The Insanity of 2019

I can’t believe 2020 is around the corner. Just when I think a year can’t get any worse or filled with more challenges, I get a whole new slew of health issues. I’ve been reflecting a lot this week. I will make this a two-part series to discuss these challenges and the extraordiary opportunites of 2019.

I compiled a list of health issues that plagued me this year. Get comfy because the list is long!

February

Tried my 5th post breast cancer medication called Aromasin (Exestamine) to help prevent recurrence. Once again, my body is completely intolerant of it. It stressed my body out so badly within the first two weeks that I developed shingles on my left arm, hand and left side of my face.

For those who have never had the shingles, it’s essentially adult chickenpox. According to the handout my dermatologist at Preston Ridge Dermatology, PC gave me, here is the definition of shingles.

They are a painful skin rash that often blisters, caused by the zoster or chickenpox virus. Anyone who has had the chickenpox can get shingles. A weakened immune system seems to play a role in re-awakening this dormant virus, so people are more likely to get shingles after an illness, serious injury or stressful event. It usually occurs only on one side of the body.

Of course mine would be on the cancer side – the left. They are extremely painful and have to be treated within a certain timeframe for antibiotics to work properly.

My oncologist (my 4th one in three years due to previous one retiring) officially agreed there are no other options for the type of breast cancer I had and my pathology. It’s always tough hearing that. He said the only thing left to try is only available if I ever become metastatic. Lovely.

April

I landed in the ER due to severe dehydration and vertigo. I had been feeling odd for about two weeks. My head was pounding. I was quite dizzy and nauseous. I just pushing on and going to work every day.

I started feeling a tightness in my chest and pressure. I had never felt like that before and having difficulty breathing. I was initially going to call an ambulance but knew the cost would break me thanks to the high deductible of my health insurance. Since I only live two exits away from Northside Hospital, I elected to drive myself ever so slowly to the ER around 2am.  I didn’t call my mother or even tell anyone what was going on just yet.

My BP was 187/112 when I arrived to the ER. I didn’t even know blood pressure could get that high. I was scared to death. I realized it must be serious because three doctors came in after reading about my breast cancer history. I finally called my mother around 3am. She was not pleased that I drove myself and waited so late to call her. Once mother arrived, that’s when the doctors told us they feared I would have a stroke. I wasn’t released from the ER until almost 10am after hours of fluids and getting my blood pressure down to a below critical level.

May

Literally two weeks later, I had developed what I thought was the flu. My temp was 104.1. After three days in this misery and temp not going down, I went to my primary doctor’s office and saw the PA. I was tested for the flu but was negative. Again, I was having trouble breathing. When the PA listened to my breathing, she didn’t hear anything concerning. I asked for an x-ray and she agreed. I wanted to be sure.

It was pneumonia!!!!! I wish I had taken a picture of her face when she looked at the x-ray. She shook her head in disbelief and kept saying, “I couldn’t hear it, and would’ve missed it if you hadn’t insisted on an x-ray.”

By this point, I was so physically weak from pushing myself so hard for years on end, that my body officially shutdown. I called my supervisor and said I needed a two-month medical leave. She was so fantastic and immediately supported my decision. It was so sudden in the company’s eyes but a long-time coming in my eyes.

I was basically an empty gas tank.

June

I had my 8th breast cancer related surgery. It was initially revised secondary breast reconstruction due to the extensive fat necrosis that had built up in the exact area of my tumor. During the operation, they discovered not only the extensive fat necrosis but an “underlying association of a necrotic cystic cavity with an extensive capsule.” To break it down, it means I had a thick capsule around the fluid-filled sac, evidence of an old hemotoma and the extensive fat necrosis. Nothing is ever easy with me.

So the pain was much higher than I anticipated. It was the first time ever that I finished a complete bottle of pain medication.  

December

I received a new diagnosis last Thursday. I am very upset this doctor told me I have spondylitis in my spine through the patient portal. I was to call and set up an appointment for next steps. I’m furious she wouldn’t call to actually tell me what that means. So me being me, I have been researching and still have no idea exactly which type I have or anything. I went to a website called myspondylitisteam.com and found this information below.

