Here Comes Fun

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Can I share some amazing news with you? May I just reaffirm the message that good things happen if we never give up hope? It’s true. No matter how defeated we may feel at times, just around the corner lives hope. And where there is hope, there is most certainly joy (and her close cousin, FUN)!

In November, a neighbor and friend invited a small group of women over for lunch. While I was delighted to share “girl talk” and great company (especially after I had been fairly housebound after surgery), she further surprised me with the news she had nominated me for a vacation through the Karen Wellington Foundation (KWF). She explained that Karen Wellington, a mother of two, had been diagnosed with breast cancer at the young age of 30 and lived for ten years while showing those around her how to enjoy every minute.  She was fun and determined to LIVE each day fully with enthusiasm, adventure, and laughter.   I wish I had the opportunity to meet this amazing woman who continues to impact many lives with her legacy.  She sounds like someone who would have been game to lip synch nonsense Dubsmash videos with me and dance with reckless abandon (the very best way, no doubt)!

KWF was founded by Karen’s husband to honor her dream of sending one family on a vacation each year.  Yet it grew to be much bigger than that with now 10 chapters across the US and they have sent over 400 women (and families) living with breast cancer to special nights out, concerts, spa days, and vacation getaways.  Their mission is to “put fun on the calendar”.

To my surprise, I found out they chose me to be a recipient AND they were sending my family on a vacation!   I couldn’t even believe my ears! I was placed on a wait list as they searched for a donor with a vacation property.  In March, I received the wonderful news that they would be sending us to Bonita Springs, Florida for a dreamy beach vacation in July! A generous family donated their luxury condo for the week so we could kick up our feet in the ocean and enjoy sand, salt air, and sunshine! In addition to the condo, KWF pays for our airline tickets and rental car so we may explore all the amazing sites.   As if all of this wasn’t lavish enough, they gave us fun money to spend on “fun only” activities!  We are beyond giddy about the week ahead!  I keep expecting to wake up and find out I’ve been dreaming.  But no, this is all real and we are beyond blessed and thankful.

Since becoming a recipient, I have learned so much more about this incredible organization. They partner with generous people with lake houses, cabins, time shares, vacation home rentals, concert tickets, airline miles, sporting event tickets and so forth who give, give, give.  Complete strangers who have something they can donate completely transform the lives of women and families who are living through difficult circumstances. It’s so beautiful that I cannot talk about this without getting emotional.

Here’s a wonderful video that demonstrates the beauty of generosity as told by Karen’s husband:

 

For nearly a year (and four years before that!), our family life has revolved around oncology appointments, scans, surgeries, tests, recoveries, and all things cancer. Even when I don’t feel like thinking about it, it’s there. So to receive this getaway, which feels wholly undeserved but so very appreciated, is fortifying for the spirit. Fun has been a little more elusive to find but I can tell you, we crave it. My silly boys, who have always played along with their silly mom’s video ideas and crazy dancing, deserve this gift to be kids again (and not kids who are worried about their momma).  My very supportive husband who has been my rock deserves this gift of relaxation and fun. The opportunity to laugh with wild abandon with the people I love the most is just everything and the very best medicine for our souls.

Thank you to my neighbor and friend (and her accomplices) for thinking of me and taking the time to nominate me. Truly, it was so selfless and beautiful. She asked that I keep her name anonymous but I just have to share how deeply touched I am. Words are so inefficient at describing the magnitude of our exploding hearts of gratitude.   I’m reminded of a quote that so perfectly describes this entire experience and speaks to the greatness and power of generosity:

“Waste no more time talking about great souls and how they should be. Become one yourself!”  ~Marcus Aurelius

Thank you to all the great souls (the foundation, the donors, the nominators, and the staff who have arranged all the details) for blessing us so richly and empowering us to have FUN NOW!

Karen, the angel who started all of this, is my hero. I pray I honor her spirit in LIVING with breast cancer.

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Digging Deep

Since friends have been asking, its time to share about the recovery after my second surgery. As you may recall, I underwent another surgery seven weeks ago. I had fat grafting done as a revision to the implant reconstruction. The goal was to inject fat between the layer of skin and implants to improve the comfort and appearance and to create a more natural look.

So the main question friends have asked is “did the fat stay where it’s supposed to and was it a success?” I’ve allowed some time to pass so I could fully heal and assess my body. The short answer to that question is yes and no. When I first came home and for about the first week, it was hard to tell due to some swelling. My initial thought was that it filled the gaps and looked markedly better. However, once the swelling went down, I realized that the volume also decreased.   By the second week, I could see a small improvement. However, I was feeling pretty battered in spirit and in body.

My bruises (from the donor sites where fat was taken) were enormous and I had a hard time looking at myself. I felt pretty disappointed that I put my body through trauma and I wasn’t even reaping the reward. While some of the injected fat is still there, it is safe to say that much of it reabsorbed. Cosmetically speaking, it did not solve the issues where there was hollowed out space or indentations from the implants. By the third week, the bruising started to fade and I was ready to return to my typical day to day life.

The doctor’s guidelines were to return to normal activity at four weeks but not to lift anything heavy for six weeks. Sometimes I can be stubborn and slowing down is very hard. I tried to take it easy but the gardener in me was itching to get yard work done.   By week 4 I felt good so I increased my activity level. Why not spread four yards of mulch and plant flowers? Not surprisingly, I overdid it. I didn’t realize how much strain I had placed on my chest until I went to shower. Right away, I knew something was wrong. My right implant had shifted and areas of my breast were very noticeably distorted. I immediately regretted ignoring my surgeon’s advice. That moment was one of the scariest and lowest points I have experienced with this second go around with cancer. It is yet another reminder that my body is completely different and still very foreign to me. Emotionally, every big feeling came crushing down on me and I stood in the shower sobbing. I try very hard to see the positive and to look for the silver lining of situations. Yet at that moment, I felt terrified and incredibly alone. I grieved my old self and wondered if I will ever feel normal.

