ESCAPE 2016

escape_4_cancer_advocates_-_about_us_-_2016-09-06_09-25-30It was so thrilling to attend #ESCAPE2016. How wonderful the BAG IT organization is committed to combining patient advocacy with self discovery. meditation, group exercises, meetings about effective lobbying, running non-profits and even a special Indian dance. bag_it_-_2016-09-06_09-20-08

I went to Escape seeking solutions to balance my personal and professional passions. I discovered I hide my ongoing complications from this disease, because so many of my close friends with stage IV are being ignored and facing much more difficult circumstances. I want to save everyone from the scars of cancer. I have lost so many family members and loved ones to this disease.

IMG_4954The desert was beautiful, but a little warm this time of year. With a no cell phone policy at Miravel Resort, it was nice to not feel so absorbed by the 100’s of tweets, FB posts, texts, and emails, as I tried to balance the great conferences with classes and even group meditations in pods!

I loved that it was a small mix of all kinds of cancer advocates. There was healthy food, meditation, and networking. We had an amazing talk from Shelley at the NCCS where she talked about how we influence policy. IMG_4897

I hope to go again next year. I was fortunate to meet some great people and partake in combining advocacy with self discovery. Patient advocates (especially volunteers) need this type of balance. The burn out factor is real especially when passions are high, time is of the essence to save lives and yet all of us must remember to stop, take a breath, and try to be in the moment especially when the body and mind are filled with stress.

It’s also important to put our personal health first. No matter what stage or complications one has from any cancer, loved ones helping, medical professionals, patient advocates, researchers, and doctors, we are all in this together. We must respect each other and try to move forward. My own personal side effects have slowed me down sometimes, but it’s time we allow ourselves to feel.

IMG_4950I also realized that I have been dealing with a lot of grief. Thankfully I was surrounded by awesome people. Version 2During many of the special meditative and group activities, I found myself quite emotional. I do believe that when it comes to cancer there’s so much emotional pain, physical changes, highs and lows, and some very tough times because of the incredible toll this disease can take. Thank you to the sponsors who help bring Escape2016 to patient advocates.

I came home so much more refreshed and ready for the tasks ahead that keep this new balance. It’s important to take time for reflection and always be mindful of making sure we keep taking care of our selves, while content to push forward helping others.

I am in Free Fall but Determined to Climb out of Depression

joyIt’s been the most difficult New Year that I have ever experienced. On a personal level I am trying to approach this year with ease and joy. It’s been two years since Li died and I am drowning in depression. Not sure whether anything I am doing is worth anything. I have never worked so hard without feeling any reward. When I was volunteering at least I felt worthwhile every day helping people right in front of me. I have so many important friends on social media and I have been so fortunate to meet so many special people as a result, but sometimes it’s so hard to keep up with all the information especially as I try to simplify everything.

Meanwhile my very close friend has brain mets and just finished whole brain radiation and it’s just so unfair. I wish the treatment wasn’t so tiring for her. I am so grateful for her friendship and I try to do whatever I can to help but she just doesn’t deserve to be going through all of this. I am glad that we live close to each other and I love getting together especially walking with my dog Shelby to visit.

Twitter : justvisiting123: Why isn't @Jada_FA on the cover ... 2014-02-11 15-01-24Jada my friend on Twitter died at age 34. I only knew her through Twitter. She touched so many of us in the breast cancer social media community. She was so young and beautiful. Here is a stunning picture of her pre-cancer. I did some calculations (hoping my chemobrain math is still working) starting with the fact that there are 450,000 deaths a year from metastatic breast cancer (Source: GLOBOCAN 2008), I calculated that Jada is one of the 1238 people all over the world that died on Jan 28th because of Metastatic Breast Cancer. That’s over 51 deaths every hour.

