Appointment With My Oncologist & A Big Milestone

When I had my appointment with my oncologist on August 5th, I was hoping that my red blood cell count would finally be in the normal range, but it isn’t quite there yet. I wasn’t too surprised as I have been tired lately and not feeling the greatest. At this point, nothing but time will help, so I am trying to be patient.

I am still having a lot of issues with my memory. It seems like only my short-term memory is being affected, but it is starting to drive me crazy. My oncologist asked me if I am still “fuzzy,” and I said that yes, I am still having issues. So, I am taking a week off Anastrozole to see if it helps clear my head or not.

The good news is that I have reached my first significant milestone! On May 23rd, one day after our 17th wedding anniversary, I made it to my second anniversary of being cancer-free! I am incredibly grateful that I have made it through the first two years, and I am hopeful that I will continue to stay healthy and cancer-free until my next milestone in another three years, at five years.

Once I have my next appointment in December, I will finally be on a different schedule with my oncologist. I will switch from seeing him every three or four months to every six months. I am making progress, and it feels good!

Long Break

Hi, I can’t believe that we are already in July and that it has been over three months since I published a post here! In my defense, I can tell you that I have had a lot going on since the middle of April.

In early May, I started looking for a house to move to because with the housing market going crazy, I was sure that the owner of the house we had been renting for the last six years would want to sell. About a week later, my suspicions were confirmed by a phone call from the owner. Finding a house was challenging because the home would be listed online, and not even 24 hours later, there were multiple applications on it. Right before we were due to leave on vacation, we went to see a house, and it was perfect! At first, we didn’t know if we had gotten it, but right before we flew out of town, we received the news that we had been approved and would get the keys on June 1st after we returned from vacation. So, my time was filled with stress from looking for a house and then getting ready to go on vacation, but it was worth it because we have moved into a house that is perfect for us and our vacation was wonderful!

While on vacation, we renewed our wedding vows on our 17th anniversary, and everything was perfect on our special day! Ocho Rios, Jamaica, is one of our favorite places to relax and reconnect with each other, so why not renew our vows while there. We were supposed to renew our vows two years ago, but between my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment in 2019 and Covid causing the world to stop in 2020, we had to post phone our trip and ceremony until this year.

I will update you with everything that has been going on over a few different posts in the coming days, which will include a huge milestone, a follow-up appointment with my surgeon, and how I am doing these days.

I will be back soon! 🙂

Three Month Follow-up with My Oncologist

Today I had my three-month follow-up appointment with my oncologist. As usual, we spoke about how I am doing on Anastrozole. I am continuing to do well with no major side effects. I still have eight years and ten months to go, but all should continue to go well as time passes by.

He also wanted an update on how I am doing since my last surgery, which was a month ago today. I told him that I am very happy with my results and that I have healed well with very little pain. He said that he finds that surgeons often don’t prepare their patients concerning the pain they will experience after surgery and how long it can go on. I agreed that realistic expectations aren’t discussed, and for me, that was hard because in April 2019, when my cancer was removed was the first surgery I have ever had in my life. Yes, I knew there would be a pain, but I would have never guessed at just how long after surgery I would still have pain here and there.

My blood work was done today as well, and my red blood cell count is still a little low. We are thinking that moving forward; my count will be a little low; it’s where my system has settled after everything I have gone through, and I am OK with that as long as I continue to stay healthy.

I am just about to reach my second significant milestone with my oncologist. I will have one more follow-up appointment in three months, and then I am graduating to the six-month plan, which signifies my being two years out from when I started chemotherapy with no recurrence. Over the next three years, I will see him every six months until I get to the five-year goal of being cancer-free. He was happy to tell me that I am still cancer-free and doing well! I am beyond grateful and happy! 🙂 💕

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My 5th Surgery: Follow-up Appointment with My Surgeon **WARNING: GRAPHIC SURGERY PHOTOS**

Yesterday, I had my first follow-up appointment with my surgeon. Once the tech was done with my blood pressure check and updating my information, she removed my bandage. She apologized at one point because she was pulling on the bandage a little harder because the gauze was sticking to it. I assured her that she wasn’t hurting me because I was still numb under my arm from my first surgery almost two years ago. I asked her how the incision looked, and she said that everything looked good. She then told me that my surgeon would be in soon to see me and left the room.

A few minutes later, my surgeon walked in. I turned to look at him and noticed that he had a winter coat on. I had been sitting there with half of my paper top on burning up because the heat was on. I laughed and said, “You do know that it is 73 degrees outside, right?”; He smiled and said that for some reason, he is always cold when he is in the office.

I have a ton of steri-strips, about 30, and my incision is about 9 inches long. This is my most extended scar so far, but because of how my surgeon combines internal stitches with steri-strips for healing, my scar will be minimal, and it will become less noticeable with time. The scar on my chest’s right side from the first reconstruction surgery is barely noticeable 17 months later, so I am sure this scar will be the same.

