When Breast Cancer and Motherhood Collide

I’ve been a bad mommy, a mean, inconsiderate mommy.  It’s true.  I’ve spent the last 18 months fixated on myself while completely ignoring my children.  At times I’d be in the same room with them, and have no idea what they were doing or talking about.  I was too absorbed in my own cancer life and what’s more, I wanted to be…There I said it.  It’s not that I liked thinking about cancer 24/7, but I needed too.  There was just so much to take in.  All. The. Time.

Making meals for the boys, getting them to school, bathing them, was all difficult enough.  Play with them?  How could I sit on the floor and play games with thoughts of reconstruction, oncologist visits, and my CA 27, 29 number swirling through my head?  Cancer’s daily life was so consuming there wasn’t any way I could take part in fun or even conjure up the patience needed for something as simple as arts and crafts. Sticky kid fingers and one clogged adult brain do not mesh.

Things collided early one autumn morning as I was waking my youngest for preschool.  I noticed he had something stuck in his hair or so I thought. On closer inspection, I miserably determined it was a tick, and not a tiny tick, a plump one, a fat, happy one that had obviously been there a while making himself right at home and it was not stuck in his hair at all, but embedded in the sweet skin of my four-year’s head.  Yuck.

Crap.  What to do?  What to do?  Pulling it out myself was out of the question.  I can endure many things, but this was beyond my mothering capabilities.  This wasn’t some old splinter that needed pulling out.  What if I tried with my trusty tweezers and it still stuck?  What if I hurt my boy? How long would all this take?  There were many ways this could play out, none appealing.  What if I couldn’t get my son off to school on time or worse, what if the answer was to miss it entirely to fit in a doctor visit?  As skived out as I was about a tick burrowing it’s hungry head into my son’s head, I wasn’t ready to have it mess up my day. This was truly a dilemma.

I was tempted to send him off to school and have it become someone else’s problem.  Nice mom thing to do, right?  There was a nurse on staff, after all.  Shouldn’t her responsibilities include helping out a mother too preoccupied with her own stuff to get a fat tick off her son’s head?  I had a lot on my mind.  I needed the kids out of the house as soon as possible in order to get down to my sulking.  This tiny tick was a huge problem for me.

The morning proceeded as if nothing was wrong, but guilt was weighing heavily on my shoulders.  Cancer and guilt…Not a good day.

I was beginning to accept I couldn’t let the tick live on, but I was pissed, so pissed that this little bug invaded my life, interrupted my wallowing.  I wanted to just be left alone and this minuscule, bloodsucking creature was preventing that.  It was forcing me to put cancer on the back burner and get back into motherhood.  I didn’t want to go.

I realized then I was at a crossroad.  It wasn’t about the bug.  It was about doing right by my children.  I couldn’t go on this way. Pretending to be a good mother, seemingly making all the right moves, caring and invested in their lives, but really it was a sham, a house of cards waiting to fall.  I needed to own up, stop faking and stop short changing these little guys. They deserved better.  A full time mother, present in their world, not someone vaguely watching from the sideline, but someone ready to play the game. Cancer wasn’t a free ride away from motherhood, at least not for me any longer.

The tick woke me up.  I started to see the truly important things I was missing, the things I was messing up.  It was later that very day, I began searching out other women with breast cancer.  Having others to talk to helped free up the brain space required to let my kids back in along with my job as their mother. Turns out, there’s room for all.

By the way, I did make the nurse at school remove the tick, but she used my own tweezers, so I did help after all.

Did you reach a point when your ways of dealing with cancer had to change? What helped? 

Soapbox Revisited

The above video shows how easy and how important it is to become a member of the Love/Avon Army of Women and now is a perfect time to join.  A fascinating new study has just been announced.  Researchers are looking for women recently diagnosed with breast cancer and those without.  The Army of Women’s website describes the study this way:

These researchers are comparing differences between the intestinal bacteria of women who were diagnosed with breast cancer within the last 5 years and those who have never had breast cancer. They are also studying the intestinal bacteria of women who have not been diagnosed with breast cancer and have a first-degree relative (mother, daughter, or sister) WITH breast cancer.