Pancreatic Cancer Action wish I had breast cancer copy

People have other cancers that are just as important. Yet the Official Pancreatic Cancer Action (PCA) came out with an ad campaign with a bald women’s picture saying, “I wish I had breast cancer.” Many of us connected with social media were outraged. The PCA really doesn’t understand breast cancer statistics. The pancreatic ad also made me sad. My dad died from pancreatic cancer and I know that the disease is usually caught at Stage !V. I did some calculations and discovered that about 22 people die a day from pancreatic cancer in the UK while about 32 women die a day from breast cancer in the UK. I know they wanted to raise awareness for pancreatic cancer but I wish they would come up with a new ad and really raise awareness. Once again we need to be united when it comes to all cancers.

Tamoxifen Brain_1379462921276_3014655_ver1.0_640_480On a personal note I am thinking that maybe it’s the medicine I am taking that is making me extra depressed. I took the awful tamoxifen for five years. Now with the ATLAS and aTTom studies at ASCO 2013, they are recommending taking tamoxifen for ten years instead of five. My oncologist suggested I try raloxifene (Evista) which is supposed to be a “tamoxifen light.” When I first took it, I was amazed that there were no side effects.  But during my third month on it, I started getting non-stop hot flashes again, blurry vision, and feeling horribly depressed.

I am ER+, PR-, Her 2-.  Every study I have read about tamoxifen (for example: http://jco.ascopubs.org/content/23/4/931.long) and PR- when ER+ states that this is known to be resistant to tamoxifen. In San Antonio sitting next to Dr Dana I appreciated when she pointed to the speaker who I believe was Jason S. Carroll, PhD right as he said “ER+/PR- responds poorly to tamoxifen.” Thank you Dr. Dana for acknowledging the research I discussed with you about this, because I have heard different opinions from doctors. Unfortunately the data presented didn’t have the study published. I have suffered with this stupid drug especially being spooked by a recurrence of my breast cancer after not taking the tamoxifen.

Breast-cancer-revelation-other-hormone-receptors-could-be-targeted-for-novel-therapiesI apologize for those who don’t know theses technical things about breast cancer and to those who do since only 3-5% of cases are ER+ PR-. and there are very few studies since it’s not common. I miss being able to talk about all of this with Li. We loved discovering all the important information related to our cases. Because she was triple negative early on we didn’t understand that treatment options are limited. When she started hospice we both laughed at how much we thought we understood about breast cancer at the beginning when we went through chemo together. We both realized how little we knew until this disease took over our lives.

2225The official Advocates 4 Breast Cancer website is coming together, yet we hit an unfortunate snag. Without getting too detailed, we needed to change the domain hosting company to get ready to launch the new site. Our emails had to go with the domain server and due to technical issues some emails were lost and lots of time was spent on the issue. The problem took a huge chunk of time glued to the phone and computer with support, with lost emails and all sorts of computer issues. Today a miracle happened and after having the engineers look in to the issue, crossing my fingers, I put the settings in and the current mail is working. I apologize to everyone who may have tried to contact me and thought I didn’t respond due to having my email missing.

So to recap. I got very depressed taking a medication hoping to avoid another breast cancer recurrence that I am not sure can help me anyway. With research and a note to my oncologist, I just stopped taking the medicine. Now I hate having to consider taking an antidepressant and I hope the new one works. That’s the problem with medications. Each one causes the need for another one and then it goes on and on. I have had problems with many ones I’ve tried because they made me sick.

no-health-insurance-5Time has been lost over these technical problems with the web site. So please bear with us as we iron out issues.I personally have to make going to the gym a priority and make sure I am taking care of myself. It’s so hard with so many problems all over me. I also have to do another surgery on my breast in a few weeks. I could start another rant about my health insurance especially because it’s gone up 40% in price over the past few years including a recent 15% hike. It’s frustrating financially, time-consuming and I know I am not alone. Scorchy wrote a post that had me in tears about her issues and the financial drain called The Road to Ruin. Yet I am so grateful that I have insurance and my awesome plastic surgeon accepts it. She has fixed some previously botched work. This will be my ninth surgery on my breast, but I am lucky I tolerate surgery very well and I trust Dr. La Via. I  love my docs.