When I woke up the next day, the implant had moved back to its normal position and the crises seemed to be over.  A call to my plastic surgeon’s office eased my mind for the moment.  I was told that implants can shift in their pocket when one contracts and tightens the pectoralis muscle.  I was told to keep an eye on it and report any changes should they occur again.

Today I met with both my surgical oncologist for my three month follow up and with my plastic surgeon to discuss next steps. My surgical oncologist feels like an old friend since I’ve been seeing her now for nearly five years. I had my 60th appointment since August of 2013 so you can better understand the frequency for which I see her or someone from my care team. After my first Dx with cancer, I  had physical breast exams, mammograms every six months, and annual MRIs to monitor for any changes.  Even though I knew I would no longer get mammograms due to the implants, I found out today that I will also no longer have the annual MRIs. It’s a very vulnerable feeling to know I’m at the mercy of human expertise to now monitor my health. I trust my oncologist and I know she’s sharp, but it’s disheartening just the same. Back in 2013 when my OB at the time performed a routine breast exam (and found nothing) and then sent me off for my very first mammogram, the imaging revealed cancer cells.   It was undetectable by touch—no lumps, bumps or anything suspicious. So, without further medical imaging, I feel very much like someone walking a tight rope with no safety net to fall on.  The idea that a lump has to be detectable by touch (when my two previous cases have NEVER presented that way) doesn’t feel much like “early detection”.  It feels scary.

Next, the hits kept coming when my plastic surgeon discussed more disappointing news.   As he originally predicted, I need another fat grafting surgery.   Building the layers of fat often takes multiple surgeries and I went into the first surgery with the understanding it would likely not be the last.   However, he shared that the next revision would not be covered by my insurance. He told me they have been fighting with the same insurance company regarding several other patients in a similar position to no avail. He is shocked because its always been covered in the past and this is a standard revision for survivors and very much part of the breast reconstruction process. It’s frustrating to hear and another set back.   I didn’t ask to change my body. I’m not electing to get cosmetic surgery and none of this was to voluntarily enhance my body.  I just want to be normal and not feel shame walking in my own skin. Cancer takes so much and this is just one more way it hurts.

The biggest challenge, for me, is to learn to live with the body I now have and to just trust it again.  Some days I accept it, other days I rail against everything. I try not to dwell on the unfairness of cancer. Yet there are times that the anger is so thick and deep that I cannot escape it. I am forever changed by it—for the good and for the bad.

This is a hard journey and I am tired.  I want to wave my little white flag and surrender.  I won’t.  I will keep going.  It feels like defeat and that’s ok.  My support network never lets me walk alone and carries me step by step when my tank is empty.   My family and my friends believe in me and that’s enough.

Waltzing to the Hospital…AGAIN

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Six months and a lot of prayers later, I am transitioning to phase two of reconstruction. While I hoped that the results of the first surgery would be sufficient, the reality is that breast reconstruction is a long process. Notwithstanding, I didn’t want to believe that story line (nor did I feel up to another surgery).  The truth is I may never reach a satisfaction point with my new body.  I thought that with more time I could be content. That said, as bathing suit season creeps near, I know my level of self-consciousness is rising. I’m not brave enough to share a photo of my rippled cleavage area but suffice it to say, it’s very noticeable.  So, later this month I will undergo “revision” surgery with fat grafting. Fat grafting is the process of redistributing fat, which is harvested with a cannula instrument from “donor sites” (aka-my belly and or thighs), to the breast area.   Just as a painter would spackle a wall to fill in the dents and holes for a smooth painted surface, the plastic surgeon uses fat grafting to fill in the imperfections (ripples) for a softened, more contoured edge with the implants.  The other major benefit reported by survivors is that the layer of injected, living fat under the skin feels better and more comfortable.  Currently, my skin near the implant edge is still very sensitive and feels tight all the time.

If you are feeling really brave and surgical videos don’t turn your stomach, you can click this link to watch a video that shows the process.  I’m sorry in advance!  You won’t be able to unsee what you see.  It’s both fascinating and scary.  My entire body hurts just watching it.  Ouch.  Ouch.

Fat grafting is not a perfect science and the fat cells may or may not “stick”.  There’s about a 60% retention rate of harvested fat. Conversely, 40% of the time the live fat cells simply reabsorb back into the body. Generally I like better odds than that where pain is concerned but my options are …well, shall we say dead ended? I either live with ripples or I at least try to improve the appearance. My plastic surgeon has also warned me it may take several surgeries to achieve desired results. Although I consider myself a bit of a risk-taker, I’d rather limit the number of times I go under general anesthesia. My fingers are crossed that fat cells stay put so I don’t have to repeat the process. From what I’ve read, most survivors experience pain in the donor sites following the surgery along with significant swelling and bruising. I will have post-surgery restrictions yet again so just as I was starting to gain momentum with physical healing, it will be back to the slow lane ! As an aside, I’ve been double-downing my desserts lately in the attempt to provide ample fat. No one has given me this directive nor do I have any scientific data to support my plan but ice cream just makes everything better.

Aside from the fat grafting, my surgeon will also be excising a small nodule from the right breast.   My surgical oncologist discovered the bump during my six month post surgery check up and wants to ascertain that it’s benign. The shock value of anything they find at this point is low and I’m not sure if that ‘s a good thing or a bad thing.  I’m learning to just roll with the punches.  But if you are a spiritual friend, I’d love your prayers!

