Friday, October 19, 2012

Breast Cancer Awareness - Knowing It Exists is Not Enough!

It's that time of year again when we see pink ribbons everywhere and there is much talk about "breast cancer awareness." Retailers are pushing all kinds of pink products -- everything from t-shirts and bracelets to vacuum cleaners. There are lots of fundraiser events going on: walks, shows, banquets, and sales. Even professional sports teams get in the spirit by wearing pink.

Is it just me, or has breast cancer awareness become more prevalent recently? I'd like to think it has. 5 years ago when I was first diagnosed, it was "Breast Cancer Awareness Month" just a few weeks later, and it seemed like the whole world was suddenly cheering me on in my fight. Every year since then when October rolls around it does boost my spirits just to see those pink ribbons and know that I'm not alone in this battle.

But what is it exactly that we are hoping to make people aware of? At the end of the day, what should we take away from all this? I can only share with you my perspective as a breast cancer warrior.

I would like people to be aware of the statistics, but not just numbers -- the real life facts. 1 in 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime. This fact starts to hit home when you begin hearing of all the folks you know being diagnosed -- your mother, your sister, your friend, your co-worker, your hairdresser, your neighbor, and on and on. It happens way too often. Over 200,000 women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year in the U.S., and over 40,000 die from it each year. Aside from skin cancer, it is the most common cancer among women and aside from lung cancer it is the most common cause of cancer death among women.

I would like women to be aware of the importance of early detection. A woman's prognosis is much better when the cancer is discovered before it has grown large or spread to other areas. Most doctors feel that thousands of lives are saved each year due to early detection tests. The American Cancer Society states that women may want to perform regular self-exams beginning in their 20's, recommends periodic clinical exams (about every 3 years) beginning in their 20's and 30's, and annual mammograms beginning in their 40's. Women with a higher lifetime risk (20% or higher) should have an annual MRI and mammogram.

I would like women to be aware of what their own personal risk factors are and how those risks impact them. Risk factors include age, race, breast density, family history, birth control, hormone therapy, etc. The American Cancer Society has a very informative article on early detection, risk factors, and symptoms which you can read about here: American Cancer Society 

Another organization with a great website is National Breast Cancer Foundation which has lots of information, including an app for a personalized early detection plan and an informative section called "Beyond the Shock" with questions, answers, and real stories.

One huge misconception many women have is that they are "safe" if they have no family history of breast cancer. While it is true that a woman's risk factor increases if an immediate family member had breast cancer, 85% of women who are diagnosed had NO family history!

I would like women to be aware of various testing -- what is available and what are the pros and cons of each. Be aware that mammograms are not perfect -- they have limitations. Even though they do miss some cancers, they are still an important and valuable tool in detecting cancer. While some women have expressed concern about the amount of radiation a woman is exposed to in a mammogram, the American Cancer Society states that it is roughly equal to the amount of radiation one is exposed to on a commercial jet flying from New York to California and that it does not significantly increase the risk for breast cancer.

I would also like everyone to be aware of the importance of the development and availability of new and better treatment. The "race for the cure" before another life is lost. Every time I hear a news broadcast about a hopeful new discovery, I follow the story to the footnote that details how many months or years it will be going through various trials followed by the red tape of FDA approvals, and I am discouraged to think that it probably won't be in time to help me, but I do hope it will eventually save others' lives. My doctor has often told me that the most hopeful new drug for me is T-DM1 and has been tied up by political red tape in Washington, D.C. for several years now. It certainly is disheartening when I consider all the lives that are being lost in the meantime.

I would like women to take breast cancer seriously, because I didn't. It's not just your breasts you may lose, it could be your life, so be aware and be vigilant in regular and thorough exams and tests.

And I would like people to be aware that after this month passes, all the pink sales displays disappear, and all the hoopla dies down, we breast cancer warriors will still be silently fighting on. Please don't support us for only one month out of the year.

A few days ago I ran into a teenage girl at the store who had a pink breast cancer ribbon painted on her cheek. I wondered if it had special significance to her and I asked her about it. As it turned out, her aunt was a survivor. I pray this disease is wiped out long before this young girl has to face it herself one day.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Not in Kansas Anymore!

