I keep seeing things about the tops of the year and the tops of the decade. I realized the other day that the decade thing is something that really upsets me. This decade has been long and hard and I’m not sad to see it go. Between cancer and it’s endless gifts there has been plenty of other crap in this decade I’m happy to forget.
Instead of dwelling on the negative I’m trying to think of the positive. I made a career transition where I have learned so much more about myself than I thought I could learn in a job. I went all over the state and got to see just how awesome Michigan is and why I don’t ever want to leave again. I made some friends and said good bye to some others.
Truth is though the tough times of the decade really outweigh the good times, so I’m ready to say good bye and embrace this new one. I’m ready to go after my dreams and live the life I’ve imagined.
The one true vacation I took in 2014 and my day at the beach
Almost a year ago I had my DIEP Flap Breast Reconstruction surgery. The main surgery was an experience in itself. The year that’s followed as been its own crazy journey to try and conquer.
The cool thing about surgery is the time travel you experience when you are the patient. My major surgery where part of my abdomen was just to reconstruct breasts was something like six hours, for me it was like the blink of an eye. Being sliced open from hip to hip really hurts. My abdomen hurt, my chest hurt, my head hurt and think all of me hurt. The worst when was I vomited, twice never before have I experienced such pain. Five days later I left the hospital and started the recovery phase of my surgery.
Eight weeks later, I went back to work and quickly scheduled the next phase of my reconstruction. Revisions. Basically, I think of revisions as the nip and tuck portion of the reconstruction. We cleaned up some shapes and scar lines. Recovery was pretty easy, honestly the drugs are really what took their toll. It was hard though to once again get used to a changing shape of my body, suddenly my muffin top from surgery was gone and the shape of things was a little different.
Three months later because both myself and my plastic surgeon weren’t quite pleased with the results I had some fat grafting done (basically its liposuction or moving fat from one place to the other). This is surgery number three in the whole diep flap reconstruction process for me. What I thought was going to be tough with bruising and pain was easy, I barely bruised at all.
I thought maybe I would be done after surgery number three but I still wasn’t quite satisfed. So three months after fat grafting I went back in for another revision surgery. My plastic surgeon is some sort of sorcerss because she really fixed what I wasn’t liking.
So in a year since the major surgery, my diep flap reconstruction has included three more surgeries, its been a journey to adjust to an ever changing body and accept that I continue to put myself through so many surgeries. I wonder sometimes when I’ll reach a point of satisfaction. Thankfully, I don’t ever have to go through the major surgery again. Most important is that overall, I’m so incredibly happy with the results. I know I made the right choice.
Today is National Cancer Survivors Day. I don’t know who made this declaration but I’m ok with it, I like that it’s for all survivors not just one type of cancer. It does make me think about those who have not survived this awful disease because survivor’s guilt is real but I think a little recognition of survivorship isn’t a bad thing.
Because sometimes I think surviving cancer is a bit harder than having cancer. For me surviving cancer has been trying to figure out what the hell my new normal is supposed to be. Surviving cancer and life afterwards is the one part of cancer they don’t seem to have a piece of literature on like they do with everything else that cancer has to offer.
Survivorship has come with periods of depression and agonizing self doubt. I feel as if my life has been on hold since September 15, 2016 and I struggling to find a way to make it move forward because there still seems to some surgery or doctor’s appointment lurking around the corner that makes me think I can move jobs just yet or take a vacation.
But there are positives that come with having survived cancer. I mean the first is obviously that I survived. Others include that I am much braver than I ever thought, I’ve done things like learning to share my story both in person and on this blog for all to possibly read. I’ve met fellow survivors in places where I didn’t know a soul. I’ve learned to make tough decisions and speak up for myself.
At times being a cancer survivor is tough but only because I now know how fast everything in my life can change. But in many ways being a cancer survivor has given me so many more positives to add to my life.
In effort to jump start any sort of creativity I have going and make use of this blog plan that I have paid money for I’m just going to list some of my favorite things.
Podcasts – I can’t remember which one said to just write and creativity will come but that’s the idea that I’m following. Some of my favorite podcasts are: Happier with Gretchen Rubin, Men in Blazers, Terrible Thanks for Asking, and Natch Beaut. They’re a great way to pass time such as during my hour commute home from work everyday.
Dr. Bronner’s Castille Soap – All Natural, smells good and multi tasking what’s not to like?! I’ve used this stuff for years even way before I ever had cancer.
My car – I have a Buick Encore and I love it. It’s the first new car that I have bought and it always makes me smile. It has also my work commute so much more enjoyable.
Candles – It’s not really about the smell. I like the light a candle provides. I like the soothing flickering light. Sometimes, I’ll splurge and get a really fancy candle but usually its just a soy candle that I get from Target that I like to burn.
Ginger Ale – So I quit drinking caffeine during chemo. Since then I have suffered through some less than desirable side effects and ginger ale became my go to drink. Sometimes, I like it because its soothing and sometimes I like it because its refreshing.