Not unlike reconstruction, healing is a process. Some days I’m still grieving and other days I’m baby-stepping forward.  I will continue to practice optimism and gracious thoughts nevertheless.  Where I’m still broken, I just let God fill in the gaps. My faith continues to carry me through the darkness and into the light.  Note to self and anyone else that needs this reminder:  keep climbing!

Keep Climbing

Just keep climbing!

My Friend, Resilience

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I’ve always loved the word resiliency.  I loved the way the r-sound rolled off the lips.  I loved the stories of humans overcoming obstacles that seemed impossible.  I loved the idea that in spite of immense pain or hardship, the individual kept moving forward, against the force.  I just never realized I’d be so well acquainted with the term.

Nearly five months have passed since my mastectomy.  Some days it feels like forever ago.  Yet other days, it feels like just yesterday.   I’ve been asked frequently how I feel.  To answer people with full transparency requires vulnerability.  It’s a loaded question and my answer varies by the day.  Most days, I’m well.  I define well by the fact that I’m alive, I’m upright, and I’m plugging along.  Most days, I feel “normal”.  I’m able to joke, remain joy-filled, and practice gratitude.  I still mother two boys to make certain they are staying the course.  I still laugh and lament, encourage and holler, relax and stress out in equal measure.  I’m still wide-eyed, passionate and driven to make a change in the world.

Notwithstanding, there are the “other” days.  These are the times that are a little harder to talk about.  Many years ago I had a colleague who always answered the question “How are you today?” with the same, flat, uninspiring response.  He would dryly counter: “does no good to complain.”   No matter the day, he answered the same surly way.  Eventually, I stopped asking because it was like coming in contact with a thundercloud.  He was a whole lot of no fun to be around.  He seemed to experience zero joy and lacked all ability to see the good all around him.  I vowed to never be that kind of a fun-sapper, optimism-stealing person.  No one needs that kind of negativity.   Consequently, it makes answering the “how are you?” question for me today all the more difficult. I know that if I share the hardships I’m facing, I will likely leave friends walking away thinking “she’s a real downer”.  However, I will offer an authentic response that I hope provides true balance.

Some days as a survivor are just hard. While I’m “normal” looking at the surface level, I am acutely aware that under my many winter layers of clothing hides the truth. My body is different and foreign to me even months later.  In a culture that places so much value on how people look, (and let’s be real, I’m talking women’s bodies in particular) it’s hard to see myself as beautiful.  I hate that I even care or am bothered by this.  Yet here we are or rather, where I am.   I’m hyper aware of how women use their bodies to promote their sexuality.  For example, I’m annoyed when I see women taking selfies at just the right angle to include their cleavage in every shot.  Am I annoyed because I think it’s a sad state of how we as women see our own worth walking in this world?  Or am I annoyed that even though I’d never snap a pic like that..that I can’t?  Why are breasts a commodity?  I digress…

With swimsuit season lurking, I’m dreading the moment I’ll be exposed at the pool.  I dread the curious stares to my chest.  For those that thought I got some great “boob job”, they will soon know the real story.  Where there was once smooth décolletage skin, there are unnatural ripples from implants whose edges cannot be masked in the nonexistent fleshy breast tissue.  There will be no hiding my brokenness at the pool or at the beach.

Equally challenging, I completed seven weeks of physical therapy in order to regain some range of motion. It was difficult, painful, and frustrating that my body was unable to cooperate.  I’ve been exasperated by my own physical limitations and weakness. My physical therapist assured me that I was doing everything I could be to rehabilitate those muscle groups.  She reminded me that a lumpectomy, mastectomy and two sentinel node surgeries have caused significant trauma and extra scar tissue to those areas.  In other words, I will have to be patient.   I still can’t bring my arms over my head in the snow-angel making movement/position.   My arm gets tired more easily simply holding my hairdryer up at the twelve-o’clock position.   I remind myself that it’s ok to not be 100% and that the body needs time to fully heal. I also remind myself that it’s ok if it doesn’t perform exactly the same way as it once did.  As you might guess, coming to terms with said life lessons is not always easy.

Accordingly, there is work to be done on self-acceptance.  For me, that means waking up every day, looking at myself in the mirror, and choosing to love the image that reflects back at me.  I choose to look beyond the scars and imperfections.  I choose to focus my thoughts on the strength those wounds signify.  The healing scars are my reminder that I have overcome cancer.  I am still here and I am still standing.  God willing, I have more days on this earth to dream, to love, to giggle, to give, to dare, and most importantly, to live.   I choose to dwell in hope.  I anchor all of my being in God and trust His purpose for my story.  Where there is heartache, He will bring beauty.

No one is immune to difficulties, failures, or disappointments. We will all mire in the sloppy mud of life at some point.  Maybe we’re in the middle of a storm right now.  We all wake up and decide how we will face the day.  We decide if we will embrace the challenges or if we will let the circumstances defeat us.  I’m no super hero and I am as ordinary of a mess of a woman as you will find.  What I have learned, however, is that even when we are sinking deep in that muddy pit, we do eventually rise.   There are immeasurable lessons to be learned about perseverance, fortitude, and faith by trudging through the thickest of muck.  I stumble often and sometimes it takes longer to get back up on my feet.  I forgive myself for the days I simply cannot be strong.  I rest in the knowledge that the strength eventually comes back.  I stand up, rinse off the mud, throw on some sparkle, and keep going.  That whole getting back up part is KEY!

