THIS was inside me for 15 months!!

 

Holey Mackerel.  Fifteen months ago, this port was inserted in my “good” breast to enable chemo to flow into my system.  The port itself is about a half an inch thick and an inch in diameter.  The tube is 23 cm long.  Hard to ignore, but as I have done all along, I just focussed on the positive.  This was a necessary “evil” and I just had to roll with the punches.  The kind doctor who removed the port, cleaned it off so that I could photograph it.  Loved his Irish lilt.

port

So, another chapter on this breast cancer journey ends.  Friends keep telling me how brave I have been.  Trust me, it has nothing to do with bravery.  You just do what you have to do.  I think that my secret to staying sane and positive throughout was to take each step one day at a time.  Before the mastectomy, I focussed only on that and how I would need to rearrange my life to adapt.  I didn’t even think about chemo, radiation or anything else.  Once that was over (and it really wasn’t that bad), then I concentrated on the next step:  chemo.  One step at a time, one day at a time.  That way your journey is that not overwhelming at all.  Two of my dear friends have lost their lives to cancer in the past month.  How fortunate am I that I am alive, well and kicking.

 

This week I got good news:  genetic testing results indicate that, genetically, I have only a 2% chance of the cancer recurring.  However, 60% of cancer is sporadic:  the luck of the draw so they say.  On the luck factor, my oncologist says that I have an 85-90% chance that it will NOT return.

 

Aside from a bit more minor reconstructive surgery, the next step on this journey is to be very proactive.  I will be exercising more and eating even better than I do (although those Hallowe’en candies sure were good).  From time to time, I plan to share with you what I learn, especially about food.

 

So, I lift a glass to all who helped me on this journey.  Thank you.

 

 

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A new, improved boob

Two days ago, my body changed.  I have a new and improved boob thanks to an enthusiastic, young plastic surgeon.

Over eight months ago my left breast was removed and a tissue expander, which I call the balloon, was inserted under the skin where my cancerous breast had been.  This expander’s job was to slowly stretch the muscles and tissues to a point where the new “fake” breast could be implanted.  For several weeks, I regularly went to the surgeon who “pumped me up” with a saline solution.  For a few days after each pumping session, the muscles and tissues hurt as they were being expanded.   After that the balloon behaved itself most times, occasionally acting up and making me feel uncomfortable.  Would it break open?  Would I have to go through all of that again?  After giving the balloon a good talking to, it would settle down and life would go on.

So, now it is gone replaced with a silicone fake breast surrounded by fat taken from my hips to make it feel natural.  I told the surgeon that she could take all the fat she wanted.  Alas the stomach fat is still there.

In three months time, I visit the surgeon in her clinic where she will freeze the breast and attach a new nipple.  Holey mackerel, this modern medicine is really something else.

So glad to be alive.  Thanks to the kind friends who have supported me through this adventure.  I have found that if you take it a day at a time, it is manageable.  Keeping a positive attitude is the key.  Some days that is harder than others, but if you work at it, you can beat this sucker.

 

Staying alive is hard work.

So here it is, the last day of 2017.  The oncologist says that I have a 90% chance that the cancer will not come back.  Hooray.  So thankful.

In the meantime, I am dealing with the side effects of the chemo.  It is hard to type this as my fingers are numb and sometimes prickly.  My toes and the pad under the toes feel like they are going to explode.  And, I am fatigued.  Apparently this is normal, particularly at the chemo ends as it has accumulated in the body, thus the bigger impact.

It really is hard work to keep on top of everything and to stay alive.  (I always think of the Bee Gees great song when I use that phrase.)

Twice a day I put anti-fungal drops and cream on my hands and feet.  Every day I use the TENS machine to stimulate the nerves.  And, I have to exercise at least 30 minutes per day which greatly helps the feet.

I can’t do up a button, open jars or make my bed.  Hopefully it will get better.  Yes, it will.

Next steps:

  1.  I am waiting for a date for the surgery to remove the tissue expander aka the Balloon from the breast which was removed so they can insert my new fake boob.
  2. Every three weeks I go back to the Cancer Centre to receive through a port in my chest a wonder drug, Herceptin.  Apparently this $2,000 per month drug will boost up my body from all the damage that the chemo has done to it.  So glad to live in Canada where this drug is covered.  This procedure goes on every three weeks until October!!!  A long haul.
  3. Then they remove the port in my chest with a simple operation where I am only sedated.
  4. In the meantime, I am exercising and eating well – or at least trying to.

