eyebrows. She was doing a horrible job ... she was pressing so hard that her skin was turning pink. The line being drawn was dropping down toward her ear.

I moved to her side and sat on the edge of her bed. I started to rub the pencil from her temple, although it wasn’t coming off. She kept saying "It hurts." I asked, "Am I hurting you?" And she just kept repeating, "It hurts." This went on for awhile and I felt myself panicking because I couldn’t make sense of what was hurting her. Was it me?

Next, two male nurses, or medical professionals came into the room. (Even in my dreams I try to be very PC.) It was like they were "prepping" Jenn for surgery or a procedure. They swarmed around her like bees. I found myself straightening my back and paying close attention to every move they made. One of the men was Asian (not that it matters), and began cutting the back of her wig. Jenn was allowing him to continue and just stared at me helplessly. I told him to stop, but it was as though he couldn't hear or understand me. I began screaming at him to stop and to leave her alone. I was shaking. My heart was racing and I felt like I was going to have a panic attack. I finally got physical and shoved him to get him away from Jenn. I was so angry and was crying. I felt like I was responsible for protecting Jenn. No one else could possibly understand. She was mine to protect. It was such a strange and primal feeling.

Next thing I knew, Matt and I were attending Whitney Houston's memorial service, although it was taking place outdoors on a very green hill. I was wearing a black hood similar to the one Whitney wore in 'The Bodyguard.' They asked if anyone had visited Ireland last March when Whitney was there. (I have no idea if she was really there or not.) We raised our hands and they ushered us back into a private museum. I felt overwhelmed and sad. (And why had no one verified that we had actually been in Ireland in March 2011? They were just taking us at our word? Is this crazy town?). I was crying in the dream and so was Matt. He had his arm around me as we walked through the museum and I pressed into his side.

It wasn’t until I was in the shower this morning that I recalled the dream. I was washing my hair and as I normally do, I looked at the abandoned strands of my dark hair wrapped around my fingers like a web. My hands were shaking and I felt my breathing quicken as I worked quickly to remove the tangled hair from my fingers. My head became dizzy and just as quickly as panic set in I felt my subconscious rewind back to retell the dream I had just had. There was no panic attack in the shower this morning, but I was left with a perplexing feeling.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Work in Progress

Today was the first time I had been to a therapist in my adult life. I was so nervous. The last time I had spoken to a therapist was when I was in middle school. My Dad was ill and hospitalized on and off for several months (which I didn’t fully comprehend at the time) and I began experiencing anxiety and severe abdominal pain. It was believed at the time, by my physicians, that I was not handling the situation well with my father and was acting out with my pleads of abdominal pain.

It wasn’t until cheerleading tryouts my freshman year at Chantilly High School that I collapsed with a 3.5 pound ruptured ovarian cyst the size of a small grapefruit. I know that the retelling of this story will pain my family, especially my mother, since she feels a sense of guilt for what happened, but never in my life did I blame her. My family was doing the best they could with the information they were given, and time and time again, I was brushed aside by my physicians and told that it was all in my head. I became ashamed of feeling sick and I learned to bury my emotions.

Ovarian cyst or not, I know I had issues with my father becoming ill. (Actually, I always had anxiety issues or a kind of nervous/excitable characteristic. I remember the night before our annual beach trip I would be up all night with butterflies and an upset stomach because I was so excited.) Up until my father’s illness, things were easy. The normalcy and consistency of my foundation was cracked, but my family made it out alive and life went on.

Nancy Whiteley, LPC met me in the waiting room of her practice in Reston, Virginia. She ushered me up the stairs to her office filled with books on phobias, paranoia and all other mental illnesses you can imagine. The room was filled with sunlight and an array of plush couches and chairs. We jumped right in and I took her on a journey through my whirlwind of traumas: my dad’s illness, ovarian cyst rupture, a broken engagement, anxiety diagnosis, severe IBS, a stage-III breast cancer diagnosis and, most recently, the stage-IV breast cancer diagnosis of one of my best friends

Whiteley concluded from her first impression of me, that I am incredibly resilient, intelligent and have coped very well to this point. She reassured me that the traumas I have endured are more than any normal person should ever have to and that I'm not going to be "fixed" ... this is all normal to feel the sadness and grief I do.