I know it looks gnarly, but I am not in much pain at all.

Once we were done talking about this recent surgery, he said that this should be my last surgery. He is confident that I will be fine from here on out and that I will not require any further surgeries. The only way I would need surgery in the future would be if I develop Capsular Contracture. We are both aware from previous conversations that I could develop that particular complication because I went through many radiation treatments and I have implants. I will need to stay mindful of any changes that I am noticing and let him know. The only way to fix Capsular Contracture is to go back into surgery and have my breast implants replaced, so hopefully, I will never have to deal with that.

I asked him if I can start walking on my treadmill. I told him that I had finally fought off the fatigue plaguing me for over a year and that I was getting back to working out again before this last surgery. He said, “so you are itching to get back on,” to which I replied, “yes, I have been since the day of my surgery!” He said that I could walk on my treadmill, but I can’t swing my arms; I need to keep them at my sides, and I can’t do anything too strenuous. I need to keep resting and healing over the next two weeks, and then I should be released from any restrictions once the steri-strips are removed during my next appointment. I told him that my goal is to lose another 20 lbs or so, and he said that it would be ideal for me to do that as it is essential to keep my body mass low considering the type of cancer I had. Estrogen-fed breast cancer thrives when a patient’s BMI is too high, and mine is too high because I am about 20 lbs overweight. So the best thing I can do for myself to keep from having a recurrence of my cancer is to continue exercising, watch my portions, and what I am eating to get to an ideal weight and BMI.

To end my appointment, I thanked him for doing this last surgery. I let him know that I could feel the difference later on, on the day of my surgery, that the area was gone, my chest looks much better, and that I felt much better. I said, “First, you saved my life, and now you are helping me improve my life. I will never be able to thank you enough.” He looked down and away from me when I said that to him, with an almost bashful look. His reaction at first surprised me, but then it didn’t because his genuine reaction reminded me of why I am so grateful that he is my doctor and how lucky I am that he has been by my side from the beginning. He does not have a big ego like some surgeons; he is passionate about his work, humble and caring, and it shows.

How I Learned to Adjust to Post-Cancer Life

Going in line with my last entry, here is an excellent article about adjusting to life post-cancer. It’s so easy for people to think that just because you are done with the surgeries and treatments, that you are back to normal. I get so tired of people asking me if I am done with “everything” and then responding with “so you are all good now” when I respond by saying that yes, I am done with the surgeries and treatments, but I am on medication the next ten years. I generally don’t say anything more as it is clear that the person I am talking to doesn’t even remotely follow what is going on with me. I know that the world doesn’t revolve around me, but it is somewhat insulting when someone I thought was a good friend, has such a conversation with me. I can say, though, that I have had this happen a few times, but they are still my friends, and I love them, so I am still here to talk whenever they want.

This article describes the hell that I am currently dealing with, and have been for months, and in many parts, it is almost as if I had written it myself. As I try to get through the bad days as best as possible, I have had a very positive change, thanks to this article. I have finally been able to get a handle on my issues with not being able to sleep, and I credit two things for that; the first is that I have found an app that works well for me when it comes to relaxing at bedtime, so I can fall asleep quickly before my mind has a chance to race and keep me awake. {the app is called loona}. The second is that now that the neuropathy is mostly gone from my hands, I am making jewelry again, which makes me very happy, so my stress level is much lower on most days. {My website is mmillsdesigns, where you will find my online shop and blog about my small business}.

I want to conclude by saying that it may sound odd to anyone who has not been in the position of having doctors by your side for many, many months, saving your life from cancer; that the routine, even if it involves the terrible experience of chemotherapy treatments or many surgeries, becomes something that you depend on and get used to as time goes by. It’s almost effortless to get emotionally attached to your doctors when you see them regularly, especially in the beginning after being diagnosed. I was going to appointments twice a week for months as the severity of my breast cancer was coming to light. My chemotherapy treatments were every week for four months, and my Radiation treatments were every weekday for five weeks. So when you have been deemed a survivor, for me, it was after my last clear mammogram on August 17th, 2020; there is a sense of relief as you hear the words “no evidence of disease,” but there is also an overwhelming feeling of loss as well because now all of the hustle and bustle centered around saving your life is going to slow down a lot as the doctor’s appointments become less frequent; I currently see my oncologist every three months, and I see my surgeon every six months. As I have said in past posts, the first two years after the end of my treatments is the most critical time in survivorship because the chance of re-occurrence is at its highest. After two years have passed, the chance of re-occurrence will drop slightly, and when I reach five years with no re-occurrence, the chance will substantially drop; so, that is why my doctors are closely monitoring me for the next few years.