In short, I am both well and broken, strong and weak, feisty and hesitant.  Some days I rock at life and some days I don’t.  I’m continually growing, stretching, becoming and unbecoming the person I am created to be.   Above all, I am resilient (*said with an exaggerated rrrrrrrrrr sound like the roaring of a lion).

Faithfulness

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Yesterday morning, I received an email notifying me that a sizable donation had been made to our family YouCaring site and that the established fundraising goal had been exceeded.

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I was completely overcome with emotions. The numbers jumping out at me from the screen felt incredible and crazy. I sat in utter disbelief and wept tears of deep gratitude.  How can we be this BLESSED??  I couldn’t believe that someone had been so generous. Then I read the anonymous comment on the page:

“Tiffany, because you are bold, courageous and graceful, take care of yourself and enjoy time with your beautiful family and go tell others that this donation was God’s answer to your prayers. Love you.”

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I’ll never be able to find the words that adequately express the thankfulness reverberating in my heart. This space. This feeling is so holy, so profoundly rich in love and meaning. My brain cannot conceive that people would do something so big, so generous, and so loving for my family. The best way I can describe what I am feeling is captured in the lyrics of the song “Amazing Grace”:

“Twas grace that taught my heart to fear,

And grace my fears relieved;

How precious did that grace appear

The hour I first believed.”

I just don’t feel worthy of this large scale kindness by so many generous friends and family members. Yet, I know that God answers prayers and offers us peace despite the messiness in our lives. Friends from all seasons of our lives—childhood friends, high school friends, college buddies, former coworkers, Andre’s coworkers, new and old neighbors, fitness friends, and complete strangers—were coming along side of us and saying “You matter. We are with you.”   Every thoughtful comment encouraged us and reminded us of the gift of community.  I see very clearly the hand of God in our story in both big and small ways. I feel a stirring to share the backstory as well because it gives context to the blessings that continue to unfold.

Naming Fears

Last year, I downloaded an app in order to dig deeper into my spirituality on a daily basis. I wanted to be more intentional about developing a relationship with God. I didn’t want to just show up to church on Sundays. I craved to know His spirit and to seek Him more in my every day life. In April (and well before the return of my cancer), I completed a guided series about overcoming fear. At that time, I was prompted to identify my three biggest fears. No surprise, but one of the three things I identified as an area I feel anxious is health. Here’s what I wrote:

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Fast forward a few months to July and right about the time I was waiting for my biopsy reports to come back.   Reading back through what I wrote, I recognized a constant theme of uncertainty about my diagnosis and relentless worry about the associated medical bills.

Even while I was processing a cancer diagnosis and figuring out how I would get through the physical and mental challenges, I was also apprehensive about burdening my family.

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I share these very vulnerable thoughts with you because I believe they really illustrate the grip of fear but more than that, the power of God.

Letting Go of Fear & Finding Courage to Trust

One warm September morning at the bus stop, a friend approached me about creating a crowdfunding site where people could donate to my family. I couldn’t believe it. How could she have known how much the financial piece of our situation weighed heavily on my mind? God was showing up and sending people in to help. Yet, I felt sort of strange about it. I saw so much need in the world and didn’t feel like our situation warranted that kind of assistance.   Surely, others needed more. Nonetheless, she stressed that she wanted to do something to help and knew others wanted a way to contribute to our family as we weathered the cancer storm. So, despite the concern that we might appear too needy and the embarrassing idea of showing we were facing hardships, we considered the long road ahead. I talked it over with another friend who also said, “let people help you.” Hence we did. I prayed for clarity and strength and set aside my pride. For someone who enjoys giving, it was especially hard to humble ourselves to receive.

How do I ever fully thank so many generous human beings? I don’t fully understand how it all worked out but God provided.  I surrendered and I’ve been astounded over and over again.  I continue to learn that I am not in control but that I have a Father who is rooting for me.  My faith brings me through every hard day.  I pray He continues to shine His light through my journey so that others may witness His faithfulness.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, ”   ~Galatians 5

 

Three Weeks Deep

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Today marks three weeks since my surgery. The recovery continues to be slow but I see small improvements every day.   I try to focus on the mini milestones and give myself grace daily when I grow impatient. I have good days and bad days and both triumphs and challenges. The rhythm is familiar.  I’m moving mostly forward with a few steps backward.

On Monday of last week, I had my right drain removed. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to handle the pain on top of the significant amount of discomfort I was already experiencing. The idea of yanking and pulling a tube that was about an inch in diameter out of my body did not sound fun.   The nurse told me she would snip the suture first that was holding the drain in place.

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Next, she told me to take two deep breaths in and out. On the second exhalation, she sprang quickly into action wrangling the tube with finesse. The initial tug on the tube made me flinch and I braced myself for something horrible. As it turns out, it wasn’t necessarily painful as much as it was just strange and mildly uncomfortable. I’d liken it to having a speculum inserted during a gyno visit—it doesn’t hurt per se but the whole experience is certainly unpleasant. (Sorry, guys, I have no male comparison to help you gauge the pain levels).   What was fascinating about the drain removal was learning that 12 inches of tubing was stretched inside me from my side to the surgical incision.  It was grossly interesting.  I’m not sure my husband who witnessed the entire production would agree and I’m actually impressed he didn’t pass out. Later that evening, I felt quite a bit of pain in the right breast and was told by the visiting nurse that the unpleasant sensations were due to disrupting the equilibrium within.