I’m returning to work next Monday after being off for the last eight weeks to recover from my diep flap reconstruction surgery. And for some reason I find myself stressed about going back in a way that I haven’t dealt with before. After my mastectomy, I was more concerned about radiation beginning that I don’t really remember feeling nervous about going back to work. Now I have all sorts of nerves this time.
First, I’m worried about expectations being different now that I’ve had reconstruction. My work has been very understanding about when I have to leave early or come in late, now I’m worried that they are going to think everything is all done and I won’t have appointments anymore. I find that I’m so worried about this, that I feel as if I need to tell my boss that I’m still going to have appointments and possibly follow up surgeries in the reconstruction process.
Second, I’m worried about the expectations I have for myself. I find that I’m worried about not being able to handle my workload and the things that I was doing before surgery. So far I have a hard time standing for an extended period of time which is something that my job requires and I know that my coworkers are eager not do to this part of my job anymore. I’m also just worried about general fatigue being an issue.
Finally, I’m just anxious about all the little things. Will I remember passwords and pin codes? Will they have hired someone new? Well I be able to handle the long commute to and from work?
Bottom line is that I know all of this worry is useless. And that as soon as I settle back into the routine of it all everything will settle and be something that I can do. It might not be like it was before but that’s ok, it’ll be something that works.
Sometimes, I think I should start playing the lottery. It’s really fueled by the feelings that I must have some sort of luck, just not necessarily good luck. I got cancer at 32, not exactly lucky. Another example of my luck, my cancer is hereditary. I saw somewhere that 10% of cancers are genetic, again luck. Finally, my hereditary cancer is from a 1 in a 200,000 genetic mutation called pTen. I mean put these all together and I clearly have some sort of luck, so it could possibly translate into winning the lottery right?
Jokes aside, I feel like my luck as brought me cancer and a rare genetic mutation as way to give purpose to my cancer journey. First, to find some sort of way to give voice to the pTen mutation or Cowden Syndrome as its often referred. Basically, as I understand it, my genes are missing some sort of tumor suppressor. As a result I’m at an increased risk of a number of different conditions including an increased risk of breast cancer, endometrial cancer, thyroid cancer, kidney cancer, colon cancer, and melanoma. As you might imagine, to learn of all these risks after learning of cancer diagnosis is a lot of information to process. What was even more to process was that this was even a possibility, because all my doctors ever talked about was the BRCA mutation, that’s really all I had ever heard talked about when it came to genetics was the BRCA mutation. And as I write this I’m realizing the first way to give purpose is to share my story and advocate for the rare mutations.
The second way I have given my mutation purpose is that I get to tell others what it’s like to go through the screenings for different cancers. After I finished radiation, I started screenings for all the other cancers where I have an increased risk. I could tell my coworker that a colonoscopy isn’t a terrible procedure the hardest part is the preparation the day before. Screening for melanoma, easy peasy you just get down to your undies and the doctor looks over every bit of you, between your toes, through the scalp and it takes no time at all. Mammograms are easy compared to the hell you go through if you don’t monitor things. And that’s usually what I point out to people if I need to, that the screening for the cancer is not that hard at all when compared with fighting cancer. And if they make the screenings a regular thing any potential cancers are probably going to be caught early, which is always better.
Probably the best way to use my luck is to continue to get the screenings for surveillance, to take control of the increased risks. And maybe I’ll buy the occasional lottery ticket.
Comparison. I feel like everyone says that we shouldn’t compare ourselves to others but everyone does it, especially in the age of social media and the constant sharing of all of life’s details. I know I struggle with comparison, especially when it comes to the stories of others in the cancer community. It’s all too easy to look at someone’s Instagram and see them on vacation or whatever and wonder what I am doing wrong that I don’t get to go on a two-week exotic vacation.
Then sometimes I can find myself jealous of those who have reached point that perhaps resembles something closer to normal. I get jealous of those who only have to do to the doctor every so often. I get jealous of people who get to do things that I never wanted to do because it is a reminder of something that cancer took from me.
So how do I deal with it? I practice a lot of mindfulness and try to be present in my moment and not put myself into the highlights of someone elses story. I also remind myself that everyone has something, whether or not they’ve had cancer, everyone has something that they compare to someone elses story. Finally, the best way I’ve found to deal with comparison is to take more ownership of my story. Whether or not anyone else ever reads this post or likes my latest Instagram I find the more I share my story both in real life and in the digital world it helps lessen the feelings of doubt and jealousy that come with comparison.
September 15, 2016 was the day that I learned I had cancer. That day my life forever changed. Since that day I have done a lot of crying, a lot of laughing, and a lot of every other emotion in between.
I’ve learned that time can go really slow yet very fast. I’ve learned that there are good people in this world and for them I’m truly grateful. I’ve learned that some people aren’t worth my time anymore and that’s ok. I’ve learned to go outside my comfort zone and do things I never thought I would do. I’ve learned to be comfortable and uncomfortable with my ever changing body. I’ve learned to share my story and lessen the power that it once held over me. I’ve learned to be present. I’ve learned to be positive and optimistic.