She said she can't teach me any techniques or tactics because I am already doing them. I have an ability to bury my emotions and mask my feelings and anxiety in order to maintain normalcy, because I feel shameful. This technique has worked until now, but I'm running out of room to bury all these feelings.

Whiteley explained that I need to peel back the layers and expose myself to the emotions I buried. I did not allow myself to mourn certain traumas in my life and now as new traumas arise, I am reliving ALL of the traumas at the same time. I told her just the thought of working back through old scars scares me. Whiteley told me it wasn't going to be easy to work through the emotional pain, but that she would help me navigate those emotions.

There is no doubt that I am suffering from Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which is common for cancer survivors. I was so focused on getting well and the baby steps of my process during my cancer treatment that I didn’t allow myself to sit long with any of the emotions. They are now surfacing with Jenn’s diagnosis of stage-IV triple negative breast cancer. Whiteley made a point to tell me that she will not pretend to know what breast cancer was like for me. This may sound strange, but I have been hesitant to talk to a therapist for the past four years because I didn’t believe anyone could ever fully grasp how I was feeling without being a cancer survivor also. So the fact that she came out and made this statement was incredibly reassuring to me. I needed to hear that.

She said, "You have been too strong for too long. Therapy is a sign of strength, not weakness." It was very hard for me to open up to someone like that. I didn't like it, but I know I needed to do it. Over time I think it will become easier.

“We are all works in progress, darlin’, most just don’t know it.” - my dear friend, Cynthia

Sunday, February 19, 2012

My Little G.I. Jane

Today was the day I had been grasping for the courage to make it through. Today was Jenn's brunch/shave party. She had made the decision to shave her head before cancer took it from her. She believed it would be much too emotional to watch it fall out. She didn't want to do the cutting in her home, so I opened my house to her and five of her closest girl friends. Jenn had agreed to let Matt photograph the brunch in order to document this moment in her journey, so he was also in attendance. The girls arrived at 11am (Jennifer Lewis, Lola Han, Susan Ernst, Chanda Keesecker, Joanna Harris) with food in hand and a brave smile on their faces. They knew in their hearts that today would be tough.

Jenn arrived with one of her closest friends Chanda who several years ago, attended my Pink Martini Night fundraiser in D.C. to support my journey. Jenn was anxious and her stomach had been acting up. We all sat, ate and got a mimosa in our systems. We talked about kids, music, Jasper in his cute little pink shirt for his Aunt Jenn and everything except the reason why we were there.

I was sitting on the floor with Jenn in front of me. My jaw tightened ... I knew what was coming next. OMG, I'm going to have a panic attack in front of everyone, right here in my living room. Just as it began building inside me, Jenn said, "OK, let's get going." I snapped out of the internal spiral and moved into action.

Jenn sat on the hassock while I tied her hair into ponytails all over her head. Her hair is so thick that we had 10 ponytails total. Susan and I then began braiding all the ponytails. Jenn had decided that if her hair was long enough, she wanted to donate it. This is how the organizations prefer you send the hair to them.

Once the braided ponytails were in place, we moved into the bathroom.

me: "OK, are you ready?"
Jenn: "Yes, just cut it."
me: "Do you want to cut the first one?"
Jenn: "No."
me: "OK, sugar. Take a deep breath."

I cut the first braid, kissed Jenn on the cheek, hugged her and told her that I loved her. I said, "You're being so brave. It's OK to cry."

Next was Chanda, she cut the second braid and Jenn began to cry. The process was overwhelming and surreal for Jenn, but despite the tears we kept moving. Each girl took a braid, cut it and then loved on Jenn. After they moved through the bathroom, they met each other in the living room and hugged while crying and comforting one another. I cried. I didn't cry because I was recalling my own experience when I shaved my head, but because I genuinely hurt for one of my best friends. And I knew EXACTLY how she was feeling. My heart ached hearing her whimpers, but I knew we had to push through it and once her hair was gone she would feel a sense of relief.