My left drain remained in place four more days, as the level of fluid was still too high earlier in the week.   Again, it was a quick extraction and my friend who drove me was surprised by how quickly I was in and out of the office.   I’m guessing it was completed in under ten minutes.  Luckily, I stayed atop the pain with meds that evening, as I knew better what to expect this time. Once I was completely drain-free, everything was easier. No more pinning the drains to a shoelace that I would wear around my neck so I could take a shower. No more accidentally catching my tubes on a door handle.   No more Home Depot apron to sport on walks to hide the drains. Most importantly, there was one less area of pain on my body and one less bandage to dress/redress.  I’m still trying to scrub off the sticky residue from surgical tape three weeks later!

While the drain challenge has subsided, I’m still dealing with limited mobility. I’m restricted from bringing my arms up over my head as well as lifting more than two pounds. Consequently, I remain dependent on my family to do every day little things like take a gallon of milk out of the fridge.   I also have to avoid pushing and pulling as these motions put too much strain on the surgical sites. Likewise, getting dressed involves feats of acrobatic talent just to get a shirt up over my head. I’ve had to switch my wardrobe from tanks and tees to all button-down shirts. Before the mastectomy, I had read clothing tips from other survivors and was well prepared with an arsenal of hoodies and flannel shirts. However, the unseasonably warm weather with temps in the 80s forced me to rethink my options and to shop for sleeveless items. My sister-in-law graciously took me shopping and helped me find lightweight shirts that would be more comfortable. Pickings were slim for summer items because the stores had already switched over to fall gear. Nevertheless, we prevailed over the limited stock but I was limited to blouses. Why don’t designers make casual clothing with buttons? I’ve never looked so ridiculously “done up” to walk around my neighborhood!

Last week, I also weaned off the stronger pain meds and switched over to ibuprofen. The good news is that the pain levels have decreased. I’m still sore and achy, but it’s manageable. I experience random jolts of pain as the nerve endings continue to repair and heal but that’s to be expected. The bad news is that sleeping is more difficult. The stronger meds pretty much knocked me out every night so I slept like a champ the first week and a half. Now, I wake up more frequently and find myself restlessly uncomfortable. I’m unable to sleep flat on my back yet and it’s too painful to lie on my side. Therefore, I’m sleeping upright in a recliner and my tailbone is bruised as a result. The lack of quality sleep seems to seep over into my day and I’m fatigued quite easily. I hit a wall every evening –everything hurts and I am just so over all of this.

While I find some of these adaptations to living a little annoying, I remind myself often that they are temporary.  I try to focus on the positives. I’m so appreciative for my friends and family who call, visit, or text to check in with me. Oh, and you guys—the snail mail love has been amazing!!   I love the notes of encouragement and reassurance of your prayers. I’m filled with gratitude that the cancer has not spread beyond the breast into my lymph nodes.   My heart goes out to those survivors who have to endure chemo on top of a mastectomy. I tip my hat to their fierceness and warrior attitudes. I’m thankful for a husband who bears the extra weight of my normal contributions and keeps our family routine humming along. I feel blessed to have a community of neighbors and friends who have volunteered to make us meals well into November so I can fully place my energy into healing. I’m grateful for moments of peace that I spend in prayer when I feel too wiped out to go another step. I know I’m never alone and God always draws near.  He continually nourishes my spirit, replenishes my resolve and brings me back to grace.   No matter the circumstance, there is always grace.

 

Healing Takes Time

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One week post surgery and I’m finally feeling a little less foggy and better able to update you on the last few days. If none of this makes sense, we’ll blame the Valium and other drugs I’m currently prescribed!

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The morning of the surgery found me pretty exhausted from my inability to sleep the night before. Nevertheless, I left the house comforted that my dad would be seeing my two sleeping boys off to school and maintaining some kind of routine. We arrived at the hospital at 5:30am and began what would be a very long day.

The nurse who prepped me for surgery was warm, talkative and her presence very calming. My husband and mom were by my side until I was wheeled away for my lymph node radioactive dye injection. About 20 minutes later, I was back in the pre-surgical area where both my surgical oncologist and plastic surgeon reviewed the surgeries ahead. Listening to them work together as a team reassured me that I was in good hands. They drew on my skin with purple ink where the incision sites would be and conferred on their plan. I couldn’t help but feel like I was the blackboard in the locker room at halftime of a football game with coaches drawing out their plays.

Next, I gave my hugs to my loved ones and was wheeled off again to the operating room.

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I prayed for God’s continued comfort, which had been with me all morning. I really wish I could properly articulate the amazing sense of peace that carried me each step but there are just no words to describe the transcendent love. I was going in with the knowledge that there would be immense pain and my body forever changed and yet, I had an unshakable brave feeling wash over me and I knew I would be ok.

The mastectomy and reconstruction took a little over six hours. I remember nothing until I woke in the recovery room. I was extremely groggy and felt like I was clenching all my muscles. They asked me some questions and my pain level and I have no memory of my response or until I woke again. This time they said I was able to move to another room and I would get to see my husband and mom. I was happy to see them and to hear that the surgeons were happy with the results. They were able to place the implants directly in without the need of a tissue expander and I was extremely grateful for the good news.

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The next few hours proved to be a challenge. The surgeon had placed a pain pump at the surgical site to help with the pain and that would remain for at least five days. I’d love to say it all went perfectly but there seemed to be much confusion by the nursing staff later about this little pump.

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I also got nauseated when I attempted to eat dinner and worried the pain of vomiting would be excruciating. Luckily, we got it under control. I experienced a great deal of pain throughout the evening and night and was beginning to feel defeated by early afternoon the next day. But, God is good. At just about the time I didn’t think I could bear another minute, two hospital chaplains happened to come in to tell us where the chapel was located should we want to go. In deep pain, I asked if they would pray with me. As they prayed, there was unexplainable comfort and renewed strength. I was crying because it was crazy that I could even fathom comfort in the middle of such despair.   Still, I knew He was ever faithful and that there was a well of resilience deep within me. Shortly after, a nurse increased my pain pump and I was able to get out of the bed and walk around.  I’m still connected to the pain pump and continue to wear it around in a very fashionable fanny pack (yeah, I’m not getting nominated for my style any time soon!) until it runs out.