This is hard work.  Fortunately for me, the prognosis is good and the effort will have positive results.  As this year ends I am so thankful for that prognosis and especially for all of the family and friends who have supported me through this medical adventure.

To all of you, here’s to a healthy 2018.

These boots are made for walking. NOT!

Yikes, now this chemo thing is getting serious. Up until now, other than a low white blood count that sent me to the hospital for six days, it has been a breeze.

That all changed this week.

Now I am on weekly chemo treatments, but with a lower dose. Hooray, I got through four of the twelve treatments already, but some serious adjustments need to be made.

Suddenly, my toes have swelled up. I feel as if I am walking on balloons. Not a nice feeling. A web search says that it is peripheral neuropathy which is caused by damage to the nerves that send signals between the arms and legs and the central nervous system.

The medical personnel will have to assess my situation and make adjustments, either decreasing the dosage or even stopping the chemo treatments. What the hell?

So, being positive and proactive, onto the internet I went. So much can be done.
1. Massaging the feet and hands. (volunteers are welcome)
2. Exercise – walking is great.
3. Acupuncture (but with a low white blood count I am susceptible to infection so that may rule out needles).
4. TENS therapy that sends electrical current through electrodes attached to my skin.

Extreme temperatures may worsen the symptoms. Hello Canadian winter.

Food is important too, primarily for keeping that white blood count up, because that protects against infection.

I have just stocked up on foods like:
1. Berries
2. Spinach
3. Meat which I hardly ever eat
4. Avocados
5. Red Swiss chard
6. Coloured peppers
7. High fibre fruit such as pears
8. Kombucha, the fermented tea recommended for those undergoing chemo
9. Oranges (grapefruit is a no-no as it interferes with the chemo).

Fortunately, most of these things I eat anyway, but now I need to watch every single thing that I put in my mouth. I have no intention of letting this get me down.

So, now I have a fight on my hands. And feet.

Hair today. Gone today.

I am officially bald.  Got my head shaved since it was obvious that I was losing my hair.  The hairdresser refused payment for the shave.  How nice.

When I was in the hospital a few days ago, suddenly my scalp was assaulted by what seemed to be hundreds of tiny pin pricks.  It turns out that the chemo drugs are so powerful that they not only target cancer cells but hair follicles, the structures in the skin filled with tiny blood vessels that make hair. This happens around day 14. Ouch, ouch, ouch.

One nurse referred to the pain as my nerve endings in the head being attacked.  I knew exactly what to do.  Massage my head.  It worked.  The pain disappeared.

The nurse encouraged me to get my head shaved because it was now inevitable that I would be losing my hair.  Hey, it was thin and thinning anyway.  I look forward to seeing if it changes once it comes back when the chemo sessions end.

One of the fun parts of this was shopping for cute little hats to wear when I don’t want to wear a wig.  Never a hat person, suddenly I am enjoying getting the compliments when I wear one.  Who knew?

Another nice thing happened:  a friend who has been through chemo gave me her wig.  “It was just sitting there doing nothing”, she said.  “Pay-it-forward when you are finished with it.”  I will.

Keep your head moisturized.  Use sun screen if need be.  Shampoo on a regular basis and use a soft brush.

I’ve never been a girly girl and would rather spend time watching the world unfold on CNN that take that time to do my hair and makeup.  But suddenly I feel the need to do that.  I want to be pretty and feel pretty, probably to counterbalance the negative things that are happening to my body.  It works…have been getting lots of compliments on my appearance.  It feels good.    As the song goes, “I feel pretty, oh so pretty…”

 

Home sweet home.

Break open the champagne.  I am now home after my white blood cells have increased to a point where I can go home.  The nurses and I were dancing at the news.  What a relief.

I  kept asking the oncologists what I could do to keep those white blood cells flying high.  “Nothing” they said.  The body is doing all the work.

Had my regular meeting with my own oncologist today and he confirmed that now they know that I am in the 10-15 percent of the chemo crowd whose white blood cells with drop dramatically they can prepare for it.