Once all the braids were gone, the tears had passed. I took out the little pink Wahl Pink Peanut clippers I purchased for Jenn and we trimmed her hair with the 1/2 inch cutting guide. She sat silently as I ran the clippers over her head. I was trying to do it as quickly as I could, but you have to move the clippers slowly, otherwise they don't have a chance to cut. Within 15 minutes, Jenn's hair was gone. I took the braids and stacked them on the sink. I saw Jenn look at them and at herself quickly in the mirror. It will take time before she will look in the mirror and recognize herself. I took the towel with all the hair collected and shook it on my balcony. That way she didn't have to deal with the anxiety of seeing it on the floor or in the sink. Hopefully the neighborhood birds and bunnies will be able to use the hair for their homes.

We had a group hug and then the girls wanted to play with Jenn's scarves and wig. Jenn was a new woman. She sat on the floor in the living room while the girls surrounded her and helped her learn how to tie her head scarves. She looked emotionally drained, but relieved that this was over. We ate cupcakes, had another round of mimosas and enjoyed the remainder of our time together.

Once everyone had left, I cleaned the bathroom. The ten braids sat on the bathroom sink. I measured them and seven were long enough (nine inches) to donate to Pantene Beautiful Lengths. I kissed each one and placed them gently in a Ziplock bag and then a padded envelope.

Matt and I looked through the photos from the day and once again I was moved to tears. I wasn't crying because I was sad, but because I was so proud of Jenn and moved by the love and support of Jenn's friends. I know she will get through this on the wings of her angels.

Read more about Jenn's journey on her blog:

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Time to Heal

October 18, 2011 I started physical therapy for a strained Achilles tendon. I remember the moment the exact moment I hurt myself. I was participating in the Ribbon Run 5k for breast cancer (April 9, 2011) with my friend Colleen and I remember my Achilles making a pop sensation and then becoming very tight. I stretched it using the curb and then finished the race. The discomfort persisted on and off for several months, but I have a pretty high tolerance for pain, so I ignored it.

This discomfort/tightness started at the arch of my foot where a knot had formed, ran along the outside of my Achilles tendon and up the outside of my calf. I didn’t really mention it to anyone because in the scope of everything else in my life this seemed inconsequential.

It wasn’t until my six month follow-up with my oncologist Dr. Heyer that it became a bigger concern. At the end of my appointment, Dr. Heyer asked if there were any other changes with my body.

Me: “No … well, I don’t know if this is relevant …”
Dr. Heyer interrupted, “Jennifer, it’s all relevant.”
Me: “Well, I’ve been in physical therapy for my Achilles tendon.”
Dr. Heyer: “Tell me everything.”

I explained how I injured my tendon and what types of therapy I was getting for my right leg. He then explained that Tamoxifen (the post-cancer therapy I am on for five years) has some nasty side effects, including deterioration of tendons and blood clots. Who knew!?!? He advised me NEVER to use a brace because that would create the perfect place for a blot clot. I explained that my physical therapist didn’t agree with braces because they limit the range of motion and don’t help strengthen the muscles around the tendon. He told me to continue with physical therapy and make this a high priority for the wellness of my body.

(Men, feel free to stop reading here, because I’m going to talk about “lady troubles” next.)

October was the last month I had “lady troubles.” This sent me into a complete panic since I was scared I might be perimenopausal again (from the chemo dosage I incurred back in 2008). I felt my hopes of every being able to get pregnant slip out from under me. I felt nauseous and my anxiety shot through the roof. I felt like I was spiraling chemically in my body. I kept telling Matt, “I just don’t feel right. I don’t know how else to describe it.” Women who have already been through menopause, I want you to know I feel your pain. This blows! The night sweats I have been having since 2008 became more intense and I would find myself wide awake between 1-3am in a full blown panic attack.

I called my nurse Brenda at Dr. Heyer’s office to ask her opinion about why my “lady troubles” had stopped abruptly.