PIIS1470204509703201.fx1.smlI am very upset about my close friend’s metastatic cancer and brain mets. I am grateful that she still keeps me laughing even through difficult circumstances. She is amazing. I luckily have lots of support from family and friends and I know that what I mostly need to do is breathe and appreciate things that really matter. I think the hardest part is feeling no control over outside events. It’s such a combination of frustrating events and I just have to pass through this, one step at a time. With all that is going on I know that I must make the most out of every day and not let these things drag me down.

It’s so important to be in the moment and find daily joy in things. So with that in mind I remind everyone reading and myself that sometimes things can get overwhelming. I will trust that everything will sort itself out and try to find joy in things again. It’s best to allow myself to understand that’s all I can do is keep going and know that things will get better.

IMG_5794Luckily I have Shelby and she is a great source of joy in my life. I thank Li every day for the gift of Shelby. I made a silly movie trailer of Shelby with my iMovie program that makes me smile. I couldn’t get the program to make things perfect, but that’s OK. I have to let go of being a perfectionist. I hope it makes you smile.

Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day – Every Day and every October 13

MetsDay13We all know that October is Breast Cancer Awareness month. There’s pink everywhere and all sorts of breast cancer awareness campaigns. In 2009 Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) got one day for awareness. Thanks to the efforts of 9 metastatic patients and countless others, they got congress to designate October 13th as Metastatic Breast Cancer Awareness Day.  It’s a start. “Breast Cancer Awareness” without “Mets Awareness” is not awareness at all. Now we need everyone to be aware of MBC all year-long. Every day should be Metastatic Breast Cancer Day.

Ribbon_whitelinedpinkwashingpicEspecially in October (Breast Cancer Awareness Month) there have been lots of questioning of the words, the color and what really matters. There’s frustration in the breast cancer community because breast cancer has been painted with survivors and death rates trending in a favorable direction. Sadly when it comes to MBC and death rates we haven’t come very far.

For example in the United States alone in 1991 there were about 112 deaths from breast cancer a day. This year there are about 108 deaths a day in the US. While those 4 lives a day are very important people I don’t think that in over 20 years preventing 4 deaths a day is tremendous progress in this country. There are about 155,000 people living with MBC in the US a year. There are almost 40,000 deaths a year from MBC in the US and around 400 of these deaths are men.

545527_494545153891973_631458727_aAlmost 30% of all breast cancers become metastatic. Some start out with “mets” (about 6-10% of cases) but if you get breast cancer at an earlier stage there’s up to a 30% chance that you will become metastatic. Those who have MBC know this. We still don’t know the cause of many breast cancers and we also don’t know why breast cancer patients become metastatic.

MBC_Infographic_01_v14There is no cure for MBC. There are many drugs that can extend lives for years, but treatment is life long switching from drugs that work for a period of time until a drug no longer works. Every case is different and there are different types with some types more difficult to treat than others.

What we do know is that MBC kills very special people. When it comes to breast cancer, people’s stories paint the picture of what happens with this disease. One of them was my fearless friend Li Bailey. In our world of social media very few people knew her. She didn’t have a blog, Facebook page or Twitter account. She had Triple Negative (TNBC) MBC and there were fewer options for her treatment. She knew every detail of her case, and was a very sharp ePatient.

Li and I went through our primary chemo together at the same time. We got together a lot as friends and it was a relief that I wasn’t bald alone. We learned so much about breast cancer together. I had a local recurrence. Today I am NED (no evidence of disease). She had a mets recurrence on her birthday, February 19, 2009. She danced in to the light on January 6, 2012. She went through various treatment options that were wonderful when they worked. Having to change regimens is a harsh reality for anyone with mets. While my friend did not live as long as I would have liked with mets, there are so many cases with different outcomes. I have lots of friends that respond longer to treatments who are living with mets for a very long time.

Li had a wonderful ability of living in the moment with me on a great day. I’m not saying there weren’t some bad ones but we made a pact that on great ones we would be in the moment.

