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Tuesday
Feb042014

Making Strides on World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day. A day that means different things to different people. For some it's an opportunity to highlight what their healthcare organizations do to benefit cancer patients. For others it highlights fundraising or research successes.

But for the average cancer patient or survivor, it brings up mixed emotions. It's not really something we want to think about, but we can't really help it, with all the newspaper and television headlines there to remind us.

Things sure have changed in the six years since I had the mastectomies. Research has come a long way, and cancer organizations such as the Army of Women have really helped gather women from all over to tell their stories and relate their experiences. More women have participated in medical trials as a result.

There's also a much bigger emphasis on the importance of exercise than ever before. Exercise is important, not only for those of us that have been through cancer and have now hung our cap on the survivor peg, but as a form of prevention as well. The clinic where I was first diagnosed with cancer didn’t even whisper the word exercise back in 2007, but they are now strongly encouraging their patients to participate regularly as a form of prevention. This warms my heart, as I know all too well the benefits of exercise; even while going through chemo. Although some patients may be too tired to run or do another form of exercise while undergoing chemo, and it's always best to listen to your body, I found that running during my treatment made me less tired and helped tremendously with my energy levels.

Another improvement in the cancer survivor's world is the vast amount of information about healthy eating. Changing bad eating habits is so important, and there are many cookbooks out there that can inspire it. Check out Kris Carr's blog and cookbooks for some really fine inspiration. A cancer survivor herself, she keeps cancer abay partly by eating the right foods, and sharing her ideas in a fun and witty way. She put a smile on my face with her first book “Crazy Sexy Cancer”; a book I received it as a gift when I was first diagnosed.

And to inspire us to change the way we see a medical diagnosis, Lissa Rankin, a medical doctor herself, has some new and innovative ways of treatment. I’m sure she will go a long way to revolutionize standard medical treatment!

And last, but not least, my running hero, Kristin Armstrong, whose love of the sport and quirky way of tying it into her everyday family life is also inspiring. Her Runner’s World blog, Mile Markers, highlights the highs and lows of a long distance runner in training. Recently one of her blogs highlighted the thrill of pinning on a race bib. For anyone who has done this, you know what I mean. I can’t adequately explain the feeling when you take your bib; number and name, and proudly pin it on the front of your race shirt for all to see. It symbolizes the many kilometres of running, the several hours of meditation done on a peaceful solitary run outside, and the accomplishment of your person. And what is my best race day bib? The 26.2 With Donna, in Jacksonville, Florida; a run for cancer.

So on this World Cancer Day I may not want to see all those “c” words around me, but I sure am proud of the strides our collective community has taken to better our whole person. The people I mentioned in this blog are some of my heroes, and ones I tend to read regularly, however there are many more out there, including the hard working professionals on Oncology wards in hospitals around the World. One could not finish commemorating this fine day without thanking her homegrown hero, and pivot nurse at St Mary's Hospital in Montreal, Dail Jacob.  

There's a wealth of innovative knowledge at our fingertips and it's encouraging to see the direction we are going in. The future is sure looking bright!

 

Friday
Jan032014

Happy 2014!

We said good-bye to 2013 a couple of days ago. For me, it was a bittersweet good-bye; sad because I have always been emotional with them, and happy because 2013 was a year of endings and new beginnings. And that type of year is filled with sadness, hardship, effort and joy. The roller coaster year, as I like to call it. A year of learning and growth.
So....as I rang in the New Year, it was with feelings of melancholy and relief......although it was with much more of the latter. It's strange how certain events can take up so much room in your mind and in your life. It was three years ago today; during a cold (although not as cold as it is right now!) and lazy post holiday day, that I got the phone call. Two of the directors from my office e-mailed me in the morning, wanting a conference call. I was on sick leave, recovering from an operation that I had in late November; one of the many follow up surgeries following my double mastectomies.
Being the consummate professional, I immediately thought of the items I would list as goals for the new year. As I got on the call, we started the usual banter about how nice the holidays were, and how much we appreciated our down time. Our jobs were very demanding, and the hours were long. One of my colleagues on the call was a woman, whose mother had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. We had spoken at times over the past months about her mother, and I had been open in talking about my own experiences with her.
It didn't take long to figure out that the call was not regarding our future plans, but regarding my future plans specifically. I was being fired.
And thus started the year of 2013. As with a cancer diagnosis, your mind goes into a sort of shock when you first hear the words nobody ever wants to hear. The same sort of questions go through your mind...What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Why now? Then it rolls into more thoughts, like...What will I do? How am I going to break the news to my family? I have three girls that I have to provide for, and a roof to keep over their head. Poor me....poor me....poor me......The feeling sorry for myself phase was intertwined with feelings of anger. I had given so much of myself to this job. Many hours away from the family, lots of high pressure situations and stress, many yesterday deadlines, all whilst I endeavoured to provide leadership to those working in my division. But most of all....I had never let them down. I took only six weeks off following my double mastectomies, and worked through eight rounds of chemotherapy, never skipping a beat.
And then you get to a fork in the road. That same one I reached after my cancer diagnosis. You can call it quits and do nothing but feel sorry for yourself, or you can decide that you're better than that and move on. Choosing to fight is not always easy. Any cancer survivour can relate to that.....I picked myself up, shook off the dirt and rummaged around for my pride. First I did things that I hadn't done in a very long time. I took a few weeks to visit my parents who were down in Florida (Yes!). When the snow started to melt I took my pent up energy outside and picked up years of leaves in my large, tree infested backyard. My garden never looked so beautiful!
And yes, I went back to work. To a position that has a few less hours away from family and me time (even if I am still working more than I thought). To a position where I am appreciated and have a title of prestige (the title's not so important to me), and to a new job where I have met new people and have made a new friend; someone who I have felt I have known for a long time (even though we just met).
Similar to cancer survivourship, you also figure out who your real friends are. After working for over twenty years in the same profession; nine of which were with the group of people I dedicated the most to (six of those years were as a cancer patient and cancer survivour), only a handful of them have called to see how I was doing.
All this growth is in the name of making room for better experiences and new, and more positive people, to enter my life. My cancer diagnosis taught me many lessons on how to deal with life. I was able to use this knowledge in dealing with 2013. And, as with cancer, had this not happened, I would not be in the place I am now. Standing proud and tall....with a few visible scars on my body, and some that nobody can see. Oh.....and a huge smile on my face.