After one week, I can say without hesitation it’s been a humbling experience.   There’s been a lot to learn about accepting my own limitations. Walking this journey continues to open my eyes to the many little things I take for granted on a daily basis.   In the hospital, I couldn’t lift my arms at all to hold a cup or a bowl so I had to have my family feed me. The simple act of brushing my teeth has been taxing. It took several days before I could wash my hands in the sink without assistance. Just pumping soap and turning on the faucet were strenuous. My 12 year old had to open my pill bottle so I could take my meds.

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Yet every little improvement is a victory. For example, I celebrated just yesterday (6 days post surgery) that I could finally open the lid to my chapstick.

I also have two drains that help pump out the fluid from the incision site.

We have to empty and measure the drains every morning and every night. In addition to them just being rather annoying to lug around, I have to be careful where I walk that I don’t catch the tubes on a door handle or such. Sometimes they are tucked into pockets and sometimes I wear them in my Home Depot apron (borrowed from my eight year old). The stretchy tubes attached to the bulbs must be “stripped” to keep them clear and I wince each time I experience a burning sensation as the air backflows into the breast area. I will have these drains until the fluid amount decreases to less than 30 ml for the entire day.  I’m not even close on my left side. This means no driving until I have the drains removed. In addition, a visiting nurse trained my mom on how to change the dressings where the tubes are stitched in since they must be changed daily. So, these are some of the daily things that are slightly painful but bearable.  The visiting nurse comes every few days to check my drain sites and to ensure there’s no infection.

I’m a stubborn woman and so surrendering and accepting help feels like admitting weakness. Guess what? I’m not Wonder Woman. Why do I think I have to be so strong? I am actually physically weak and that’s ok. I forgot to be kind to myself. So, I’m working to say, “please help me” with more ease and grace.

Yesterday was a great day because I was up on my feet more and doing more for myself. I was working to cut back on my pain meds. Then, I got a call from Dr. Lewis, my amazing surgical oncologist, and she told me my pathology report was in and the cancer had not spread to my lymph nodes. I couldn’t praise God loud enough and I have felt such an immense sense of gratitude for a God who continually holds me, sustains me, and strengthens me.

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Today I woke with more pain (on account of all that celebrating and thinking I was super healer with scaled back meds) and I’m working to give myself permission to slow down. My dear friend and prayer warrior, Adrianne reminded me early on to trust the process. Trust Him. So I make it through another day with a heart filled with love for a good, good Father. I stop and look around at the magnitude of  support and people showing up.  I stand in awe at how our lives have intertwined and can’t believe our friends (new and old) are willing to help us in such huge ways.  Not only that, but total strangers too!  There are so many good, kind, compassionate people in this world.  Don’t let anyone ever tell you anything different.  : )

So many of you have enriched and elevated my spirits with your prayers and encouragement. My network of fellow survivors has provided me with much needed wisdom and reassurance. Their bravery empowers me. My parents have kept our family rhythm both inside and outside the house. They check the kids’ homework, transport them all the necessary places, mow the grass, walk the crazy dog, water my flowers, pack lunches, cook dinners, and give me my meds. Really, the list goes on and on. Friends have taken my kiddos to practices, play dates, and sporting events and checked in to ask, “What can I do for you?”   My husband has been my gentle cheerleader, reminding me that I am still beautiful despite feeling beat up, stinky, and unattractive (I mean, I’ve been wearing the same two shirts for a week and am sporting nasty drains). He had to wash my hair because I’m not allowed to lift my arms above my head. My dear mom had to blow-dry my hair for me and we giggled, as it’s been a long time since I’ve needed her in this way.

The blessings have poured in in so many ways. We feel God’s love and abundance through every one of you earthly angels. Your offerings of meals, cards, texts, videos, flowers, gift cards, and financial donations have been blessing us each day. My lifelong friend, Lisa, and my sister-in-law Nathalie, are each coming in for a few days to further help us out.  Generosity and big-heartedness from family and friends move us profoundly.   Thank you for loving us fiercely. We will lean in to your generous offers as I continue to heal over the next 4 to 6 weeks. The road may be long and valleys may still be ahead, but we have faith, hope and love on our side.

Baby Steps to Brave

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The last few weeks have been an emotional time. I’ve been busy studying up on all things breast cancer in order to best understand my next steps and to try to come to terms with what lies ahead. I’ve had lots of appointments with my “team” of oncologists and surgeons and feel I’m in very capable hands.

I’ve gone back and forth on how much is too much to share and decided to just spill it (because, I’ve never been good at discretion any way). As I’ve shared before, I operate under the mantra that bringing truth into the light is so much better than struggling alone in the dark. If one person reads this blog and better understands the trials of cancer, than my vulnerability won’t be in vain.

In just over two weeks, I’ll be undergoing a bilateral mastectomy with immediate reconstruction. I’ve been sharing this information with friends over the last week and sometimes feel like I’m giving a report about someone else. Up to this point, it’s felt kind of like a theory. It “might” happen. But, perhaps that’s what our minds do when we just can’t compute things that are uncertain or scary. As we draw closer and closer to the date of surgery, however, it’s becoming more real and concrete. The optimist in me wants to demonstrate that a positive attitude can overcome anything. The scared little girl in me wants to run and hide and cry to her mommy.