IMG_3171IMG_5232One of the best days was when Li got her dog Shelby as a puppy after we finished our primary chemo. I am so grateful that she chose me to take care of her dog. I loved visiting her and Shelby so many times. Shelby helps me every day keeping memories of Li alive. She is such a wonderful gift. I know Li would be proud of how well Shelby is doing, while she is a constant source of joy in my life.

There’s not a day that goes by that I don’t think of Li and all my mets sisters living and dying from MBC. I was very lucky that Li let me in to her life with mets and accepted my help. It’s so rewarding to able to help. Li helped me a lot too. She never missed being with me for my many surgeries and I was with her for hers. Having one day for MBC awareness is a start, but we have a long way to go and there should be many more days of awareness for MBC. As patient advocates we have to make metastatic research a priority. We must stop this terrible disease and prevent it from spreading to other organs. This research will hopefully lead to helping end all cancers.

Donna Peach – Danced in to the Light

donnaLast night , Donna Peach danced in to the light. It is her beautifully poetic expression for those that have died. Yesterday was Donna’s time. Every night I check my email and look for Donna Peach’s blog. She had stage IV metastatic breast cancer and I met her through her blog when I started blogging around ten months ago. Donna was a choreographer and a dancer and because of all my ballet and modern dance training, we became social media #fearless friends immediately. Her incredibly wonderful husband Marvin aka Don also would write on her blog to let us know how she was when she couldn’t.

Last night I was visiting my sister for a holiday and it’s the first night I did not check Donna’s blog. Of course Marvin was there to tell us what happened and to those who are interested in Donna’s blog please click here: at her site: http://donnapeach.com/. Unfortunately she was in the hospital and although she had been in and out of the hospital during these past 10 months, I had hoped she would get better and be able to go home with her incredible husband.

This is the part of breast cancer that I hate. When someone is diagnosed with Stage IV, their disease is not curable but there are various regimens of chemotherapy that can extend life. This is so unfair. The trick is trying to keep quality of life while extending it with regimens that have terrible side effects but are able to extend one’s lifetime.

My focus today is about the beautiful living Donna who participated in so many events with breast cancer social media including her web site and a site where others with cancer can express themselves through poetry and words. To see this great site go to: http://cancerpoet.com/. She always joined our meetings on Twitter with #BCSM (the breast cancer social media community) and I was always so happy to see that she was part of this incredible group.

I was supposed to meet her when the Los Angeles group of the #BCSM community met on a Saturday in West Hollywood, but unfortunately my dog Shelby had a terrible urinary tract infection and her urine was bloody. Leave it to Donna when I wrote her a long email explaining how sorry I was I missed the meeting, she just said not to worry I would see her the next meeting. Although deep down I knew time was getting limited, we all have to live in the moment and make the best of it.

I am frustrated that we have not found a way to help those with metastatic cancer. I have watched too many dance in to the light this way. But for today I just want to remember Donna and the beautiful soul that she was.

I know that sometimes this blog is hard for some. Who wants to hear about death and breast cancer? Yet this is a harsh reality of the disease. When I was first diagnosed I didn’t want to hear about anyone dying from the disease. All we want to hear is that we can be cured and we do what the doctors tell us and that’s the end of it.

Unfortunately when someone is diagnosed with metastatic cancer whether breast, esophageal, lung, pancreatic, colon, etc., many people don’t understand that no matter how much someone tries to grin and bear treatment there is no hope of a cure. There is only a chance of extending life through various chemo regimens depending upon one’s pathology.

I am not trying to be grim. I just want everyone to understand how special Donna was as well as so many I have watched with metastatic cancer that tried as hard as they could to stay with us as long as they could. I hope that through my advocacy this will change. I hope we can find a vaccine to end breast cancer while we learn how to reverse metastatic cancer. Only then will I believe that all of my time and energy was worth it – for truly this is a goal worth achieving.

Meanwhile, dear sweet Donna I hope your beautiful soul is at peace and you can feel all the love that so many of us are sending you.