Me: “What’s wrong with me?”
Brenda: “Nothing is wrong with you. Take a deep breath. This is a common side effect of Tamoxifen. Your [“lady troubles”] might come and go over the next two years of your therapy.”
Me: “But why would my [“lady troubles”] just stop at year three on this medicine? Is that normal?”
Brenda: “It is very normal since the therapy builds in your body and suppresses the estrogen being created since your cancer was estrogen positive. We have to keep it suppressed.”
Me: “What about my heightened anxiety?”
Brenda: “I would advise you make an appointment with your family medicine doctor to discuss changes in your anxiety.”
Me: “Ok.”
Brenda: “Jennifer? Two more years, kiddo. I know the side effects suck, but you only have two more years on the Tamoxifen and you have to push through it.”
Me: “I know. I just don’t feel right.”

The holidays came and went. Jasper got sick, then healthy, then sick, then healthy. Matt lost his Uncle Bob unexpectedly on Christmas Day. And my anxiety just kept building, while I kept using Xanax to maintain a normal balance in my everyday life.

It wasn’t until one of my best friends, Jennifer Campbell, was diagnosed with stage 4 triple negative breast cancer that my anxiety spiraled and reached a breaking point. It was back to the severity that I felt in 2005 and again in 2008. Traumas in my life create spikes in my anxiety. The nausea became severe and the weight loss began again. The lowest weight my anxiety has driven me to was 87 pounds back in 2005. I could feel myself starting to isolate from Matt and wanting to be left alone.

Matt: “Jennifer, I really think you need to go talk to someone. I love you with all my heart, but you know I’m a horrible listener. I don’t know that I can help you with this. You know I love Jenn, and you and I will do everything in our power to help her, but you can’t stop living your life. You have to keep eating. You have to spend time with your friends. I’m really worried about you.”
Me: “I love you. Thank you for being honest with me. I know I get completely consumed by these traumas in my life. It has taken me four years, but I think I am finally ready to talk to someone. I know that I have seeded emotions and even blacked out experiences from my cancer treatment that I need to work through.”
Matt: “I love you and I am here and support you in whatever you want to do. I am scared for you and I want you to be OK.”
Jenn: “I love you, too. I need you to reign me back in when I start to spiral because I don’t always know that I am. I promise I will talk to someone.”

Today I went to see my doctor Toni Nelson. She is one of the best women I know. I started my story from October and shared with her everything that had transpired that led me to her office. She hugged me and validated that my experiences over the past couple of years have been incredibly taxing. She said, “You just never get a break do you?”

(Toni diagnosed my anxiety back in 2005 when I ended up in her office 87 pounds and with horrible digestive issues—all stemming from stress, anxiety and trauma in my life.)

She told me that she loves Matt and is so happy that I have someone in my life to remind me that I need to continue living my life and that I deserve to be happy.

Toni: “Jennifer, I think it’s good that you are going to talk to someone and plan to try acupuncture. I think you are suffering some from Posttraumatic stress which is common after cancer, especially as you are reliving it with one of your best friends. Just because you are going to talk to someone doesn’t mean that you failed at resolving this on your own. I know how you think. You’re not a failure. It’s OK to need help sometimes and say that you don’t have the resources to handle this.”

I lowered my head and began crying. She knew me all to well and the internal struggle of not wanting help or to admit that I can’t fix this.

Me: “I’m just so tired. I try to be strong for everyone else and at the end of the day there is no fuel left for me—I’m drained. I feel like there’s something wrong with me.”
Toni: “Baby Doll, there’s nothing wrong with you. You’ve had some serious traumas in your life and all we’ve given you to deal with it is 75mg of Effexor XR and .25mg of Xanax. With that low a dosage all you are getting is the serotonin value with no norepinephrine. Your resources are spent on the lowest dosage of medication possible. How you’ve coped to this point on barely any medicine is beyond me. We’ll bump up the dosage to give you some help and then reevaluate when you are done with the Tamoxifen and life calms down.”
Me: “Thank you so much for being so kind to me.”
Toni: “You can’t be everyone’s rock and white dove 100% of the time, Jennifer, and no one expects that of you. There is no shame in saying I don’t have it all figured out and I need some help. We’ll get you back to feeling like yourself.”

For some reason today, of all days, I remembered to bring with me a copy of 'The Shack' that the author William P. Young had sent me in the mail before the book actually came out. Toni and I had discussed the book a couple of years back when her mother had passed away and she was grieving. Young sent me a copy of the book while I was going through treatment and written me a personal message inside. I reread the quote he had written to Toni and my voice caught in my throat. Toni finished reading it for me:

"There is a wind that knocks you sideways, a rain that only leaves you cold ... but there is another storm of unrelenting grace in whose embrace you are now surely held."