Why are they studying intestinal bacteria to learn about breast cancer? Well, as you may know, exposure to estrogen has been shown to increase breast cancer risk. This estrogen and other female hormones are absorbed through the intestinal tract, and for that absorption to occur bacteria must be present in the intestines. The researchers think that these bacteria and the systems they use to metabolize female hormones may hold clues as to why certain women develop breast cancer and others do not.

You must live near the following locations or be willing to travel there to participate.

• the Chicago, Illinois metropolitan area
• Northwest Indiana
• Cedar Falls, Davenport, or Des Moines, Iowa
• Minneapolis or St. Cloud, Minnesota
• Southern California (as far north as Kern County and San Luis Obispo)
• Milwaukee, Kenosha, River Falls, or Wauwatosa, Wisconsin.

If interested, click the link below and check it out.  Together we can learn how to prevent the disease that takes so many loved ones and hopefully stop it from latching onto a new generation.  Thank you!

A Clear Message

I was diagnosed with Invasive Ductal Carcinoma five days before my 45th birthday, but this wasn’t the first time cancer invaded my life.  When I was 19 my mother learned she had breast cancer.  I can’t tell you what kind she had.  I don’t think she knew.  No one spoke about such things in 1983. There was a lump, you had it taken out via mastectomy, chemo came next…End of cancer story, unless of course, it wasn’t.

Six years later and only a few months after discovering her illness, breast cancer took the life of my mother’s younger sister and best friend.  My aunt was my mother’s sounding board. The one person listening unconditionally to the fear of finding the lump, the disbelief it was cancer, the rigors of chemo. She got all the gory details. How was it possible her own cancer advanced, seemingly without warning?  Weren’t there symptoms? Something? Anything, that seemed off?  Maybe, maybe not.  Who can say what she experienced, what her fears may have been and whether or not she could voice them.

Losing her sister to the very disease she had beaten was unbearable for my mother. She felt it was her fault somehow.  Perhaps she hadn’t spread the word enough, didn’t scream the signs loud enough.  I don’t think she ever believed she wasn’t responsible for protecting her sister.  A hard thing to live with.

A few years after that my mother had a recurrence and things never really went back to normal.  As they say, we learned to live a new normal.  By this time, I was in my 30’s and getting mammograms every two or three years. I now had a family history I wasn’t born with, yet conversations with Mom just skimmed her deep rooted concern for me. I’d get the occasional questions dropped into the middle of a phone call,

“Are you taking care of yourself?  Getting checked?”  

Not wanting to venture into unpleasant territory, I would give a quick answer, “Yes, all is fine.”  Topic addressed, subject changed.

My mother died in 2000.  The very same week my brother’s mother-in-law, whom we all adored, was diagnosed.  Now, there seemed no respite between the women, between the horror stories, the surgeries, the blood tests, the tumor markers.  What was the number this time?  We lived and breathed by those results.  None of us could just be.  A cruel twist of fate was taking an entire generation of women from my family.

At 40, I began yearly mammograms.  How could I not?  I carried these women with me.  I believed they died because they had the bad luck of being born too early.  Before the advances in breast cancer detection, before heightened awareness brought the disease out of the shadows, before some miracle drugs that may have helped stave off the inevitable. Not going would have been disrespectful to their memory, not to mention, unbelievably stupid. I felt I owed them more than that.

Approaching 45, an ultrasound was tossed into my mix for the first time, and there it was, not on the mammogram as you would expect, but that ultrasound — Newly added to the routine check because of my mother, because of my aunt.  Without that ultrasound, I would have blindly lived another year thinking I was fine, while it grew inside.

In 2009, it had a name all its own, not just Breast Cancer, but Invasive Ductal Carcinoma. Discovered while still under half a centimeter and zero node involvement.  Stage 1.  I was lucky that day.

My women fought their battles in strong silence, but their message carried through loud and clear.  Their legacy wasn’t the cancer. It was their journey that educated and enabled me to be diligent with my own screenings.  I can say with certainty, if it were not for them, my cancer would not have been found as early.  That’s a fact and that’s quite a gift they’ve left behind.