Happy New Year – Flying Home

I am sitting on a plane with wifi and reading other breast cancer blogs which I did during a wonderful holiday with my family. They have me thinking a lot. My need to write today has to do with the fact that as I take this flight home I am flooded with memories and feelings of my past flights going back to California when I was living closer to my family on the southeast coast. I flew many times on this flight to California running to my friends especially my very close friend Li who went through chemo with me and had stage IV MBC , while on the east coast my brother was going through stage IV esophageal cancer. His health climbed faster downhill then my friend because of the stage at which he discovered his cancer.

I have been so happy working away at being a patient advocate and doing everything I can to make a difference and I am reading different things and all I can say is this may sound crazy but for me it was so much easier being the patient in jeopardy going through my primary chemo at an earlier stage than having to watch my brother and best friend go down their line of chemo drugs and disease progression. I ask myself over and over why it wasn’t me and why it was them as I stood by and they let me in fearlessly clinging to the joy they could find in life and wanting to have as much quality of time in life with them.

After I had breast cancer twice in California I decided to move closer to be with my family, because I just was drained from all the constant treatment and I missed my family. Little did I know seven months later my father would find out that he had pancreatic cancer and luckily I had moved close to the family and was able to be with him, since he died 10 days from finding out his diagnosis. I think in some ways he was better off not knowing that he was so sick until the end.

Being with my brother and my best friend as they went down their line of drugs was just as special, yet at the same time I have so much guilt that it wasn’t me. I luckily rented a room in California so I could fly back and forth and keep my medical Doctors in California.

gene-technology-7830After my brother died I moved back to California as everything shifted and luckily I had been at the right place …at the right time…while my friend got close to the end. I am on another flight knowing this cycle will not stop. A very close friend has Stage III – IV lung cancer and is such an inspiration. I have a few more friends who are going through Stage IV breast cancer. I have stepped in cancerland and there is no turning back. I am not Stage IV and for that I should be grateful and (don’t get me wrong) I am but it’s hitting me as I return to my home. I am saddened by the sheer loss of things around me.

At the same time, I refuse to keep complaining and continue forward with all of my advocacy work to make a difference…It’s just that I am in a moment where I feel like that rat on the ferris wheel as more people get bad news. Yet my father, my brother and my best friend all gracefully lived in the moment as much as they could to hold on to joyous days of life while they knew they were going to be taken away from their disease. I asked my brother if he was scared and he said he wasn’t….Life…death…he just accepted to his fate and made the most of what he had. I asked my best friend and she said she wasn’t scared either. To her she was looking forward to seeing people when she died.

With these things happening around me I can’t help asking myself why them? At the same time I refuse to push myself in to the dreaded corner of anger and resentment at fate and get a grip knowing I must be smart enough to make the most of whatever time I have. In the back of my mind one of the bloggers was angry because they are stage IV and they were sick of hearing they should live in the moment. I think the reason she was angry is the word “SHOULD”. Instead we all COULD try to live in the moment.  If we don’t and we can’t make the most of out time while we are here, then why bother fighting to live. This is it. Take it or leave it. I have to try to make the most of my moments no matter how little control I have over what Stage of disease or peril I or my closest friends are in. At the same time, I am not trying to pat myself on the back as much as be grateful I have the ability to make a difference and while I believe I have NED (no evidence of disease) make the best of it. My father made the best of his life and had no idea how sick he was. I think he was better off not knowing until the end.

It’s not the analogy of “I could get hit by a bus” at any time before my friends who are in Stage IV cancerland know the bus is coming as much as why waste time getting so upset that I bring a harsher depression on myself as I have enough of that from all the hormones that have been stripped from me to theoretically keep me NED. The truth of the matter is I can wallow in anger and resentment or forge ahead with optimism and lack of fear for what is happening inside my body and live my best life. That is truly the only way I can make sense of all that is surrounding me.

