Birthday Trip 2020

A few weeks ago, my husband and I were finally able to get away and take our annual birthday trip. This particular trip had been rescheduled a few times due to my chemo treatments last year, and the resort we wanted to go to, not opening when scheduled due to the pandemic.

It wasn’t easy to travel internationally during the pandemic, but it was well worth it. We had to get a COVID test within ten days of arriving in Jamaica, and within three days of arriving, we had to go online, fill out a form for each of us, and send our COVID results in for approval. So, time was short, especially to get the test results back and sent in. We didn’t hear anything back after a little over a day, and we started to panic, so we called our travel agent to see if she could help. It just so happens that she has a contact at the Jamaica Tourist Board, so she got in touch with her, had us send some information to her via email, and we had our approvals the day before we were scheduled to leave by 6:30 am the next morning. Whew!!

I am not going to go over all of the details of our trip because this isn’t a travel blog; it’s a blog concerning everything related to and revolving around my breast cancer. So, something happened while on our trip, and to say that my reaction shocked me is an understatement.

A few days before we left, I let my husband know that I was not ready for the trip as far as my energy level was concerned. I had been battling fatigue, and I still am to this day, so I was concerned that the trip was going to wear on me far more than it did back when I was healthy. But I needed the break as I had recently been under a lot of stress, and it felt like everything I was dealing with was becoming far too much for me. We all have our breaking point, right? Well I was very much on edge, and I knew that I was headed for a mental breakdown if I didn’t get away to relax and destress. As it turns out, I was right; about halfway through our trip, I was already physically exhausted even though I kept my activity level much lower than I usually do while on vacation. But I powered through because we had some wonderful surprises during our trip that made everything we had to go through to get there, worth it!

So two amazing things happened during our trip! The first was getting to see and spend time with a few employees from the resort we were supposed to go to. Because the original resort didn’t open on time, there are several people from the entertainment department that are traveling around and performing at some of the resorts that are open in Jamaica. We have been friends with these amazingly talented people for years and years, and they are like family to us. We hadn’t been able to see any of them in two years, so I was super excited when I found out that they would be at the resort we were going to. So we had a family reunion of sorts, and we were able to have lunch together quite a few times and find a little bit of time to spend together on the nights they were at the resort to perform.

It was amazing to get to spend with our friends, and it made me so happy! But, at some point during the trip, I don’t remember precisely when, out of nowhere, I had a complete breakdown. Sadness suddenly overcame me, and at first, I didn’t understand why. I was embarrassed because an employee saw me start to cry and walk away from where we were seated, and she followed us out of concern for me. It was very kind of her to check on me, but I was overcome with grief and sadness, not a good moment for me, especially while on vacation in my favorite place in the world. I remember feeling like I did when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I asked, “why did this have to happen to me? why me?” while crying my eyes out. It was painful because I remembered how things were two years ago when I saw my friends. Life was normal two years ago; life was good, or so I thought. The reality is that I already had breast cancer in September 2018, but I didn’t know I had it; there were no signs of it at that time. I eventually calmed down and enjoyed the rest of our trip, but my breakdown was a harsh reminder that it had not been that long since I found the first tumor and started down the long road of fighting cancer.

Our friends & family in Jamaica

The second amazing thing that happened was getting to see two more of our friends from the scuba diving department. My husband is a Master Diver, and a considerable part of our trips involve him diving twice a day, every day. As with our friends from the entertainment department, we have known most of the dive crew at our favorite resort for years, so they are also like family. My husband received a curious message from a friend the day we arrived in Jamaica, and we didn’t understand what he meant until a few days later when he arrived at the resort to dive with my husband! It was an incredible surprise to see our friend and find out that he was staying for the week to dive specifically with my husband. Our friend lives in Ocho Rios, where our favorite resort is located, and that is one and a half hours from where we were. The next day our friend’s boss arrived at the resort and had lunch with us! So we had another friend of ours came to see us, and that was another wonderful surprise! It was great to see my husband so happy and enjoying his week with a dear friend and having a few surprises along the way; it absolutely made his trip!

All in all, we had a wonderful trip, and it was great to get away and relax somewhere besides home. The next time we can travel and see some of the people we love, I will not be surprised if I have the same reaction; in fact, I will be expecting it. I am human, after all, and I have a very different outlook on life after everything I have been through.

Cherish your family and friends, and stop taking people for granted because someday, they might not be there anymore.

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.

Anastrozole Check-up with My Oncologists PA

Today I had a check-up with the PA at my oncologists office to see how I am doing on Anastrozole. I have been taking it for about 5 1/2 months and I have been doing well. I was having problems with dizziness in the beginning so I changed the time of day that I take it from right before bedtime to when I wake up in the morning. I haven’t had a dizzy spell in a few weeks so it seems that my body has adjusted well.