So, the day after each chemo, for a ten day period, I have to inject my belly with a very expensive medicine that will boost those white blood cells up.  Fortuntately,  I have more than enough belly fat, so that should be another adventure.

Good to know that there is a “cure”.  I am looking forward to seeing if there are any side effects associated with this approach.  Stay tuned.

Ah, so good to be home.

My best laid plans just flew out the window

Here I am in the hospital!  How in the hell did I land in here when I was doing everything that I was told?  For now I have lost control just when I thought that I was breezing through chemo with flying colours. I have every intention of taking back that control by being even better informed.  Hope you can learn from my story.

We are told that if we are going to have side effects, they will show up in the first five days.  Passed with flying colours.

Days 10-21 are important because that’s when our white blood count is lowest.  So I stayed away from crowds, washed my hands a lot and so on and so on.  In essence I was a very good girl.  To my surprise I became feverish and felt very sluggish.  We’re told to get to the hospital if our temperature gets to 38.2  C.  Mine suddenly spiked to 39C and I had had slight stomach pains for a few days previously.

So off to the emergency department where I naively thought I might stay overnight at most.  Well it has been four days and I will probably be here for another two or three days more.  Here’s what I have learned:

  • Neutropenia (which is my ailment) is a decrease in neutrophils.  They’re a type of white blood cell that fights infection.  Think of them as the soldiers in your body that are protecting you from bad stuff.
  • Neutrophils’ level should be somewhere between 2.0 and 7.5.  Mine was 0.4 when I came into the hospital.  Yikes, no wonder I had no energy.
  • They have been pumping me with antibiotics and other fluids since my arrival.  Last night, the level dropped to 0.2!  I was devastated.  Truly so.
  • I was told that day 14 after chemo is when your white blood cells hit bottom.  Today they rose to 0.3.  “Yay” wrote the nurse.
  • The oncologist said that they should rise much more quickly now that they were so close to rock bottom.

Why did this happen to me?

Ten to 15% of people undergoing chemo end up with neutropenia.  I just am so ticked off that I am a bloody statistic.

It looks as if I am a candidate for  Neupogen-Filgastrem in order to build up the white blood count around the time of my next chemo.  My overall count (including neutrophils and other white cells) is 2.6. Normal counts are between 3.5 and 10.5.

Looking forward to get the results of tomorrow morning’s blood tests to see if I really am moving on up.

Hope you learned something from my experience.  Apparently this is quite normal, so much so that the hospital even had a multi-page booklet on it.

 

 

 

You have more control than you think

Yup, I sure was scared a few weeks ago about undergoing chemo, then my feelings downgraded to “anxious” after talking with a few friends who have gone through the process.  Now, the fifth day after my first chemo, I am feeling so much more in control.

Mind over matter.  We can use our mind to change the way we handle this chemo adventure.  It is an adventure:  one we aren’t happy to have, but since we have to do it to stay alive, let’s make the most of it.

The key for me is to change my mindset about getting side effects, like nausea, barfing and fatigue.  At first I kept expecting them to come but, hooray, after five days, none have appeared.  Sure, the experts told me that I was low risk for nausea and I am in pretty good shape, but I am definitely not going to let this get ahead of me.  I am in control.

In speaking with friends, at first I would say, “I have no side effects yet.”  “YET???”  Why assume that I will get some?  So I now kicked the word “yet” into the universe and it has worked.  Now, I simply say, “I have no side effects”.

A few times I thought that I felt the beginnings of nausea.  Instantly, I stopped what I was doing and started deep breathing for a few seconds.  It worked.  No naughty nausea.

Taking care of Numero uno. 

The first five days after chemo is when most side effects show up.  In the meantime, I am really motivated to stay in shape.

  • Walking  Each day I try to get out and walk for 20 minutes each morning and evening.  Since our skin may be affected by the hot summer sun, I have changed my routine.  In the morning, I drive two blocks from home, then walk through a beautiful forested area.  Studies show that walking surrounded by trees, has a calming effect.   Here’s my little trail.  Love it.  Then, when the sun is about to go down, I briskly walk through my neighbourhood.  It is peaceful and keeps me in shape.