Spondylitis is an autoimmune disease, meaning that pain and inflammation are a result of the body’s immune system attacking its own tissues. No one knows yet exactly what causes spondylitis to develop in some people, but it is now believed that genetics play a significant role.

More specific subtypes of spondylitis include ankylosing spondylitis, enteropathic arthritis, psoriatic arthritis, reactive arthritis, undifferentiated spondyloarthritis, juvenile spondyloarthritis, and peripheral spondyloarthritis.

I pitched a fit and will be seeing a different doctor at Northside but at a different location than that other doctor. It is unacceptable to give me news of a new diagnosis through the portal.

Needless to say, it’s been another exceptionally rough and painful year on many levels – physically, mentally, emotionally, professionally and financially. Even when I want to give up and just curl into a ball forever, I continue to get up each day and push forward.

I suppose that’s the meaning of resilience. Something deep within will not allow me to give up even when I’m aching to do so.

When Trust is Gone

Was there ever a time when one could just be the patient and trust the doctor would take time to review their chart and make customized recommendations of treatment?

I was born three months premature, so I was a sick baby and little girl. I was always going to the doctor for tests, infections and surgeries. I have fond memories of my pediatrician Dr. Tift. He always wore a bowtie and had the best bedside manner. I trusted him.

Once I graduated from college and had to find my own doctors, I was still that trusting little girl at heart. I really had excellent doctors in LA and GA during my 20’s and early 30’s. I felt like a person. I had so many issues with my ovaries, uterus, cervix and painful periods. They knew I was at risk for those cancers. I had more vaginal ultrasound action than sexual partners!

All my gynecologists over the years truly made me feel like they were doing the heavy work and monitoring my health. I trusted them.

Fast forward to the three years before my breast cancer diagnosis. All that comfort and trust was diminished.

I remember being told by countless doctors – primary, endocrinologist and dermatologist – that I was overreacting and needed to reduce my stress level and exercise. I was so angry and wondered why they made me feel like it was my fault for gaining weight, hair changing texture and falling out and irritability. I’d never been an overweight person in my life until six months after my 34th birthday. The dermatologist said there nothing she could do about my hair falling out or give me a reason. All she said was I should invest in Rogaine and eat better.

I was beyond devastated, yet I kept pushing for answers because I knew in my gut that something was very off in my body. It’s only when those tiny green bruises appeared on my left leg that I was finally taken seriously.

Why wasn’t my word and other symptoms enough to warrant concern from the start?

Why did it have to get to the point of feeling miserable and lethargic to be taken seriously?

“Oh, let’s get her a blood test here and there to shut her up,” is the vibe I consistently felt during that time until I physically felt the mass in my left breast that August 30, 2015.

During active treatment for my breast cancer, I felt heard and heavily monitored. I felt like I was a person again and not just a number. I was a well-cared for patient.

Then I enter post-treatment and just feel thrown out into the sea with no life jacket. I’m now swimming with millions pushing and shoving to be heard.

I thought palliative care would be different. I started out feeling heard again regarding my chronic pain from fibromyalgia and neuropathy thanks to chemo and multiple surgeries. I felt comforted knowing I was wrapped in this extra level care. I naively thought the relationship with my palliative care doctor would be different.

Instead, I’m consistently dealing with managing my own health and presenting outside the box ideas to help manage my chronic pain.

Get ready for my rant…

Why am I paying the copays when I’m presenting research to my doctor about new treatments for my case?

Why do many of my doctors look shocked when I make a suggestion?

Why aren’t any of these doctors’ part of cancer support groups to read what other patients go through?

Why does the doctor always ask why I’m there even though I’ve stated it in the portal, filled out the stupid paperwork and told the intake nurse?

Why are they so quick to dismiss my ideas or when I’m experiencing a side effect?

Why are they recommending medications within the same family when I’ve already shown the first option didn’t work or was allergic?