First we went over my labs from the blood that they drew today. My white blood cell count is finally in the normal range, on the low end, but that was good to see as it means that my immune system is getting back to normal. My red blood cell count is still out of range, just a little low, so that goes along with me still fighting fatigue. I had one other value that was high but she said that it indicates that I have allergies to which I said “I don’t have allergies.” She laughed and said that as far as I know I don’t have allergies but I could be developing them….I hope not.

For the first time ever, she actually mentioned my weight but in a good way. She was happy to see that I have lost weight since the end of chemo, which was at the beginning of October last year, 27 lbs lost in total so far. She said that she knew it upset me to gain so much weight during chemo but she said that while going through chemo it is good to gain some weight because my body needed me to eat well. We agreed that my gaining weight helped me get through chemo as well as I did. She was also happy that I have been losing weight while taking Anastrozole because most women complain that they gain weight while  on it, which for me will be 10 years, so I will keep doing what I have been doing to get to my goal weight.

She also asked me how everything went with the second part of my reconstruction surgery that I had 11 weeks ago today. She was happy that my surgeon was able to get me on his schedule so quickly before my medical insurance ran out due to being laid off. She reminded me that it has only been 11 weeks since that surgery and since I have had so much surgery in the last year, it will still take some time for my body to recover from all of the trauma I have been through.

I asked her when the 5 year count starts as it is the main focus now that I am done with my treatments and surgeries. She said that in their office they start the count from when I completed all of my treatments, both chemotherapy and radiation, which was this year at the end of January. I then asked what the next steps are in their care for me as a cancer patient. I will continue to have check-ups every 3 months for the first 2 years after completing treatments, then every 6 months until I get to 5 years after treatments and after 5 years she said that most patients go back to seeing their regular doctor once a year. My chances of recurrence are at their highest until I get to 2 years, then it will drop a bit until I get to 5 years and then it will drop substantially after 5 years without recurrence.

We also talked about my next mammogram which is coming up in August. I am nervous about it and she assured me that especially with this being the first imaging done in over a year, it is completely normal for me to be worrying and nervous. I told her that am paranoid about the cancer coming back so I am checking my breasts often for anything that feels abnormal. But, I also told her that I am well aware that I have been through the maximum treatments for my type of cancer, having had both chemotherapy and radiation, plus having an excellent surgeon who removed all of the cancer; so keep reminding myself that there should not be anything visible in my mammogram.

So all in all I am doing well and getting healthier and stronger as I get further away from having ended chemotherapy, radiation and 4 surgeries. Here’s to another 3 months of continuing to improve! 🙂

Breast Cancer Glossary: 41 Terms You Should Know

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer it was unimaginably overwhelming in so many ways. My head was spinning with questions and fears and like many newly diagnosed patients, I felt like I needed to quickly learn a new language. Little by little I began to understand my diagnosis and what it meant for me as a breast cancer patient. Now, 16 months later, I have come across all of these terms either through my own experiences, discussions with my doctors or by reading the endless sources of information that I have discovered along the way. In the beginning of my journey it would have been so helpful to have all of the information below in one place for me to reference. I hope by sharing this article I am able to help answer some of the questions you might have as a breast cancer patient or a caregiver to a breast cancer patient.

At the bottom of this article, Monica suggests writing your cancer story basics using this guide. I am finding that quite often people will ask me for this information whether it is in a new forum that I have joined or during a conversation I am having with someone new. I have included my cancer story basics here in this blog post and on my “About Me” page.

My Cancer Story Basics: I was Dx at age 51 w/ ER/PR+, HER2-, IDC. I have had ACT, Rads, and I am on a 10 yr plan w/ HT, Anastrozole. My cancerversary is the date of Dx on February 25th, 2019. I have had a partial mastectomy, port-a-cath insertion, reconstruction w/reduction mammoplasty and insertion of breast prosthesis following reconstruction.

The author of this article, Monica Haro, is the community guide for the breast cancer support app BC Healthline. This particular app has been an amazing source of support for me both while I was in the middle of fighting breast cancer and also now that I am learning to live life as a survivor.

Medically reviewed by Krystal Cascetta, MD — Written by Monica Haro on July 6, 2020

Utterly overwhelmed is how I felt when I faced the uncertainty and devastation of my breast cancer diagnosis 5 years ago.

I dove into online communities to connect, observe, research, and be heard. When I did, I was lost on some of the language. There were so many terms, acronyms, and abbreviations to learn.

Some things that now seem obvious to understand weren’t while dealing with a brain processing the new trauma of my cancer diagnosis.

If you’re wondering what in the world a red devil, foob, expander, and ooph is, I’ve got you.