  • Meditation Since I’m normally going a mile a minute, I rarely have stopped to meditate despite the fact that study after study tell us how good it is for our body and soul.  So, now, I’m starting.  Google “How to meditate” and you’ll find lots of help to get started.
  • Controlling germs The first 5 days after chemo is when side effects pop up but the10th to 21st days are vitally important with day 14 a key day.  That’s when our blood count is the lowest and we are susceptible to infection.  Bacterial infections are much worse than germs from colds, so here are a few steps that I have taken to protect myself.
    • Have hand sanitizer at your front door for guests and carry the handy-sized ones with you at all times.
    • If you are in a crowd, wear a face mask.  Heck, you’ll save on lipstick if you do that!
    • Fill a spritzer container with water and a bit of vinegar and spritz your countertops in the kitchen and bathroom often.
    • Use that formula to wipe down your keyboard and cell phone often.  Tons of germs there.  Kill the suckers.
    • Keep your mouth clean.  Gargle and rinse your mouth about 4-5 times per day with this formula:  4 cups water, 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp baking soda.  It makes a huge difference.
    • Germs can roar into your system if you get dry mouth. One minute you have lots of saliva and the next it seems as if someone has vacuumed all the moisture out of your mouth.  (I guess that is a side effect…didn’t even think of it as one.)  I IMMEDIATELY rinse with water, brush my teeth with a specially-formulated paste (Biotene is an example).  Then I place a special gel (Biotene) on the tip of my tongue and twirl it around the mouth.  It works wonders.  My dentist told me that when your mouth is so dry, any food that you eat can damage not only the teeth but the lining of the mouth, opening the doors to nasty germs.
  • That’s it for tonight.

 

 

 

 

Chemo day 1 – Cocktails Anyone?

Had my first chemo session this morning.  I am still standing.  Maybe it was because I wore red shoes.  On purpose.  And jangly earrings too.

Why did I waste time and effort worrying about it?  Of course we fear the unknown.  I shouldn’t have.  So now I can move forward because it was all ok.

First step:  I started the day off on a high note by going for a brisk walk before having a nutritious smoothie for breakfast.  Then I took the first of three anti-nausea drugs.  The third one is for a pilot study in which I am participating.

Once at the hospital, the process was organized and simple.  I sat in a reclining chair and was cared for by a lovely nurse and my dear friend sat with me for support.  Being Ms. Independent, I didn’t think that anyone needed to come with me, but was glad that she was there.

After checking my vitals, they flushed the veins to make sure they could take the chemo, then one by one they administered two chemo cocktails.  Other than a bit of drowsiness, I felt great.

Once at home, a friend kindly brought home -made soup for lunch .  Yummy.  Alas since I was falling into a deep sleep, I sent her home and ending up having a solid three hour sleep.

In preparing for day one, I wanted to ensure that my dinner was gentle on the stomach:  steamed cauliflower and lentils, cashews and for dessert, cherries.

Having food thought out beforehand is a bonus.  Bananas, avocados, soups, all filled with goodness but not hard on the stomach.  Remember, your system has taken a hit so treat it with respect.  We’re supposed to eat smaller meals more often so as not to make our body work harder when it should be using its energy to build up our immune system after chemo.

Treat your kidney like a rock star since it is our body’s filter.  Flush stuff out it by drinking lots of water…at least eight glasses each day.

Also, it is important to keep your mouth well lubricated and the ph balanced. Yesterday’s blog gave you a mouth rinse recipe:  4 cups water, 1 tsp salt and 1 tsp baking soda.

It’s now 9:30 pm and no other symptoms have come knocking!  The nurses said that any side-effects would come out in the first five days.  One down and four more to go for this round of chemo.  Rinse  using the recipe in yesterday’s post every 1-2 hours if your mouth is very dry or 4-5 times daily if not.  Keep on top of this.  Very important.

Appreciate your good health.  Respect your body.  Take care of yourself since you are your biggest asset.

 

 

 

 

One more sleep: almost ready for my 1st chemo

Ok, tomorrow morning I relinquish my title as the Chemo Virgin because I’ll be having chemo for the first time.  But, you know, I kind of like the name so will keep it.

Counteracting the Chemo in your Body

Chemotherapy is a poison that will be injected into my body to ensure that no nasty cancer cells went rogue into the bloodstream.  At the same time, it will be greatly impacting on good cells too.  I see it as a preventive measure.  Last week I met with the cancer centre’s nutritionist with one goal:  how to keep my body and immune system strong when it is being blasted with chemo.