OK, how on Earth did this man know that I love the rain and storms!? Almost every piece of artwork or photography I own has rain or people holding umbrellas. It is when I am most creative and I feel the most centered. Who would have guessed that a fire sign (Sagittarius) would be drawn to water. Might explain why I fell in love with Matt the Scorpio (water sign). What a perfect quote so well suited for my life.

I have been seeing a masseuse named Mimi monthly to help with the increased numbness in my fingers and toes. She has also been doing aromatherapy for anxiety which is amazing. I start therapy in a week and am planning on trying acupuncture. I guess there really is beauty in the breakdown.

Thank you to my family and friends for reaching out to me over the last few months, concerned about my health and wellness. Some of you in tears upset that I had lost myself. Your concern and kindness about my well being is touching beyond words. I am so blessed to be surrounded by such amazing individuals. I promise to take really good care of myself and keep you updated on my journey to healing myself.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Little Story of Faith and Hope

It was just this week that I realized that I have never shared the story of Hope and Faith. Now is as good of a time as any, I suppose.

When I was diagnosed with an aggressive form of Stage III breast cancer four years ago at the age of 26, I received two little stuffed bears from my mother along with a letter. These bears had been given to her by someone who worked with her at Lees Corner Elementary School.

The letter explained that these bears were purchased while this woman’s mother was battling breast cancer. The woman lived locally in Northern Virginia while her mother was in New York. Because of the distance and inability to be with one another during imaging, doctor’s appointments, chemotherapy treatments and so on, they used these bears, which they named Hope and Faith to give them a sense of connection. For over a year they would carry the bears wherever they went, no matter how silly the circumstance and that kept them connected, so they never felt alone.

I was so moved by the kindness of this gesture. Since my mother is a teacher, she was unable to take the time off to be at ever appointment of mine, so my mother and I carried these little bears throughout my journey … for almost two years. My bear, named Faith, would sit in my chemo chair with me, slept in my bed after my mastectomy and even laid on the floor with me in the bathroom on nights I was sick and having severe panic attacks. I knew my mother (“my rock”) had her bear and that kept us strong and together.

When my godfather Bill was diagnosed with bladder cancer I knew it was time to pass on our bears. When I told my mom my wishes I remember her crying and saying, “I don’t know if I can. I continue to talk to my bear and pray to her. She keeps you healthy.” I hadn’t realized how important her bear Hope had become to her over time. It is amazing how we cling to certain objects, like me being unable to part with my wigs because I feel like they keep the cancer away. But after thinking it over, she agreed and both my godfather and I carried our bears when he had treatments and doctors appointments. It never left my side – it kept me connected to him.

The bears were returned once my Godfather was cancer-free. But it wasn’t long until they would be needed again. My friend’s mother was diagnosed with breast cancer and the bears were called on again. My friend and her mother used the bears to remind themselves that they were always with one another and now her mother is cancer-free. They are discussing getting tattoos of “hope” and “faith” as a constant reminder of their relationship and connection during such a difficult journey. The power of hope and faith.

On Monday before Jenn’s mediport surgery I told her the story of the two bears. Both she and her friend Amy listened as I told the story of their amazing little journey and healing powers. They both were moved by the story. Amy told me that her children’s middle names are “Hope” and “Faith.” Jenn chose the bear “Hope” and once again I was reunited with my dear friend “Faith” which we will carry with us until Jenn is cancer-free.

Now, I know in my head that these are just two little stuffed bears, but I believe they symbolize what I am finding is essential to all of us, especially during a time of need. Connection. Validation. These are what give us Hope and Faith. That someone is there even in the darkest of hours or have been there and made it out alive. You don’t necessarily need a bear, but I believe talking to my bear, praying to my bear and knowing that someone else was doing the same made all the difference during my journey. Nothing is too silly if it makes our heart happy and gives you a sense of hope in the darkest of hours. Because regardless of pain, illness and loss, there is always faith, hope and above all else, love.