Why am I having to beg for x-rays and scans and other procedures?

Why aren’t doctors staying up to date on the latest research?

Why are doctors using Google on their phones to look up medications and the side effects in front of me?

More importantly, why aren’t they listening to the patient?

I no longer trust that any of my doctors truly have my best interest at heart. They are being mandated by insurance companies to push certain drugs. They aren’t taking the time to review my chart before walking into the exam room.

I didn’t set out to be my own doctor. I no longer have the mental bandwidth to stay on top of it all but I must because none of them will.

When will these doctors stop trying to cookie cut my treatment? I’m a square Meg who can’t be pushed into a round hole.

Time Is Up PINKtober…

As October approaches, I grow angrier and angrier. Why? Because it’s now become PINKtober. We’ll be flooded with commercials and friends doing walks, wearing tutus, toothy smiles and cheers nationwide.  Breast cancer is glamourized to look pretty, easy and fun. No wonder other cancers hate us.

The media attention breast cancer gets is HUGE. The funding for it is HUGE. The awareness part is bullshit. Yep, I said BULLSHIT! A lot of that money raised from the tons of “walks for the cure” is nowhere to be seen. The bulk of these organization – yes, Susan G. Komen; I’m pointing at you – are funneling millions of dollars…into their pockets!

The wool that was once over my eyes is gone. Why? Because I’ve lost countless friends from metastatic breast cancer. I’m acutely aware that I could still get metastatic cancer. I’m not “cured.” I will be getting scans every six months for 10 years!

I had Stage IIA Invasive Lobular in the left breast. Let me give you some information on this type because it is not common.

Here’s an overview from the Mayo Clinic’s website:

Invasive lobular carcinoma is a type of breast cancer that begins in the milk-producing glands (lobules) of the breast.

Invasive cancer means the cancer cells have broken out of the lobule where they began and have the potential to spread to the lymph nodes and other areas of the body.

Invasive lobular carcinoma makes up a small portion of all breast cancers. The most common type of breast cancer begins in the breast ducts (invasive ductal carcinoma).

I’ve realized many women and men are under the assumption that if you have a mastectomy, that you’ll never get a recurrence or metastatic cancer. I’m going to take this time to educate and give some definitions for those who may not be aware or too scared to ask.

Here are the Types of Recurrent Cancer and definition of Metastatic Cancer from the National Cancer Institute at the National Institute of Health’s website.

  • Local recurrence means that the cancer is in the same place as the original cancer or very close to it.
  • Regional recurrence means that the tumor has grown into lymph nodes or tissues near the original cancer.
  • Distant recurrence means the cancer has spread to organs or tissues far from the original cancer. When cancer spreads to a distant place in the body, it is called metastasis or metastatic cancer. When cancer spreads, it is still the same type of cancer. For example, if you had colon cancer, it may come back in your liver. But, the cancer is still called colon cancer.
  • Metastatic Cancer means the spread of cancer cells from the place where they first formed to another part of the body. In metastasis, cancer cells break away from the original (primary) tumor, travel through the blood or lymph system, and form a new tumor in other organs or tissues of the body. The new, metastatic tumor is the same type of cancer as the primary tumor. For example, if breast cancer spreads to the lung, the cancer cells in the lung are breast cancer cells, not lung cancer cells.

Despite how the media glamourizes breast cancer, I still love wearing pink, tutus, tiaras, butterfly wings and feather boas. Why? These items were ALL in my closet before my breast cancer diagnosis. I’ve always been a tad extra and a Nut-Meg. When I look at those items in my closet, I don’t associate breast cancer with them except for two of the six tiaras I have. I bought one a year after I was declared NED (no evidence of disease) and the other this year for my birthday because I wanted one even bigger and heavier to celebrate that I’m still above ground.

Breast cancer has taken away so much. It’s a daily struggle to reclaim pieces of myself. My body will never, ever be the same. I’m still healing from my 8th breast cancer related surgery I had in June of this year.

