Three Month Follow-up with My Oncologist

As I said in my previous blog post, I have had some struggles recently. I have been trying to write about what has been going on, but it has been challenging to put it into words. I am still not prepared, but there may never be a good time, so I may as well start to talk about it.

I had a check-up with my oncologist back on the 7th of January. I didn’t write about my appointment right away because it was an unusual appointment, not my usual, “Yes, I am doing fine on my medication. My sleep is improving, as I am averaging just one night a week, where I am still awake at 5 or 6 am, instead of several nights a week. I am still fighting fatigue…blah, blah, blah…”

My bloodwork has improved to where all of my levels are normal except for my red blood cell count, it’s still low, and unfortunately, it may be my regular reading from now on. It’s not terribly low at all, 4.18, where 4.20 to 5.40 is a normal range. But being even slightly low, I can feel it, so hearing that I might not ever be in the normal range makes me terribly sad as I hate feeling this way. I asked if there is anything I can do, that some cancer patients say that they take iron to fight the fatigue. My PA said that I could take iron, but she cautioned me that it could upset my stomach, so I should take it only every other day to start if I decide to try it. She also said that she had heard that there is a liquid version that might be easier to take, but she hasn’t seen it, so she wasn’t even sure where I could get it. I am on the fence about taking iron, so for now, I am not doing it.

My PA explained that one of the essential readings they are looking at when I come every three months is my Hgb or hemoglobin. Low hemoglobin levels usually indicate that a person has anemia. There are several kinds of anemia: Iron-deficiency anemia is the most common type. This form of anemia occurs when a person does not have enough iron in their body, and it cannot make the hemoglobin it needs. High Hgb is known as polycythemia. This means you have too many red blood cells. Polycythemia vera is a cancer of the blood in which your bone marrow overproduces red blood cells. With polycythemia, a blood test also shows a high red blood cell count and high hematocrit. So low or high Hgb would be bad for me, it would mean I am either anemic, which was also a concern during my chemo treatments, or I have cancer in my blood. My Hgb is a little low, only one point from the lowest acceptable level, but nothing to worry about for now.

Now for the tough part…for most of my appointment, I cried a lot. It was hard to talk about, even with my PA, whom I adore. I kept looking away from her while I was talking and crying; I was embarrassed. Why was I crying? It was a lot of things, but mainly the fact that I have had an overwhelming feeling of guilt recently. Why do I feel guilty? As it is, it’s hard being a cancer survivor, and for me, it is tough because I have always had a great deal of empathy for people, but now it includes other cancer patients. Recently quite a few people I know, through various ways, are dealing with having a cancer recurrence. I feel guilty because I am still doing well; I am OK for the most part. They are experiencing my greatest fear, and I am feeling guilty because it isn’t me. It is also a reminder that my breast cancer was incredibly aggressive, and it could return at any time.

It is easy for most to say, “don’t live in fear, don’t worry about it,” but honestly, someone who says that to me clearly doesn’t understand how horrifying it is to go from barely needing to see a doctor to countless scans, blood draws, chemotherapy, radiation and four surgeries in a matter of fourteen months. All three of my doctors, my cancer treatments, everything I went through saved my life without a doubt, but it also damaged me in every way. I don’t know if I will ever be myself again, many cancer patients tell me that I won’t be, but I am doing everything I can to defy that future.

At the end of February, I will reach the second anniversary of my first appointment with my surgeon when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. In many ways, I can’t believe that it has been that long already, and in other ways, it feels like it has been a lifetime.

Thank you for being here; it helps to know that people care enough to read my blog, that the information I am sharing helps other cancer patients and their caregivers, and it helps me in more ways than I can say.

9 Things You May Not Have Heard from Your Doctor About Breast Cancer

I can relate to quite a few of the issues described below. I appreciate this article because it reminds me that the way I have been feeling recently is very common for cancer patients. I need to continue to give myself time to continue to heal both physically and emotionally.

Medically reviewed by Michelle Azu, M.D. — Written by Anna Crollman on September 24, 2020

It can be difficult for others to understand what you’re feeling without going through it themselves.

When it comes to breast cancer, your medical team can provide you with a wealth of expert medical advice.

But when it comes to the actual experience — how to manage the side effects and long-term insight on your options — some insight may be better understood by talking to other women who have walked the breast cancer path before you.

1. Fertility treatment options are best explored before you begin chemo

Many times, this step can be overlooked in the process of expediting your treatment.

However, discussing fertility preservation options before beginning any chemotherapy — which could impact long-term fertility — is important.

2. When your hair falls out, it could be painful

As the follicles die, there can be a painful and tender sensation on the scalp.

Many survivors will recommend you shave your head with a close razor as soon as this sensation begins in order to minimize the discomfort.

