Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today

My oncologist proposed a fourth treatment in her plan– a hormone-blocking drug, also known as an aromatase inhibitor. She wanted me to start taking the drug after radiation ended and continue for five years. Side effects included bone loss, joint pain, insomnia, and raging hot flashes — none of which would have been good for my tennis and overall health.

I had a bone density baseline test done as I considered this drug treatment.  After giving it a lot of thought, I asked my doctor what was the plan after I finish taking the drug. The disturbing response:  we’d watch to see if my mammograms stayed clear and if I developed pain somewhere. So, basically there was no medical plan beyond five years.  I did some research and found that broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts, kale, and even grape juice are aromatase inhibitors, like the drug. There are also supplements that provide similar, though probably not as powerful, protection. The supplements, though, would not cause side effects like the drug.  So, I declined the drug and focused on managing my diet and stress.

People have asked me if I’m in remission, and I never quite know what to say. I don’t claim to be cured because the cancer cells were invasive. But, I don’t view myself as a time bomb either.

I had my oncology exam at the six year mark. I was supposed to have had my last exam in 2013, as I did with my surgeon, but my oncologist wanted to see me again the next year.  She told me that studies show the hormone-blocking drug is now effective for 10 years. I still declined — No, thank you. She asked if I want her to examine me for another four years. I said yes. Western medicine saved me. And, I’m betting that my plan to support my body through alternative therapies and whole foods will keep me alive and healthy.

Early on, I was ultra-conscious of the lymphedema risk to my right arm from cuts, bug and animal bites, burns, etc. So guess what happened? The more I worried about it, the more things happened that I didn’t want to happen. For instance, I had my first bee sting. Where? On my right shoulder, of course, as I was coming off a tennis court. I’ve also burned my right arm on the oven a couple of times; a rogue dog bit me and pierced the skin on my right wrist; and I had a crazy case of hives only on my right arm after eating bread pudding.

When I’ve thought about it, I’ve let friends know that if I become unconscious for some reason, they are not to let medical personnel take my blood pressure or draw blood from my right arm. I wear a compression sleeve and glove on long flights, along with a medical bracelet. Otherwise, I do not obsess over my right arm.

I still have acupuncture treatments every other week and take Chinese herbs twice a day. I get additional treatments if I’m under a lot of stress. Cancer is not staring me right in the face now, but it’s not in the rear view mirror, either. I keep it in my peripheral vision. I am a breast cancer survivor and a tennis player. I have no physical limitations and am as athletic as ever. I am also a work in progress when it comes to staying healthy and having a balanced life.

 

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Battling Breast Cancer Series – The End


Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Radiation

I was so tired of being in treatment, but radiation was next. I had been slashed and poisoned, and now it was time to burn.

I received two key recommendations. The first was from my friend, Linda, who suggested I work with Dr. Yi Ping Hu, a licensed acupuncturist in Bethesda, Maryland. She has many cancer patients and treats the immune system. The second came from my chiropractor, Dr. Six, who recommended I take holy basil supplements during radiation.

Before starting the next phase, I took a mini-break. I celebrated the end of chemo with my sister, Cheryl, and our niece, Emily, from New York. We hiked Sugarloaf Mountain in Dickerson, Maryland. I had no doubt that I could hang on the hike, and my anemia didn’t pose a problem. We had fun!

Dr. Hu examined me the following week and said I had some weakness, but was remarkably strong for having just finished chemo. She wanted me to have acupuncture twice a week before starting radiation. She also gave me Chinese herbs to drink twice a day. I held my nose when I drank the nasty-tasting mushroom brew. Dr. Hu’s treatment was supposed to strengthen my immune system —  the body’s natural defense to disease.

My radiation oncologist proposed the radiation treatment field and explained I’d have a higher risk of lymphedema from radiation in certain areas of my chest.  Because of that risk, I told her I didn’t want radiation in those areas.  I didn’t want to risk my tennis game, you know. The doctor outlined the areas I consented to with tattoos.