I remember how financially giving so many were when I was initially diagnosed. I can’t tell you what an enormous help their generosity was for me, especially as a single woman, but the medical bills don’t stop once the cancer has been removed.

I didn’t think I would get diagnosed with cancer at 39 years old; two months after my birthday.

I didn’t realize how expensive getting scans (diagnostic mammogram with either an ultrasound or MRI) every six months would be thanks to super high deductibles.

I didn’t expect to have additional surgeries afterward.

I didn’t expect that I would be intolerant of every type of post-cancer medication to help prevent recurrence.

I didn’t expect to have permanent chemo induced peripheral neuropathy in my hands and feet to the point I have a permanent handicap sign because I can’t walk far anymore.

I didn’t expect that all these surgeries would trigger fibromyalgia and have to live with severe chronic pain every blasted day.

I didn’t expect I would still be single and can’t even think about dating or being intimate because I was medically induced into menopause at 40 years old.

I didn’t expect to long for children until the choice was taken away from me and had to get a hysterectomy and salpingo oophorectomy at 40 years old.

I didn’t expect to have these continuous cognitive issues (chemo brain).

Most of all, I didn’t expect to meet so many beautiful fellow warriors who have since DIED in the past three years.

For me, PINKtober isn’t reality. It’s made to be cute, fun and money grabbing.

The reality is we need to know the cause of why so many early stager’s eventually get metastatic cancer.  Why are so many women and men being diagnosed under 40? Why are so many with zero family history of cancer getting breast cancer? And, why aren’t there better treatment options for during active and post treatment?

That’s what needs a continuous spotlight and research.

The Cancer Call

Once you receive the “cancer call,” your life is never the same. Every plan and dream become frozen because you’re no longer the person you once were. That one call changes the course of your life.

My cancer call was 4 years ago yesterday, 9/14/15. I didn’t think I would be contacted so quickly because I’d had my biopsy on a late Friday afternoon on 9/11/15. It felt wrong and scary to have a biopsy of the mass in my left breast on such a nationally tragic day. Yet, I wanted to have my biopsy on a late Friday afternoon so I could go home afterward and not think about work or anything else. I was told the results would be available within 24 to 48 hours. Since I was the last patient of that day, I was expecting results either Tuesday or Wednesday.

So, when my cell rang at 3:05pm that Monday, I instinctively knew I should answer it even though I didn’t recognize the number. When I flashback to this memory, it’s like I’m suspended above my work cubicle watching everything unfold.

I see myself running down the hall into an empty conference room.

I see my eyes filling with tears yet widening in disbelief.

I see my hand shaking while holding the cell.

“Megan-Claire, you have Invasive Lobular Breast Cancer. We don’t know the stage yet. You need to get a pen and paper and take some notes because time is of the essence.”

Those words changed the course of my life.

Much has happened since that day. I had started to make a list but got nauseous as the list went on and on and ON. Some have an easier cancer path than others. Mine was not and is still not easy.

I’ve blogged about survivors’ guilt in the past, but it’s never far from my mind. Once you’ve received a passport into cancerland, you meet other patients across all types of cancers that you never would’ve met in your non-cancer life. I will always be grateful for the friendships I’ve made and continue to make.

The part I still can’t wrap my head around is death. I’ve posted numerous pictures of me smiling through the pain and giving a bird’s eye view into cancerland. The one view I’ve never shown is seeing a fellow warrior die from their cancer. I’d never seen death up close and personal outside of family until then. That’s why I struggle when people tell me I should be happy I’m alive and not let cancer define me. Heck, I hear those comments from other warriors, too.  

I have friends who have died and are currently dying. Some have years or months. Others have weeks or days. I carry a little piece of them with me. They have become part of my story, too.

Then I have friends outside cancerland who I never would’ve crossed paths with if it hadn’t been for my cancer diagnosis. Some are still in my life and others are not. Like that saying goes, some people are meant to be in your life for a moment, a season or a lifetime.

I’ll never forget the days leading up to and the day of my cancer call. It forced me down a path I wasn’t ready for and continue to fight.