We said good-bye to 2013 a couple of days ago. For me, it was a bittersweet good-bye; sad because I have always been emotional with them, and happy because 2013 was a year of endings and new beginnings. And that type of year is filled with sadness, hardship, effort and joy. The roller coaster year, as I like to call it. A year of learning and growth.
So....as I rang in the New Year, it was with feelings of melancholy and relief......although it was with much more of the latter. It's strange how certain events can take up so much room in your mind and in your life. It was three years ago today; during a cold (although not as cold as it is right now!) and lazy post holiday day, that I got the phone call. Two of the directors from my office e-mailed me in the morning, wanting a conference call. I was on sick leave, recovering from an operation that I had in late November; one of the many follow up surgeries following my double mastectomies.
Being the consummate professional, I immediately thought of the items I would list as goals for the new year. As I got on the call, we started the usual banter about how nice the holidays were, and how much we appreciated our down time. Our jobs were very demanding, and the hours were long. One of my colleagues on the call was a woman, whose mother had also been diagnosed with breast cancer. We had spoken at times over the past months about her mother, and I had been open in talking about my own experiences with her.
It didn't take long to figure out that the call was not regarding our future plans, but regarding my future plans specifically. I was being fired.
And thus started the year of 2013. As with a cancer diagnosis, your mind goes into a sort of shock when you first hear the words nobody ever wants to hear. The same sort of questions go through your mind...What did I do to deserve this? Why me? Why now? Then it rolls into more thoughts, like...What will I do? How am I going to break the news to my family? I have three girls that I have to provide for, and a roof to keep over their head. Poor me....poor me....poor me......The feeling sorry for myself phase was intertwined with feelings of anger. I had given so much of myself to this job. Many hours away from the family, lots of high pressure situations and stress, many yesterday deadlines, all whilst I endeavoured to provide leadership to those working in my division. But most of all....I had never let them down. I took only six weeks off following my double mastectomies, and worked through eight rounds of chemotherapy, never skipping a beat.
And then you get to a fork in the road. That same one I reached after my cancer diagnosis. You can call it quits and do nothing but feel sorry for yourself, or you can decide that you're better than that and move on. Choosing to fight is not always easy. Any cancer survivour can relate to that.....I picked myself up, shook off the dirt rummaged around for my pride. First I did things that I hadn't done in a very long time. I took a few weeks to visit my parents who were down in Florida (Yes!). When the snow started to melt I took my pent up energy outside and picked up years of leaves in my large, tree infested backyard. My garden never looked so beautiful!
And yes, I went back to work. To a position that has a few less hours away from family and me time (even if I am still working more than I thought). To a position where I am appreciated and have a title of prestige (the title's not so important to me), and to a new job where I have met new people and have made a new friend; someone who I have felt I have known for a long time (even though we just met).
Similar to cancer survivourship, you also figure out who your real friends are. After working for over twenty years in the same profession; nine of which were with the group of people I dedicated the most to (six of those years were as a cancer patient and cancer survivour), only a handful of them have called to see how I was doing.
All this growth is in the name of making room for better experiences and new, and more positive people, to enter my life. My cancer diagnosis taught me many lessons on how to deal with life. I was able to use this knowledge in dealing with 2013. And, as with cancer, had this not happened, I would not be in the place I am now. Standing proud and tall....with a few visible scars on my body, and some that nobody can see. Oh.....and a huge smile on my face.