Radiation was the treatment with the least apparent side effects. I was zapped five times a week for eight weeks. Each treatment took about 10 minutes. The doctor prescribed a cream to soothe my skin in case of burns. The health care provider’s literature on radiation warned about fatigue.

Here’s what happened (and didn’t happen):  I was never fatigued and, in fact, started playing league tennis again. My skin was deeply tanned in the radiation field, but didn’t burn, so I never filled the skin cream prescription. Over time, though, I realized the pain and tightness I felt somewhere between my right armpit and back ribs was caused by scar tissue from radiation. I massaged the area to break down the scar tissue; and I used yoga and other exercises to keep my right arm flexible. To this day, the area can feel tight and painful.

After radiation ended, Dr. Hu scaled back my acupuncture treatments to once a week for six months. After that, I went to acupuncture every other week. I also continued to take the Chinese herbs twice a day.

My surgeon made an awesome observation. When she examined me, she said my breast didn’t feel like it had been treated with radiation. I asked, “What should it have felt like?” She told me a radiated breast would would usually feel kind of hard and tough. To the contrary, mine is quite soft and pliable.

Could it be that acupuncture, yoga, and the supplements helped?

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Next:  Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: How I Am Today


Battling Breast Cancer – From Fear to Courage: Chemotherapy

Chemo made me feel like I was in a sci-fi horror film, like “The Fly” (starring Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis). Like Goldblum’s character, as he transformed into an insect, I was fascinated by every change in my body. My main focus, though, was to do the following very well:  eat, sleep, and poop. These things were essential for my body to be as strong as possible during this treatment.

I had chemo infusion treatments on my Fridays off from work. After every treatment, I went to my acupuncture appointment with Larry Godwin, L.Ac., in Alexandria, VA. His treatments provided immune system support and helped me avoid nausea. I didn’t know what to expect from chemo, other than the hair loss.

I felt woozy after the first infusion. My body erupted in sweat every night, and my boyfriend said he could have fried an egg on my body. My brother, David, explained that every cell in my body was reacting to the chemo and screaming, “WTF!”  The first physical change I noticed was my tongue. It was purplish like a Chow Chow dog, but mottled. My hair was thinner.

After the second infusion, my period stopped… forever, as it turned out. A large patch of hair at my forehead disappeared. I started wearing scarves.

As time went on, the palms of my hands became blotchy and dirty-looking. My fingernails and toenails had dark stripes. My cuticles and nail beds thickened, but I didn’t lose any nails. I lost all – and I do mean all – of my body hair, even my eyelashes. It was weird to see the little holes where my eyelashes had been. I couldn’t breathe as deeply as I could before the treatment. And, to my dismay, I couldn’t even pee straight. It trickled out in a crooked stream and dribbled down my thigh.

I paid attention every day to how well I was eating, sleeping, and pooping.

Eating: I bought higher quality food and water and cooked most of my meals. My appetite was very good and my weight stabilized. The oncologist told me to avoid raw foods during chemo because of my immune system and low white blood cell count.

Sleeping: I aimed for seven hours, but I was always so hot and often had insomnia. (I wouldn’t take any sleeping pills because I was already taking enough drugs between chemo, anti-nausea medication, and the shots I had to give myself to boost my white cell count.)

Pooping: All was well in the poop department, except for a brief bout with hemorrhoids.

When the chemo drug regimen changed for the second half of the treatment, my knees started hurting. I was limping and it was painful to walk, especially up and down stairs. On my boyfriend’s recommendation, I mixed a supplement called bromelain powder with water. It seemed to help because I stopped limping within a few hours. Even though the pain ended, I had to work through joint stiffness in my knees and hips for about six months after chemo.

Now here’s where I think my new diet and the initial acupuncture helped: I didn’t gain weight, get mouth sores, heartburn, “chemo brain,” nausea, constipation, diarrhea, or fatigue. That was significant because I could eat without any problems, work every day, go to the gym a few times a week, and play tennis once a week. According to lab tests, I was very anemic; but, I felt physically weak only about once every two weeks.

Throughout chemo, I kept my focus simple: eat, sleep, and poop.

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