So between the learning, tears, and everything else, the last two years have been quite the ride and I survived. And I’m looking forward to many more years.
I don’t know what I thought the reconstruction process would be like at the beginning of my cancer journey but I can tell you I certainly didn’t imagine it to be the way that it has gone. What I thought would be something that would be done sooner rather than later hasn’t even really begun yet. It will be two years since my diagnosis that reconstruction will hopefully, finally begin.
After my bilateral masetecomy, I had expanders immediately placed. Because radiation was still to follow my expanders were palced under the muscle. I think this made the expanders an extra level of uncomfortable. Then by the end of radiation everything had become even more uncomfortable. Radiation really had a way of shrinking the skin when it wasn’t burning the skin. So by the end of radiation almost three months after the expanders had been placed I noticed that the edges of the expanders where becoming more pronounced. Now the edges where still existent because my radiation oncologist didn’t want them filled prior to radiation and my plastic surgeon wouldn’t fill them until six months after radiation ended in order to make sure that the skin was in good condition. So I pointed out to my plastic surgeion these edges, so she did a slight fill to see if it would soften the expanders. We tried it again the following week to see if another fill would help. Two fills didn’t help soften anything, in fact it may have made the edges more pronounced. So the concern then became that my body was moving the expanders around and my surgeon said we just needed to take them out before they possibly broke through the skin. It was an absolutely terrifying thought so the next week I had an implant exchange. My plastic surgeon said it was still too soon to do any sort of major work, we just needed to get something softer in my body. So we exchanged the expanders for implants about the same size.
It was an unexpected step of the reconstruction process but ultimately one that has proven to be beneficial. Much like the expanders, my body has decided that the implants are something it doesn’t want. Just slightly less uncomfortable than the expanders the implants have come with their share of issues too. Once again, especially on my left side where I had radiation my body has gone about pushing the implants around in an effort to find a position that they’re comfortable with. Almost a year later with the implants and my body is still trying to figure out what to do with these things.
So recently, I’ve taken the first steps to do the diep flap reconstruction. It’s a big surgery and really scary but the benefits are going to be so worth it. Remaining flat just wasn’t something that was going to work for me, if for no other reason than I want my clothes to look good. And we now know that implants arent’ the best because my body doesn’t like foreign objects. So sometime at the end of this year, I will have the diep flap reconstruction surgery. Two years after beginning my cancer journey I will really start the reconstruction process, something that I’m eager to do, I’ve waited much longer than I thought I would have to.
First step is CT scans to check the blood vessels. Thankful I still have my port!
One of the things that no one tells you about cancer is that surgery comes with recovery afterwards. What I mean is that the recovery period after surgery is something you don’t realize will come with limitations on what you can do, even further decreased energy levels, and perhaps most of all, boredom. No where, did any of the cancer information tell me about the boredom that comes with recovery after surgery because there’s only so much HGTV you can watch before it starts to repeat itself.
In my cancer journey the first surgery I had was getting my port placed. With that I was told to not carry things on my left side, not to sleep on my left side, and not to get my incision wet for the following week. All pretty easy but still limiting. The limitations following my mastectomy were by far the most difficult. It’s incrediblily difficult to do anything when you are only allowed to move arms as far as the can go while you hold them against your side. As my plastic surgeon calls it, I could do anything so long as it was with T-Rex hands. The T-Rex hands meant I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t really reach for things, and I couldn’t wash my own hair. It meant that everyone had to essentially wait on me hand and foot. With my most recent surgery, I couldn’t drive for a week. It’s only when you can’t drive do you want to go everywhere.
This was especially true this time around when I started feeling pretty good after only a couple days. Always though there are a few days or many weeks after surgery that the only thing I am capapble of doing is moving from bed to the couch and then spending most of the day napping. And once I get past the stage of napping like a cat all day, all I can manage to do is meander about so slowly that my Fitbit doesn’t even register the movement.
Couple a lack of energy with restrictions on what you can do and eventually, reach the boredom portion of the recovery period. After awhile you no longer want to watch movies, and tv shows begin to repeat themselves. I’m not kidding by the end of my recovery after my mastectomy it was as if HGTV had no episode I hadn’t watched in the prior weeks. So what I’ve done with this recovery period is take a cooking class or go for makeovers at the cancer center, both things I normally could never do because of work. But most of the time I’ve spent battling boredom. I’ve read, I’ve cleaned, worked on my blog and spent far too much time on social media.
I feel like it’s stating the obvious that surgery requires recovery, but it’s easy to forget that it does indeed. There will be limitations on what you can do, hopefully the dreaded T-Rex arms aren’t in place. I will get tired and even when I start to feel better somehow, I’m still tired. Then at some point I get bored and longing to go back to work and all of the activities I normally would be doing and I feel like that’s when I know I’ve recovered.