Thursday
Sep262013

Renewal

So it's been awhile. During the first week in January I wrote that 2013 was going to be a big year for me. Little did I know how true my prediction would be. 

Last November I had my last operation. It was nothing serious, but those of you who have had mastectomies know that there are often a few surgeries that follow. Tired, after nine years in a high stress job, I was going to take advantage of my recovery time over the holidays to recouperate and recharge my batteries. 

On January third, after writing a very optimistic blog, the phone rang. And after a short chat about how I was feeling, the two work colleagues who were on the conference call with me informed me that I no longer had a job. 

I'm sure I'm not the first cancer survivour to go through this, nor will I be the last. And I'm certainly not writing this looking for sympathy either. I'm writing this because I truly believe that things happen for a reason. 

As it turns out, this permanently brought me back to the family home and with my girls on a daily basis. It forced me to look at my life and evaluate the hours I was putting in at work. It was about time that I reorganized my life and concentrated on Me as a person. I needed to change perspective. 

So here I am, on a Monday morning in late September, waiting on the oncology floor in the hospital for my six month check up. It's fitting I would decide to pick this day to return to my blog. Yes the butterflies are gently fluttering in my stomach, signalling the ever present nerves that appear before this appointment. But somehow, through it all, I'm convinced that everything will be OK. 

I am three months into a new job that has brought me much joy, and looking back at my prediction from the beginning of the year, it's certainly looking like 2013 will be the best year yet. 

All it takes is a little faith. When one door closes, many more open to shine light upon you.... 

Because I believed.

Sunday
Jun022013

My Life...As It Is Now.... Is My Message

Today is Cancer Survivor's Day. It's a day that will be meaningful to most survivors and their loved ones, in many different ways. To those who have just started their journey, it is a day of hope; that one day they may look back at the tremendous effort they made, and be proud of how they handled it, and thankful for the most special people that are closest to them, and the support they got during hospitalizations, after surgery, and during radiation and chemotherapy treatments. Many early survivors, as I once did, aspire to get to that five year cancer free milestone. The road there is full of surprises, changes, turns in the road, enlightenedness, and knowledge.
As I look back at my own journey, I am always amazed at how far I have come, and how my life has changed. Since my diagnosis, reading and keeping up with cancer news has been really important. As social media has become more important, cancer patients and survivors have a multitude of blogs websites and tweetchats at their disposal. As with my lifepowerblog, many blogs by survivors, and even non survivors, are inspiring and helpful; especially about the little things.....ones that health care professionals don't bother telling you. Sharing our journey with you is also therapeutic. The words just poured out of me when I started this blog. And with every one, I became stronger and stronger. Blogs I have especially enjoyed are Lissa Rankin, for her healthy life perspective; Kris Carr, for her healthy recipes and green juice; Gabrielle Bernstein for her “spiritjunkieness” and motivation to meditate; and Sue Carter Ansari, and her beautiful and healthy raw cooking......to name a few.
But that's not all....
Not all cancer survivors will agree, but cancer gave me my life back. It was the wakeup call I didn't listen to when it was only a whisper. It encouraged me to look at my own life, and what was working and what wasn't.
As a result some friends and acquaintences became better ones, others; many of whom were too afraid to “catch” my disease, or felt awkward because they had no idea what to say, or what to do, simply disappeared.
Survivorship has been good to me in the way I treat my body. Over time I have changed my diet considerably, and have even become a good cook. Being in the kitchen and preparing fresh healthy foods is one of the ways I relax now. I can often be seen on a Sunday morning sifting through my many cookbooks for inspiration, and thrilled at the prospect of trying something new. Prepared foods don't exist in my house. Everything is made with loving care.
Regular exercise has also been key. I will always be grateful that I started running, even before my breast cancer diagnosis. Running helped me in my darkest days, and darkest moments. There have even been reports coming out regarding the benefits of running during chemotherapy. I can attest to that, as I didn't suffer from the extreme fatigue that hits many patients as a result of treatment. I truly believe that running made the difference, and provided me with that added boost of energy that was so important during eight rounds of chemotherapy. Running, along with my almost daily meditation have been the base of my support system on the road of survivorship.
There is a no nonsense attitude that has also seemed to incorporate itself in the survivor me. I mean this in a really good way......but I really don't care what people think (sorry to my three daughters, who are sometimes horrified by this). Where I used to be shy to ask a question, or ask for what I want, I am now more outspoken. Discussions with total strangers are more common, and I will ask questions until I'm satisfied with the answers, or until I understand. When I forget someone's name....I'm no longer deeply embarrassed, but simply blame it on chemobrain!
And yes....I sometimes go to the grocery store with dirt on my face, in my cut off sweats, gardening shoes and my straw cowboy hat!
And so is life as I know it now. Mahatma Gandhi once said “My life is my message”. My life IS my message. A wonderful, challenging, adventurous, peaceful, meaningful, inspirational, positive and beautiful life that I am grateful for with each surviving day.
Happy Cancer Survivor's Day. May those of us who put up the fight and won, provide the inspiration and knowledge to help those who follow in our footsteps.
Wednesday
May152013