It’s always important to talk to your treatment team about unfamiliar side effects you’re experiencing to know if they’re expected parts of the treatment.

3. You may experience significant weight gain from the steroids

Many people associate weight loss with chemotherapy, but some women have the opposite experience and actually gain weight. Either can be challenging, both physically and emotionally.

4. Medication can affect your sex drive

Lupron and other hormone-blocking medications can cause vaginal dryness and painful intercourse, as well as decrease your sex drive.

You’re not alone in these challenges.

There are treatment options, and the sooner you intervene, the better. Don’t be embarrassed to ask about your options in terms of topical lidocaine, dilators, and daily moisturizing.

If your oncology team cannot advise you further in this area, they should be able to refer you to a health practitioner who can. Your gynecologist may also be a good choice for discussing your concerns.

5. You have options when it comes to breast reconstruction

Don’t be afraid to get a second or third opinion. Most surgeons offer or recommend the surgery types they’re most familiar with.

They won’t be offended by you getting another opinion, and it will help you come to a decision as a more informed and empowered patient — which is critically important.

6. Your implants may be cold to the touch

This is a rare and unexpected experience that occurs in some women who’ve had implants, and it can be helpful to be prepared for this ahead of time.

Regardless, it’s important to inform your surgical team so they can ensure there are no concerns related to your healing.

7. Complementary treatments help to manage side effects

More and more, oncologists are recognizing the benefits of holistic and complementary therapies, such as massage, acupuncture, and more.

Ask your local cancer support centers or organizations for referrals. Some centers have an integrative oncology program where these services are offered by a team that can communicate with your cancer treatment team.

8. Life after cancer can be harder emotionally than active treatment

When all the appointments are done and you’re not being monitored regularly, it can be unsettling.

Sometimes it can feel even harder if those around you are ready to celebrate and “move on,” and you’re not.

Don’t be afraid if you find yourself struggling to cope. You’re not alone in these feelings and it’s a good idea to reach out to your treatment team about support services, which may include a mental health professional.

9. Reconstruction is a journey

Not everyone feels comfortable with their outcome after reconstructive surgery. For many, the first surgery is the first phase of a two-step process, or more in some cases if needed.

In my case, it has been 5 surgeries over 4 years, and I’m planning to do more revisions this year.

If you’re dissatisfied, give yourself time to adjust to the changes and then don’t be afraid to ask what revision options are available.

The bottom line

The first-hand experience you will gain by connecting with other breast cancer patients and survivors can help you feel less alone and help you navigate your own cancer journey with support.

Find other cancer survivors with similar stories in the BC Healthline app, the Young Survival Coalition groups, and even through hashtags on social media, such as #breastcancersurvivor#youngbreastcancersurivor, and #doublemastectomy.

🎀 Breast Cancer Awareness Month 🎀

I can’t believe that it is already October 1st! Up until now, it seemed like 2020 was going by as slowly as possible, tormenting everyone with endless challenges and sacrifices. But it is finally October; Fall has begun, and the end of the year is around the corner.

I have to admit that October never really held any special significance for me in the past, but after going through my journey with breast cancer, it has a new meaning for me. October is a time to reflect on everything that I went through last year, to help newly diagnosed women in any way I can through a breast cancer app that I am active on, to support those going through treatments and surgeries, to chat with other survivors and see how they are coping, and to remember those that we have lost to this horrible disease.

I received a free eBook today that I want to share with everyone because, as I have learned over the last 19 months, knowledge is power! I share information that I trust with you, my readers, because I have been there. I know how scary the words “you have breast cancer” are and the thoughts that flood your brain after hearing it.

If you have any questions for me or if you just want someone to talk to, please contact me at any time. I have a Contact Me page on this website, or you can contact me through one of my Social Network links at the bottom of each page on this website.

Your free eBook, Breast Problems That Aren’t Breast Cancer, is here! We are thrilled to provide this helpful guide for you.

Click this link to get your free copy

Did you know National Breast Cancer Foundation is committed to helping people (including you!) with their breast health? NBCF is helping people at every step of the journey by providing breast health education, delivering access to vital early detection screenings and breast health services to those who could not otherwise afford them, and helping those diagnosed with breast cancer—and their families—navigate the complex cancer care system.

I hope you enjoy this free resource!

Fatigue & Depression

I have been going through quite a bit of fatigue and depression lately. I am still experiencing fatigue almost every day, so when I do have a burst of energy, I make sure to take advantage of it. On days when my entire body is hurting, I try to remind myself that I had my 4th surgery not that long ago, so I don’t need to be so hard on myself when I just want to rest. Resting has become another problem in the form of not being able to sleep properly. It is not out of the realm of possibility for me to be awake until 2 or 3 in the morning, sometimes even later, at least a few nights a week. I realize that fatigue is linked directly with depression, so I am beginning to understand how everything I have been dealing with within the last few months is all part of the same problem.