Recently I got a gift card to Nordstrom’s for my birthday and I went shopping intending to get something practical like maybe a couple new sweaters for fall. I even had a few draped over my arm when I happened upon these beauties …. a pair of shiny candy apple red high-heeled pumps!

Oh, they are SO not me! Well, at least not me recently. If you've battled cancer, or other serious illness, you understand what I mean. Dazzling beauty and the latest styles are way down on your list of priorities. My clothes now focus on what keeps me warm in the cold chemo lounge, what keeps me cool when I'm having hot flashes, necklines that allow access to my port, and what's just plain comfortable for a day of resting on the couch. I'm lucky to be color-coordinated and it's been a very long time since I've actually felt pretty.

There was a time when I dressed up every day for the office and had a closet full of stylish high heels. But now thanks partly to chemo, I guess, and a number of very painful visits to the podiatrist, I have officially reached the age of “comfortable shoes.” My closet now is filled with Crocs and Sketchers. Nothing that would painfully pinch my toes—not even flip-flops any more (oh, how I miss my Rainbows and Havaianas!).

But these perfect red delights were just too much for me to resist! I quickly dumped the sweaters and headed to the register with my find. To heck with comfortable shoes!

If all goes as planned, they will provide the POP in my outfit when my husband and I go out next month to celebrate our 30 year anniversary. We got cheated out of a proper celebration for our silver wedding anniversary 5 years ago because I was sick and in the midst of my first series of chemo. I’m hoping we’ll be able to have a special evening this time, even if it's just nice dinner at home.

I don’t have the dress yet -- I'm still searching for just the right one to make me feel pretty again -- but boy, have I got the shoes! They'll look fabulous even if I'm just wearing sweats or pj's!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Lay It At God's Feet and Leave It There

As a cancer "warrior" I don't always have a courageous smile on my face, I'm not always waving a victorious sword over my head. I do thank everyone for your awesome support and prayers and pats on the back, but I must confess that the reality is there are times when I am weary, discouraged, defeated.

I do believe in spiritual warfare and that it is going on around us all the time. Some days the enemy gets the upper hand and I feel really beaten down. I had one of those days not long ago. I came home, crawled into bed, pulled the blankets over my head, and just wanted to escape the world. It was one of those days. Those rare but really awful days. I was not just in a "funk" but really defeated.

As I retreated into bed, I could feel this heavy mood settling over me. Not one that passes after a good night's rest, but one that oppresses for days or even weeks. I didn't have the strength or the will to fight it off, although I knew I should.

Just then, the phone rang and it was a friend of mine calling to check on me. I didn't feel like talking to anyone, but I answered it anyway. She immediately picked up on the sound of my voice. "What's wrong?"

She listened patiently then said "Okay, here's what I want you to do!" She looked at the clock -- it was 20 minutes til 10. "I'm giving you 20 minutes to have a pity party, cry your eyes out, get it all out of your system. After that, no more. Lay it at God's feet and leave it there."

I hung up the phone, grabbed some kleenex, and did pretty much as instructed. I hadn't had a good cry in a long time and it felt totally cleansing. I poured my hear out to God, told Him my frustration, guilt, anger, fear, all of it and let the tears flow.

When I had gotten it all out of my system I opened my eyes and saw that the clock across the room read 10 o'clock on the dot. I sighed and felt a huge load off of my shoulders. I have often been told that to better fight the cancer in my body, I need to avoid stress. Stress would weaken my immune system. A recent study showed that stress hormones can directly support tumor growth and spread.  While I understand this, it's always seemed like a "Catch-22" to me. How do you eliminate stress in your life when the cancer is the main cause of it? I guess that means that those folks who annoy me with "Think good thoughts!" aren't totally off base after all.

I have found an occasional good cleansing cry to be very therapeutic for me. Just don't let that mood hang on to you -- lay it at the Lord's feet and leave it there!  Perhaps Augustine was experiencing something similar when he wrote the following prayer:
"God of our life, there are days when the burdens we carry chafe our shoulders and weigh us down; when the road seems dreary and endless, the skies grey and threatening; when our lives have no music in them, and our hearts are lonely, and our souls have lost their courage. Flood the path with light, run our eyes to where the skies are full of promise; tune our hearts to brave music; give us the sense of comradeship with heroes and saints of every age; and so quicken our spirits that we may be able to encourage the souls of all who journey with us on the road of life, to Your honor and glory."