Honestly I am proud of how I talked myself out of wallowing in self pity as I return to California after a wonderful holiday with my family. I am also thrilled that I have this wonderful machine and social media to help make the most of this flight as I plan to return to all the enormous tasks I have facing me and get back to my routine while I know there is so much work ahead of me to make a difference in Breast Cancer Land. And whether you are healthy, having health issues, in cancerland, affected by cancerland or just reading this because you care about me and what I have to say…thank you for letting me use this platform to express what is happening around me.

Meanwhile it’s a new year. Make the most of it, love yourself and try to enjoy everything around you no matter where your body or mind is at. This also includes what your loved ones are going through. That is the only way all of us can live our best lives and appreciate so much of what we have.

My Fearless Friend Li Bailey

I first met Li in February 2005 at a conference table with a great breast cancer support group. The group was for early stage breast cancer and everyone in the group that day were all in the middle of chemotherapy while I was about to start my first round of adriamiacin and cytoxin. I had to do chemo because they found the cancer in my first lymph node. I had no problem undergoing a surgical lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, or axillary dissection, but when I heard I needed to do chemotherapy and I would lose my hair, I knew I needed some help.

It was ironic that in November my hair stylist of several years chopped my hair very short when I asked her for a little trim. I was furious that my long hair was gone, so I went and got hair extensions until my hair grew longer again. I told the group I had extensions and Li picked up immediately that I was not going to do well losing my hair.

IMG_3127_2The next time I saw Li was in my oncologist’s office when I was about to leave.  As I looked up from my papers she came out into the waiting room. I saw her and immediately gave her a huge hug and realized she went to the same office with a different oncologist.

Since she was alone I asked her how she was getting home and she said she was going to call a cab. Li lived in Santa Monica near the oncology office and managed to get around by bus, friend’s rides or taxis. I offered her a ride in my car parked far away. As we walked she was getting out of breath, because her red cells were very low from the chemo, but I kept telling her we were close to the car.

We started calling each other and found that we had a lot in common. I had a graphics arts background with a degree in architecture and she had worked as a designer at the Smithsonian. She left her job taking a very early pension and after seeing the Pentagon in flames from her apartment window on 911. She moved back to California where she and her ex-husband had lived before she went to DC.

The day my hair fell out we spent the day on the phone talking for hours. She was so supportive since she knew this was something I was not comfortable with at all. From that day forward we spoke with each other practically every day, and it was so comforting for both of us going through chemo together. Her regimen was adriamyacin every 3 weeks for 6 rounds totaling 18 weeks of treatment. Mine was “dose-dense” adriamyacin and cytoxin every two weeks for four weeks, followed with taxol every two weeks for four weeks totaling 16 weeks of chemo.

We talked about breast cancer and chemobrain plus our lives, side effects, research and managing to get through treatment, and we thought we knew a lot about breast cancer. We went out for meals together and one of our favorite places to eat was a Chinese restaurant run by a family we called “Lucy’s”, since Lucy always served us while her mother was in the kitchen. We both had terrible stomach issues during chemo. I had trouble keeping any food down and her food just seemed to run out of her little body.

We became extremely close because we were experiencing the same “trauma” at the same time. We would lose ourselves in conversations and never missed a Saturday to get together. We could both talk without our wigs on and I laughed when she made fun of me for holding on to whatever strands of hair would stay on my head. Truthfully, I did look a little  bizarre with 20 stands of knotted up blonde hair and probably should have just had my head shaved!

She also helped me through the crying jags since my hormones were going crazy. When one of my front crowns kept falling out, she made me laugh at myself being bald and toothless as I would call the dentist to glue the tooth in one more time till I finished treatment and could take care of the tooth properly.

We both needed surgeries and we never missed being the person to go with each other for surgeries. Li also got a dog named Shelby who is part shih-tzu and part maltese. Li had moved from a studio to a one bedroom so she could have more room and be able to take care of Shelby. She bought puppy gates and it was so much fun to visit her with Shelby, who I fell in love with from the day I saw her fitting in the palms of Li’s hands.