The most common side effects which rear their ugly head if they are going to, are:

  • nausea and vomiting (or as I prefer to call it, “barfing”)
  • sores in the mouth
  • fatigue

The best defence is preparation.  Be prepared and you’ll probably have a much easier time of it.  I PLAN to.

Nausea and Barfing

  • Your body needs to replace all of the electrolytes that you upchuck.  Yes, there are commercial drinks but they are full of sugar, which cancer just loves.  Here’s a recipe for one that is effective, easy to make and cheaper:
    • 3 cups coconut water
    • 2 cups filtered water
    • 1/4 cup fresh squeezed lime juice
    • 2 tablespoons of raw, unfiltered honey or maple syrup to taste
    • 1/4 teaspoon of real salt (no table salt as it is processed to death)
  • Eat small amounts every 2-3 hours
  • Fresh air may reduce nausea
  • Eat light:  broths, boiled potatoes or cauliflower and nothing fried or acidy
  • Some say that peppermint and ginger make them feel better.  I plan to boil fresh mint leaves (which have taken over my garden) then add just a bit of raw honey and lemon to it.   Do the same with ginger.
  • Breathe deeply and let it out slowly.

Sores in the Mouth

Today I went to my dentist because I read that it is vitally important to keep our mouth clean:  it is a source of potential infection.

First she cleaned my teeth.  Then I got some great advice that I plan to follow to a “t”.

  • ‘Dry mouth’ is a problem for those of us undergoing chemo.  Without saliva, bacteria grow, so it is paramount that we keep our mouths lubricated.  I found it interesting that without the saliva, harder food can damage the mouth and teeth, opening us up to infection.
  • Eat softer food.  No hard crackers or veggies when your mouth is dry.
  • Yes, we can drink lots of liquids and suck on hard candies, but also make your own mouthwash.  Use it every 1-2 hours for a dry or sore mouth or otherwise every 4-5 hours.
  •  Mouthwash recipe:
    • Mix in a clean jug or jar 1 teaspoon of salt, 1 teaspoon of baking soda and 4 cups of water.
    • Keep at room temperature and make a fresh batch each day.
  • Brush using a soft toothbrush and floss too.
  • Moisturize your lips with a balm.  Surprisingly the experts advise against using anything that is petroleum-based such as Vaseline.
  • There are products especially, example Biotene, that are created specifically for dry mouth.  I got the toothpaste and a gel that you spread around your mouth (something like ora-gel).  Got the spritz version too in order to moisture.

Fatigue

I plan to go with the flow, even though I am always on the go.  (Sounds like the beginning of a poem to me).

The experts say to take it easy, take short naps, get some exercise like walking and eat well to build up your immune system.

I plan to write more on food, one of my favourite topics, but here are a few things that I have done to prepare for the first week.

The nutritionist said that the key is getting enough protein.

  • Make smoothies using a good quality protein powder.  I always find that when throwing in a bit of kale into one, my energy level stays high much longer.  Coconut water, nuts (almonds or cashews) a fruit (not citrus) and some kale.  Easy to make, easy to digest and terrific.  Full of goodness.
  • Made some soups with lentils in them, pureed them for easy digestion and froze them in GLASS containers.
  • Used some of the lentils, pureed them with a bit of olive oil and froze them in an ice cube tray.  So, if making a smoothie or steaming some vegetables, the easily-accessible lentils just give you that extra boost without extra work.
  • Avocados are great.  Mash them up and pour them over steamed cauliflower.
  • If you are having trouble eating, mash a cooked sweet potato.  Great taste and packed with good stuff.
  • Quinoa.  The magic food.  The most effective protein.  Throw it into anything.

Books

There are tons of boring cancer help books out there.

A friend gave me one that is terrific.  Easy to read and loaded with practical tips.

“Crazy Sexy Cancer Tips” by Kris Carr.

Another friend found this book extremely useful when she underwent chemo.  It was written by Judith McKay and Tammy Sacher two oncology nurses:  “Chemotherapy Survival Guide“.

Time to get some sleep.  Tomorrow is the first day of my chemo adventure!