Not all of my depression is linked to breast cancer, but most of it is. I was talking to a breast cancer patient the other day, and she was asking me how long it has been since I had finished each portion of my treatment. I hadn’t thought about the timing of everything in a while, so as I was answering her questions, I was surprised that time has passed much quicker than I thought. It has been 11 months since my last chemo treatment, 7 months since my last radiation treatment, and 4 months since my previous reconstruction surgery; at times, it feels like a lifetime ago, but when I am having a bad day, it all seems like it happened yesterday. Even with all of that time passing so quickly, my body and mind are still healing. I have been experiencing what I thought were some of the side effects that I had at the end of chemo again, but chemo ended almost a year ago, so I am beginning to realize that some of them are symptoms of depression, as described below. Luckily, we are going on vacation soon, and the timing couldn’t be more perfect. I need a break; I need time away from everything that has been hurting my heart and soul lately, and I need to get my mind and body back on track, and I will!

Depression may be a side effect of breast cancer and fatigue is often a symptom of depression. Some people may have a tendency to depression, which treatment can make worse. At the same time, fatigue itself can lead to depression. Not knowing why you feel drained week after week, and not knowing that this abnormal feeling is normal for many people going through treatment, can make you depressed.

Treatment for breast cancer may leave you feeling sad, tired, or depressed. These feelings are complex conditions, resulting from and affected by many factors: your cancer diagnosis and treatment, aging, hormonal changes, your life experiences, and your genetics.

If you’re abruptly going through menopause 10 years earlier than you naturally would, with a quick lowering of hormone levels, you may experience feelings similar to postpartum depression.

Sadness is a natural part of your breast cancer experience, something you need to express and move through. If you don’t allow yourself to feel sad and grieve, the unresolved grief gets in the way of feeling better and getting better. You may be having hot flashes and trouble sleeping. You may be feeling overwhelmed or even debilitated. All of these factors can lead to fatigue and depression.

How can you tell the difference between fatigue, sadness, and clinical depression? The symptoms of clinical depression include:

  • an inability to cope
  • an overwhelming feeling of helplessness and hopelessness
  • inertia
  • an inability to concentrate
  • memory problems
  • panic attacks
  • loss of pleasure in what used to make you happy
  • lack of interest in sex or food
  • sleep problems

If you think you’re depressed, talk to your doctor. If your doctor doesn’t have experience treating depression, ask for the name of an accredited psychotherapist. Together you can sort out if what you’re feeling is depression or extreme fatigue. Therapy can help you feel supported and allow you to talk about what’s bothering you. Antidepressant medicines can help ease feelings of sadness and anxiety and help you feel better. An accredited psychotherapist with experience treating depression can help.

My First Mammogram in 18 Months

On Monday, I had my first mammogram in 18 months. Once my temperature was checked, I signed the necessary paperwork, and then I went over to the registration area. I noticed while going through the process of registering that the paperwork from my surgeon ordering my mammogram, said to do an ultrasound “if medically necessary.” I prayed that I would not need an ultrasound because I knew that meant that they saw something during the mammogram and would need to take a closer look.

The breast center that I go to, which is in the same building as my surgeon and oncologist, takes terrific care of me. I barely waited for 5 minutes before the nurse came to get me to take me to the back so I could change into a gown. I love the gowns there, they are pre-heated, and so are the blankets! It’s the little things I guess, anything to feel more comfortable when you are waiting to go in to have your breasts smashed in a machine. I was incredibly nervous because I couldn’t help but think about the last time I had a mammogram; when the results said that I had a mass that was “highly suspicious of malignancy.”

When I went back for the mammogram, the first task we needed to take care of was to go over everything I had been through concerning my breast cancer and treatment. It was hard to recount everything from the number of treatments to how many surgeries I have had, what type of surgery it was, and when everything occurred. It was hard to go through the details, not because I couldn’t remember them but because I could, and it was just so much to go through in a short period of time. Even now, when I start thinking about everything that has happened, I get depressed, and sometimes I am brought to tears. I am lucky to be here, and I know that, but that fact doesn’t take away the memories and pain of every blood draw, surgery, and treatment that I have endured.

I didn’t realize how different the process of a mammogram would be with breast implants, so it was a shock to go through what seemed like twice as much imaging. First, I had a regular mammogram, and the standard trays were used with the usual amount of images being taken. But since I have breast implants, I had to have extra imaging done with my implants being pushed up and out of the way. I won’t lie, it was painful to have the edge of the metal platform jam into the scars under my breasts, but it was necessary to be in that position to move my implants out of the way. Once we had finished the mammogram, the tech had me go back to the waiting room while the doctor looked over the images. I waited for a few minutes, and when I saw the tech come back, I was hoping that it was time to leave, but no, the doctor asked for a few more images. So we went back to the mammogram room, and she took two more images, and then sent me back to the waiting room.