Here’s a little about what I’ve learned to expect in the days ahead:

I will report to the hospital at 5:30am to get injected with radioactive blue dye in my tumor area. Super fun! This allows the surgeon to follow the path of the lymphatic fluid and identify and examine the nodes. The surgical oncologist will remove all the breast tissue (as much as they can) to take out the cancerous tumor areas. She will also remove some of the lymph nodes in my armpit area for biopsy. Next, the plastic surgeon steps in and begins the reconstruction. Since I did not qualify for tissue transplant, I will have implants inserted under the skin and the surgeon will use AlloDerm (donated dead tissue) to act as a hammock and keep the implant in place.

As it turns out, I’m a lucky gal because I have smaller breasts (finally a plus!) so I qualify for direct to implant surgery. With this type of surgery, the plastic surgeon places the implants directly following mastectomy rather than the traditional use of placing tissue expanders. In the latter type, women have to have a second surgery after their skin has been stretched slowly (3-6 months) to exchange the tissue expander with the actual implant. So this is very welcomed good news. If I can get through this whole process with only one surgery, I’m going to be so relieved and happy.

A recovery from mastectomy is going to be painful. There’s no getting around it. I’ve been talking with fellow survivors and learning about the post surgery situation. I won’t be able to lift my arms above my head for a couple of weeks. So, washing and brushing my hair will be a real challenge. I won’t be allowed to lift anything over a half-gallon milk for at least two weeks. I’ve been told that the days immediately following the surgery are tough for sleeping and several friends have recommended sleeping in a recliner. Getting up and pushing off of a couch is nearly impossible following surgery so I’ve been told to get as much core exercise now as I can in preparation.

At the time of surgery, they will place drains near the incision site to collect fluid from the area. The drains help the body heal and reduce the chance of infection. I will have to “wear” my drains for about two weeks depending on the amount of fluid. I’ve already ordered a special mastectomy bra and something called Pink Pockets that adhere to clothing so I can discreetly tuck my drains inside my hoodie or sweater. I’m not gonna lie—I hear that they are a real pain and I’m not looking forward to these dangling, unwanted accessories!

Since I went through radiation therapy during my first bout with cancer four years ago, I will have some additional challenges. My plastic surgeon was very thorough in warning me of the many problems that increase as a result of previous radiation. Radiated skin is less elastic and healthy and is more prone to infections and necrosis (fancy term referring to tissue dying). Sometimes radiated skin does not heal well and could lead to delayed wound healing, again upping the odds of infection.   Extrusion (the implant coming through the skin) and breast tissue atrophy (implant shape gets wonky) were also thrown out there as possible complications. So, to get through this surgery with peace of mind is going to be my real struggle. I’m praying for no complications or additional surgeries. However, no matter how I slice it, I’ll need additional surgeries in the years ahead. Implants are only built to last 10 years so since I’m on the younger end of cancer (oh yippee), I can expect a few implant swaps down the line.   Additionally, I will need ongoing MRIs to ensure the implants do not leak. The physical and financial costs of cancer are unfortunately continuous.

Aside from acclimating myself to all this physical stuff, I’m trying to focus more on the many blessings in my life. My friends and family have been so supportive. The encouraging letters, thoughtful gifts, and uplifting texts and messages have given me such a tremendous appreciation of all that is good in the world. Thank you for showing up for me (AGAIN). When I don’t feel strong, your words and hugs have carried me. It helps me not feel so alone.

I want to tell you that I’m going to “kick its ass” and “battle the beast” and all that warrior talk but I’ve learned that I don’t feel quite that heroic. I’m simply reporting to the hospital with whatever bravery I can muster.   I fought cancer the first time and wanted to be a real conquerer. This time, I’m a little wiser. Cancer isn’t predictable and sneaks in even when your eyes are wide open and on the defense. My choice, then, is to face it with grace. I can move forward with gratitude and I can find joy in every small moment despite any hardship. These last four years were never promised to me so I must be grateful for every minute of extra love, laughter, happiness, and adventure. I assure you—I had them all in spades. I can sit with the pain and get back up. We all can, I’m learning, especially when we have each other’s backs.

Please keep those prayers coming that I can have the both the physical and emotional strength to fight through the tough days. I pray I can accept this soon-to-be foreign body and not cringe when I look at myself in a mirror. May I remember who I am on the inside, not just on the outside. I pray I continue to trust that God’s using everything I’m learning for growth. Please pray I can let go of some of the guilt I carry for feeling like an emotional and financial burden for my family.   May the beauty arise from the mess.

Fight Cancer, Seek Gratitude, Spread Love

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So, it’s been one week since the biopsy that confirmed that I had breast cancer AGAIN.  It’s been a doozy of emotions over the last week as I processed my worst fear.   It’s hardly the news I had hoped for or what any survivor wants to hear.  Yet here I am again, sitting in a place of uncertainty and disbelief.

The good news (and I use the term “good” loosely) is that since I’ve been monitored very closely over the last four years, my surgical oncologist believes we’ve caught it early again.  The bad news is that it’s in a different area of the same affected breast so she does not consider this a recurrence.  Rather, it’s cancer cells forming in another area.  What’s bothersome about this piece of information is that I’ve been on a medication for almost four years that’s supposed to block the estrogen in my body (which feeds my type of cancer).  I’ve disliked taking Tamoxifen but put up with all the nasty side effects of pseudo-menopause (hot flashes, night sweats, mood swings, weight gain) because I thought I was doing everything possible to prevent cancer from returning.  In addition, I had radiation therapy on that breast.  So, to know that despite these measures, cancer continues to grow is more than a little disheartening.