After reading my commentary and the article below, I hope that you, my dear readers, will understand a bit more about the complexity of post-cancer life and survivors’ experience.

Medically reviewed by Jenneh Rishe, RN — Written by Jennifer Bringle on December 17, 2020

Moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

I’d just closed my eyes for a nap when the trill of the phone ringing snapped me back to consciousness. Gingerly reaching for the receiver, I answered hesitantly, nervous as to who might be on the other end.

It was my surgeon, calling with the results of my mastectomy pathology.

“The tissue from your breasts was totally clear,” he said with a smile I could literally hear in his voice. “And your lymph nodes were all normal, too. There was no evidence of disease.”

These are the four magical words every cancer patient longs to hear: no evidence of disease.

They’re the goal — the best possible result of months of grueling treatment. They mean you get to live.

Months earlier, I wasn’t sure I’d ever hear those words. After finding a lump in my left breast, I was diagnosed with stage 2 invasive ductal carcinoma, along with the BRCA2 gene mutation.

I faced a gauntlet of chemotherapy followed by a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction.

There were bumps in the road along the way — an emergency room visit and an allergic reaction to one of my chemo drugs — but I’d finally reached the end.

I could finally relax and get back to my “normal” life.

The first clue that this would be easier said than done came a few weeks later, when I found myself in tears after being released by my surgeon for annual visits instead of the every few weeks I’d been seeing him up to that point.

Driving home that day, wiping away the tears suddenly spilling down my cheeks, I couldn’t figure out why I was so sad. Shouldn’t I be happy?

What I would soon learn is that this is a common occurrence among cancer survivors.

Once treatment ends and we get the all clear, the world expects us to move on, find our “new normal,” and become those smiling survivors we see in marketing campaigns.

The reality is, moving on and finding some semblance of normalcy is much more difficult than advertised.

In the days and months after completing treatment, I dealt with an array of unexpected emotions.

Sadness at the end of a comfortable routine with my doctors, whom I’d become very attached to during the months they stood alongside me, trying to save my life.

Fear that every little pain or cough could be a sign of new cancer or cancer that spread.

And grief over all I’d lost — my breasts, my hair, and trust in my own body.

As time wore on, I realized instead of becoming happier and less afraid, my anxiety was reaching new levels.

Fearful — often irrational — thoughts about cancer recurring or metastasizing began to disrupt my daily life.

Instead of paying attention to my son and husband, I was often distracted, Googling symptoms on my phone.

Even happy moments like birthdays and vacations were marred by my irrational fears that a headache was a brain tumor, or my backache was more than simply a pulled muscle.

I knew I had to do something to get my anxiety under control.

Though I’d resisted asking for help, pridefully insisting I could handle it myself, I realized the time had come to seek professional assistance.

I scheduled a therapy appointment with a counselor specializing in the needs of cancer patients and survivors.

Even though she couldn’t personally understand what I was going through, her training and experience gave her a level of empathy and insight that made talking to her about my anxiety calming and productive.

During those sessions, she taught me another valuable tool to help quell my anxiety: meditation.

Through basic mindfulness techniques like focusing on my breath and learning to acknowledge and then dismiss negative thoughts, I became better able to manage my anxiety on a daily basis.

Using a guided meditation app before bed began to replace my nightly symptom Googling, leading to easier sleep.

While working on my mental health, I also started focusing on improving my physical health.

Cancer treatment left me weaker and more sedentary, so I started incorporating walks into my daily routine to rebuild my strength. Whether it was a quick jaunt on my lunch break or a treadmill workout in the evening, adding vigorous-yet-gentle physical activity helped me feel stronger and more energetic.

I also began paying more attention to what I ate. While I certainly still indulge in my beloved sweets, I also try to eat more fruits and vegetables daily.

These manageable changes to my diet and exercise may not prevent my cancer from returning, but they will help me build a body that’s strong enough to endure treatment again.

While all these new things certainly helped me adjust to life after cancer, I knew I needed something else to help manage my anxiety. After talking with my doctor, I made the decision to give a mild antidepressant a try.

I’d been resistant to adding another medication to my daily regimen, but I also reminded myself that I didn’t question taking a pill that might prevent my cancer from returning. So why was I so reluctant to take something that could help me with the anxiety that had taken over my life?

For those of us who’ve survived cancer, there’s a great deal of pressure to live up to the persona of strength that gets bestowed upon us during treatment.

We’re treated as though we’re almost super-human — the ones who beat death.

But the truth is, that fortitude is often a facade, masking the fear and pain that cancer survivors live with after treatment ends.

The process of working through those emotions to achieve a sense of normalcy in our lives is an ongoing, personal journey.

While what worked for me might not work for everyone, finding my own formula has allowed me to regain something I thought I’d lost after cancer — happiness.

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.