I waited for a few more minutes, and then a different and very pregnant tech came to get me. I noticed right away that she was taking me into the ultrasound room, and I immediately got upset. She told me not to worry and that this was normal, but I knew better. She only imaged my right breast, the side where I did not have breast cancer. Once she was finished getting more images, she took me back to the waiting room while the doctor took a look at the ultrasound images. After a few minutes, the mammogram tech came to take me back to the mammogram room for one last mammogram image of my right breast. Now my anxiety is starting to kick into high gear! “What did they find? Do I have cancer in my right breast now? I can’t go through everything again!” My mind was racing, and I wasn’t going to calm down until I knew what was going on. Still, at the same time, I truly appreciated that they were taking their time to make sure that they were able to see and identify what was showing up in the images and give my surgeon and me accurate information.

This time instead of taking me back to the waiting room, the tech had me wait in the mammogram room while the doctor took a look at the last image. She said that I might have to go back to the ultrasound room with the doctor so she could pinpoint the area that was causing concern. Sure enough, I went back into the ultrasound room, and the tech did some measuring and marked an area with a pen for the doctor. The doctor came in and took a few extra images, looked at everything carefully, and then told me that I have some tiny cysts in my right breast, but they are benign, there is no sign of cancer! 😊

Breast Cancer Growth Rate

I came across this article recently and it was really shocking to me. I have always understood that breast cancer grows by cell division, but I had no idea of the timing from when it starts to when you can feel a lump in the breast like I did. I know that the information below is scary, but I am posting this to inform my readers because I truly believe that when it comes to breast cancer, early detection and information are key. If you won’t listen to me, listen to a doctor who makes it clear in the article below that a yearly mammogram is so incredibly important. As you know, I also believe that a monthly self-exam between mammograms is just as important. I don’t want anyone to go through what I have been through in the last 18 months, so if I can help just one reader understand the importance of mammograms then I have done my job.

Speaking of mammograms…my last mammogram was before my first surgery in April 2019. Now that I am over six months out from my last radiation treatment it is time to finally have a mammogram done to make sure that cancer has not come back. My surgeon explained that we couldn’t have a mammogram done any sooner than now because the radiation causes the images to look cloudy. So, next Monday I will have the mammogram done that my surgeon ordered back in February. I am scared, to say the least, but I am trying to have faith that all of the chemo and radiation treatments killed any tiny cancer cells that may have been too small to detect after my first surgery.

Ask an Expert: Breast cancer growth rate

From the expert staff of breast cancer research at the Robert W. Franz Cancer Research Center at Providence Portland Medical Center:

Like a lot of cancers, breast cancer grows by simple cell division. It begins as one malignant cell, which then divides and becomes two bad cells, which divide again and become four bad cells, and so on. Breast cancer has to divide 30 times before it can be felt. Up to the 28th cell division, neither you nor your doctor can detect it by hand.

With most breast cancers, each division takes one to two months, so by the time you can feel a cancerous lump, cancer has been in your body for two to five years. It can certainly seem like a lump appeared out of nowhere – especially if you or your doctor have recently examined your breasts and not felt anything suspicious – but in reality, cancer has simply doubled that one last time necessary to be noticeable. By the time you can feel it, a breast tumor is usually a little more than one-half inch in size – about a third the size of a golf ball. It has also been in your body long enough to have had a chance to spread.

This sounds scary, but what it really underscores is the importance of regular mammograms. These screening tests can usually detect breast cancer when it’s about one-quarter inch in size or smaller – a year or more before it would be detectable by hand. Mammograms also make possible the early diagnosis of some pre-cancerous conditions and early-stage cancers that appear as tiny calcifications (microcalcifications) on mammography but aren’t detectable by physical examination.

It’s important to realize that there are two types of mammograms:

screeningmammogram is performed in cases where there isn’t any known problem. This type of mammogram is used for annual exams.

A diagnostic mammogram is performed when there is a known problem that requires careful evaluation. Diagnostic mammograms provide much more extensive images than screening mammograms, such as views from additional angles and compression, or blow-up, views. Often an ultrasound will be done in addition to the mammogram if there is a palpable lump. Make sure you receive a diagnostic mammogram if you’ve found a lump.

Once a breast cancer gets big, every doubling is significant. If you find a lump, see your doctor as soon as possible. Don’t settle for just a mammogram if the mammogram doesn’t find anything. The next step should be a screening ultrasound, and if those results are indeterminate you need to get a biopsy. Ask your doctor for these tests if he or she doesn’t schedule them.