The Happiest Place on Earth… Not So Much

Cancer doesn’t discriminate.  It doesn’t care who you are, how much money you have, whether you have kids, a spouse, parents.  It doesn’t care if you’re a good person and it certainly doesn’t care where you are when it decides to drop in and stay for a while.  Which, if you’re home with family or friends or even alone, is probably a good thing. Where else would you be as you deal with surgeries, treatment, drugs, emotions, healing?

However, what about the beginning of this mess? Where were you? I’ve heard different women talk about getting the call that in a split second altered their lives.  Some were at work. Some were lucky enough to be home.  One woman was driving across a bridge.  More power to her for continuing across.

I was in a car that fateful day. My husband was driving and my then three year old was in his car seat behind me.  It was raining. Actually, it was pouring, coming down in such torrential sheets we could barely see.  As I listened on the phone, I wasn’t surprised to hear the words. On some level I knew they were coming.  It was just hard to hear them over the pounding rain and the voice in my head repeating, “Say benign, say benign.” When the doctor didn’t, I handed the phone to my husband without saying a word and I cried.  I cried the whole way home.  I couldn’t stop. Even when my little boy, who had never seen his mommy cry before, kept asking why Mommy was sad.
Now, here’s where it gets funny.  My family and I were headed to Disney World the next morning for a trip planned months before. Talk about timing.  What goes through your head when you’re told you have cancer?  What’s the first thing you want to do? Who do you call? What appointments do you make?  Which commitments do you cancel? How do you process this heartbreaking news?
I know what I wanted to do.  I wanted to curl up on the bed and pretend I didn’t hear those words. Pretend they didn’t just change my life.  How could so few words, “It’s a small cancer,” change so much?
Thankfully, my husband took charge when I couldn’t and started to make phone calls and ask questions.  Our instincts told us to act fast. 
Get an MRI!   Find a breast surgeon!   Get it out! 
We had to learn cancer doesn’t work that way.  It’s a process and nothing would change that over the next week.  Doctors said to go on vacation and try to enjoy ourselves.  The cancer would be there when we got back.  Well, they didn’t say that part, but I’m pretty sure that’s what they meant.
Then we were there, in Disney World.  I somehow finished packing and got two small boys on the plane without falling apart. Because that’s what a mother does.  She carries on.  I spent the next seven days sharing one room and every waking moment with my family.  I never had private time to feel sorry for myself or question if I’d get to see my boys grow up. So, I had those thoughts in public, while roaming the Magic Kingdom, taking the boys swimming, riding the monorail, cueing up for Dumbo one more time.  These thoughts took over as I watched all the other families have the time of their lives.  I wondered if they had had such news.  Was I the only one that was sad here? It’s cruel, I know, but a part of me hoped not.
Carrying that burden in such a joyful place was almost as hard as hearing the news.  I tried to live in the moment and enjoy the kids’ excitement.  I really did, but every happy thought, every smiling face was followed by a million “What if’s?” and “What’s next?”

We finally went home, two happy boys, two emotionally drained parents and began the business of fighting this thing, because even though I had been in the happiest place on earth, cancer didn’t care.  It was still along for the ride.
Where were you when you first heard the news?  How did you deal?