Angelina Jolie's Brave Decision

When Angelina Jolie's opinion piece came out in the New York Times yesterday, revealing that she had a double mastectomy followed by reconstruction, as a result of testing positive for the BRCA1 gene, there was a lot of discussion and chatter by various media outlets and by social media.

I applaud Jolie for her bravery and willingness to share her experience with the public. By doing this, she will be able to shed a greater light on breast cancer in general, and its genetic issues. Knowledge is power, and anyone going through a battle with breast cancer knows that you need to stay well informed in order to make the best decisions for your own case.
As a mother of three daughters, I can also understand where her mind was when she received the bad news. No, she didn't have breast cancer. But she had pretty high odds of getting it. With the passing of her mother, as a result of breast cancer, and at such a young age, there is no doubt in my mind how difficult it must have been to think of her own children, and the unenviable position she found herself in.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, six years ago, I was not aware of the extent of my family's history with the disease. I knew that one of my aunts had ovarian cancer, and that another also had breast cancer, but after my first surgery, a lumpectomy, more family members came out of the woodwork. As the margins were not clear after the initial surgery for the lumpectomy, I had to go back for more surgery, and had to decide whether I would have another lumpectomy or, as there were no guarantees they'd get all the cancer on the second try, go in for the mastectomy.
It was during the days of contemplation prior to my decision that I heard that not only did I have two cousins that were diagnosed with cancer when they were in their forties, five out of seven of my father's sisters had been diagnosed with breast cancer, another sister had passed away from ovarian cancer, and two out of four brothers had prostate cancer.
My decision became much more crucial. I had already decided to go for a full mastectomy, but now I needed to think of the other breast as well. It was also recommended that I go for genetic testing.
After a few months of testing and waiting for an operation date, I had a double mastectomy and reconstruction. It was a gruelling ten and a half hour operation that, first, had my oncology team in to remove the breasts, the cancer and test my lymph nodes for any sign of cancer cells that could be spreading. The second part of the operation had my plastic surgeon's team reconstructing my breasts, using tissue from my abdomen; in more medical terms, a tram flap.
It was a few years following this operation that I started genetic testing. Much of this involves a detailed family history, so that doctors can determine whether or not it's worthwhile going through the blood tests that would indicate whether I was a carrier of the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene. My decision to go through with the genetic testing was partly for myself, and partly because I had three daughters, and two sisters who would benefit from the information contained in my results. If I was a gene carrier, I would have a much higher chance of getting ovarian cancer, and would have another difficult decision to make. My daughters would have a much higher chance of acquiring breast cancer as well, and would be in the same situation that Jolie found herself in.
The decision was made to go through with the blood tests. I would be called back in a few weeks to get my results. During this time there were many things that went through my mind. I would have to decide, sooner rather than later, that I would have a full hysterectomy.
And I was scared; not only for myself.
I was scared for my daughters, still so young, and their futures. What if breast cancer hits them even earlier than it hit me? I thought of the implications of carrying one, or both, of these genes. Should I get life insurance for the girls? Should I get a safety deposit box and put the results in there, only to be taken out at a much later date? If my daughters were told that I was a gene carrier, they would not be eligible for life insurance in Canada. My sisters, who were already considered high risk, because of me, would have to be tested themselves.
Even while I was afraid, my logical self also thought that, at least, I would have a clearer picture of why I got breast cancer.
It was a beautiful, but cold, sunny day in February of this year that I went to the hospital to get my results. To say I was nervous would be an understatement. In my usual take charge way, I had mentally prepared myself for any bad news. Similar to the day that I was diagnosed with breast cancer, everything was moving in slow motion. I was in a daze, but remember things in vivid detail. I was on an emotional roller coaster as I sat in that hospital waiting room. Alone.
And it was with sweaty palms, like a prisoner in court awaiting the judge to read their verdict, that I sat across from the genetics councillor to get my results. After a few bits of information, that, frankly, I don't even remember, she said the words I longed to hear: you tested negative for both genes.
Relief cannot amply describe my feelings, at that point. The information that followed was a blur as well. And when I left, my results on one piece of paper, neatly folded in my purse, I sat in my car and cried. Tears of relief, tears of gratitude and tears of joy. The emotions that had been cooped up for many months spilled out on my steering wheel and down my winter coat.
I know how it feels to be there. And even if you're a movie star, those decisions remain the same.