Yesterday was a hard day. No matter how much effort I put into trying to remain positive, I found myself wallowing.  I’m grieving the soon-to-be loss of a body part.  Since I had a lumpectomy the first go around in 2013 followed by radiation, I’m unable to go that route again for my treatment.  Instead, I must have a mastectomy.  Ask any women how she feels about removing her breasts and you will likely understand the gravity of my situation.

I spent the weekend praying for peace as I came to terms with that news.  For the most part, I’ve accepted that removing the cancer is paramount to any issues I have with my aesthetics. Furthermore, due to a family history of breast cancer on both sides of my family and the fact I had another occurrence, my surgeon has encouraged me to weigh the pros and cons of removing the unaffected breast as well.   I talked with several fellow survivors about their surgical experiences and thought I was in a good mental state.

I dutifully started researching unilateral and bilateral mastectomies and found myself in tears as I stared at the pictures of breast reconstruction.  I know that some women joke that “hey, at least you get a free boob job.”  But friends, the photos I looked at were anything but beautiful or comforting.  Instead, I felt fear rising as I looked at patched up, scarred, Frankenstein-ish breasts.  The words of my surgical oncologist rang in my ears as I remembered her gentle warning that “no matter what, reconstructed breasts will never be quite like your own. ”  Reading that there would be heavy pain during a long recovery and a questionable outcome didn’t make me feel optimistic about surgery.  I texted my friend who already walked this road with an “I feel crazy” and “this is too hard” message.  But God sends His angels when you need them most and she reassured me that these days are hard and that’s ok.

I spent the rest of the afternoon throwing quite the pity-party for myself.  I couldn’t believe I had to travel this road AGAIN and have to give up even more.  I was angry at the unfairness of a second battle and mourning my breasts all at the same time.  Hadn’t they fed my beautiful babies and nourished their little bodies?  How could my breasts punish me this way?  And why didn’t I appreciate them more instead of cursing their non-voluptuous size?

Meanwhile, I texted some of the women in my tribe and told them I couldn’t find my way back to happy so I wouldn’t be able to join them for a movie after all.  Luckily, one friend lovingly reminded me that I had permission to grieve but that I myself said I didn’t want cancer to steal my joy.  Boom!  Truth bomb.   It was just what I needed to hear.  I needed reminded that I had another choice.  I could wallow, grieve and feel sorry for my situation, or I could go be in community with women who make me laugh, smile, and feel joy.  I chose joy.

This isn’t going to be easy and I’m going to forget and grow overwhelmed.  Good thing I have such great friends who can remind me to LIVE.  My friend shared this passage from a book and it really helped me remember who I am:

“Sometimes the best solution is to take a breath and seek God.  When we do this, we find that we are not lost–even when we are in the middle of the most difficult thing imaginable.  Not only does God have perfect timing, but he also knows the way through our troubles.”

So off I go to fight cancer, seek gratitude, and spread love.

Choosing Joy Again and Again

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Life is funny.  Just when I think I’ve got it all figured out, I learn something new.  Or, maybe it’s more of relearning what I forgot.  The realization that what I think I’ve mastered is only a small blip on the radar of my life.

It’s been a challenging year.  For a woman who prides herself on focusing on all that is good, I’ve struggled to find my footing over the last several months.  Why?  Because I forgot.  I forgot that happiness is a daily choice.  I forgot that daily life is tricky and that curveballs are sent all the time.  I forgot that I had to get up every darn day and choose my perspective.  Most importantly, I forgot how difficult that is when I’m in the depth of a storm.

I lost a friend this year to cancer.  Losing special people is always difficult.   We all lose loved ones along the way.  It never feels fair and it always hurts.  Yet, somewhere in the midst of living, I started to feel guilty.  I started to wonder why I was spared.  Was I living up to my purpose?  Was I using the gifts God gave me to impact others?  Was I doing enough and being enough to justify my existence?  The inequity of it all overwhelmed me.

So here’s the lesson I needed reminded of AGAIN.  I just need to be.  I don’t need to prove my worth or validate my existence.   For a woman who took her job home with her, cried for every student she thought she failed, who measured her worth in the graduation rates of students as well as feedback she received from administrators, students, and coworkers, it’s been a long, hard unlearning.     Truth is, I’m relearning all the time.  As a stay at home mom now, I have to stop worrying that other working moms look at me as though I add no value.  I have to let go of the image I so desperately feel validated me.  If I’m not working, how will people know I’m smart, capable, or creative?  How will they know what I have to offer?  The answer?  Who cares?  Who really cares?  “They” do not matter.

I know this.  I learned this before.  I learned what really mattered after I lost a baby.  I didn’t think I would make it through that dark time of living without Landon.  The experience was too hard and my heart was shattered.  But I got up, albeit slowly.  I learned that I would bounce back and reenter the world.  I would experience joy and happiness again.  But, I had to make that choice.  I chose joy.  I chose faith.

I had it all figured out, right?  Wrong.  I found out I had cancer.  Another life knock-out.  I broke down again and didn’t think I would walk through life as happily.  I was mad at God again.  I thought it would steal all my joy.  But I got back up and found out I was made in strength and love.  Oh, and lots and lots of grace.

I will have bad days and I don’t need to beat myself up over those moments.  I need to keep my eyes focused and my heart soft to all the little, wonderful day to day instances.  I choose to see life through a lens of gratitude.  I will hone in on the splendor of a butterfly, the wonder of a wildflower, the giggle of a child, the excitement of a friend, the smell of coffee brewing, the roar of a rollercoaster, and the gleam in my husband’s eye.  Of course, I will need reminded of this lesson again, no question.  Again and again and again.  Get back up and choose joy.