The Power of Pink

One Million Strong (feat. Susan Sarandon) – Love/Avon Army of Women PSA
I used to pretend that if I didn’t talk about breast cancer or acknowledge its existence in any way, then it couldn’t hurt me. You know how everyone has a circle of personal space around them?  Well, if I refused to let cancer enter my space whether through reading about it, watching yet another news story or hearing about one other person I knew being diagnosed, then I was protected. It wouldn’t break into my personal space; my force field held strong.
Stupid, of course, but when you’re scared of something for so very long, that’s how you deal.  At least, me, until it broke through and I had to face this enemy head on, boobs first.  The thing is, it’s nearly a year and a half since I was diagnosed and the road travelled these days isn’t as rough as it was early on and I’m starting to believe in the power of pink. Not in the “Let’s raise breast cancer awareness pink.”  Although, I won’t argue the importance of that here.  No, I’m talking about its personal power when faced head on. 
Pink gives us the strength to accept the challenges we’ve been given, even when they seem insurmountable. Pink is the freedom to talk with others out loud, in public and not in the back room of a small shop in a strip mall someplace, as it was in my mother’s day more than twenty years ago.  Pink has without a doubt, helped raise survival rates, so there are more of us out there to band together. The power of pink takes down the monster and just maybe, makes it a bit less scary.  At the very least, we are no longer alone and as they say, there’s strength in numbers.
I can say the words now.  Breast cancer.  I couldn’t when talking about my mother or even myself when first diagnosed, as if just saying it would make it worse.  Pink has allowed me to change.  I can read all about it now without being afraid.  In fact, I’m devouring any and all information I can get on how to fight this thing and I don’t mean for my own particular treatment, but on a broader scale.  Before, I always wanted to look away, but now, I’m looking right at it and wondering what I can do to help.  
This disease has taken countless women from this world including my mother, my aunt, my brother’s mother-in-law and two people my own age I knew since high school and those are just the ones I knew personally who have died.  How many more are living with breast cancer everyday?  I don’t want it to win ever again. I’m taking a stand. For myself and for the women I’ve lost.  I signed on to Dr. Susan Love’s Army of Women and I hope you’ll consider doing the same.  I’m all for raising awareness and early detection is my mantra, but Dr. Love is working toward prevention, not just a cure. 
Please watch the PSA attached here and visit the Army of Women website.  Imagine a world without breast cancer.  Imagine all the women gone before us. How proud they would be.  It wasn’t in vain. Pink will have finally killed the beast.  

Five Days

My assumption, these days, is that everyone has a story like this and if you don’t, you’re lucky.  However, you don’t know that yet and most likely you’re not reading this. My story begins five days before May 2, 2009. That date practically jumped off the calendar every time I glanced over for the months leading up to it.  If the date box could flash strobe lights, it would have. That’s how excited we were about our first family trip to Disney World. I know some don’t see the joy there, just huge crowds of hot, sweaty, cranky adults and crying kids, but not us.  My husband and I loved it and to say we were excited, limits how we truly felt.  If I could yell here, I would. We couldn’t wait for that day to arrive and our vacation to begin.

Disney World’s theme in 2009 was “What Will You Celebrate?” and we had so much.  My 45th birthday, the 2nd anniversary of H’s adoption and AC’s 5th birthday.  All good things.  What better place to be?

Five days prior to leaving, in the midst of packing and planning, I went for my yearly (since turning 40) mammogram, along with my first ultrasound. My mom had been diagnosed with breast cancer at only 49 and her sister at 50.  I was used to the concern my family history brought me, but I was also used to breezing through the mammo appointments with an all clear. Besides, this year I had other things on my mind.  As any Disney fan knows, trip planning takes over your life.  It becomes an obsession. There’s just no other way to be and I had it bad. If the radiologists had done an ultrasound of my brain, I’m sure they would have seen mouse ears, maybe a castle, for that was all I had in there.  It was stuffed with all things Disney. There wasn’t any room for thoughts of daily life. However, the ultrasound they did do showed one, so small, so very tiny, yet suspicious cluster of cells in my right breast and in one sharp instant my brain cleared and my heart sank. This could not be happening.

Five days. I had five days to prep for the vacation of a lifetime. Five days to plan our adventures in the Magic Kingdom and Epcot and Hollywood Studios and the Animal Kingdom.  Five days to plan our meals, our snacks, our pool time, our fun.  What would become of our celebrations, my birthday?

Days slowed into hours and 48 hours later I was having a core needle biopsy and 48 hours after that, just 17 hours before flying off to the happiest place on earth, I was told it was cancer. I heard the words I had been running from for 25 years, ever since my mom was first diagnosed when I was 19 years old. It finally caught me. I was sad and scared, of course, but also, bewildered and that’s not a word I use often, but that describes it. I didn’t know where to turn or who to talk to, and looming right in front of me was a trip with my husband and two small boys. I had to finish packing and catch a plane.