When Li had some cysts that she was not sure were cancerous she had an oophorectomy. Fortunately they were not cancer. She woke up crying which was so unusual for her. I think her mind knew that her female plumbing was missing and her tears were her hormones and her mind realizing that her breast and her ovaries etc. were missing.

In February 2007, I had a recurrence in the same breast, which my breast surgeon said had to have a mastectomy. I had finished treatment a year and a quarter earlier and had several biopsies that were false alarms in both breasts. My breast surgeon handed me business cards of plastic surgeons that he worked with.

The first surgeon saw me right away and it turned out he did Li’s reconstruction when she had her mastectomy and her results were awful. He wanted to do a Diep Flap (taking the tissue from my tummy and putting it in my breast). He also wanted $30,000.00 dollars over my co pays with my insurance to do the procedure.  I ended up picking the plastic surgeon that accepted my insurance, but that decision left me with many extra surgeries because I had a radiated breast that caused multiple surgical failures.

Like every other surgery, when I had the bilateral mastectomy surgery,  Li was with me. I encouraged her to go back to the first surgeon and get him to fix her botched job. She had her surgery after mine and when I went to talk to her doctor the first thing he said to me was “It’s very hard for a woman to lose her breasts”. I could not believe he didn’t recognize that I was in his office only two months before Li’s surgery. I said “Tell me about it . I have had a bilateral mastectomy with reconstruction”.  The next thing he said was that Li’s insurance probably wouldn’t pay for her stay that night. I explained she had a pre-approval letter and let him know that I saw him for a consult making him have to say he remembered me even though he didn’t. Awkward!

I knew how organized Li was with her paperwork, so when I went to her hospital room after speaking with her surgeon. Li pointed me to the paper with the pre-approval from her insurance. I called her insurance right from the hospital to make sure they were covering her hospital stay for the night. The plastic surgeon was wrong.

The next morning, Li had trouble breathing and she felt very out of sorts. We called the nurse who got hold of her Doctor. He said “When I did the surgery I may have kind of sort of nicked her lung”. I asked him, “In what percentage of patients does this occur”? He replied, “only her”.  I asked what they were going to do about it and he told me they would do a surgical procedure right in her hospital room by surgically placing a large tube in her side to build her collapsing lung back up. I couldn’t resist asking, “Are you sure her insurance will cover her to stay at the hospital longer after the procedure”? Of course the answer was yes, and I am so glad Li knew to get approval to stay overnight for her procedure, because if she had gone home and her lung collapsed I don’t want to think about how that would have gone down.

I stayed with my friend Li to hold her hand as long as I could while they prepped her for the surgery. They told me I had to leave the room while they did the surgery or I might faint. They don’t know me. I am very good in hospitals and I can handle blood and surgery.

When I needed my tissue expanders out and got my first implants, Li was with me. That surgery eventually failed.  After my recurrence I was very beaten down and I really wanted to spend some time with my family living in Tennessee. I ended up selling my LA condo and moved part-time to Nashville so I could be closer to them. But I kept my doctors and especially my oncologist in LA. I was lucky that another great friend in the group of 8 women breast cancer survivors (that now met at each other’s houses), rented a room to me in LA, so I could travel back and forth.

In February 2009, I flew to LA  for the monthly group meeting and hung out with Li for most of the time like we always did when I came to LA. We would go together to doctor appointments, restaurants, meetings and I also would bring my computer over and get work done while she did her work since she had wifi. She looked the healthiest I had ever seen her. She had gained some weight and her hair looked so beautiful and healthy. I told her how awesome she looked and we were so glad we made it through all that treatment. Li mentioned the last time she saw her oncologist she was told that it was a great sign that she was 4 1/2 years out with her pathology.

She was supposed to have her appointment with her oncologist when I was there and we were going to go together, but her oncologist had to change it, so Li changed the appointment for her birthday on February 19th. Li told me she had a small rash on her breast that she thought her bra must have caused. We both ate very well as we were enjoying the fact that our stomachs were returning to a new normal.

I returned to Tennessee and I called her later in the day on February 19th to wish her a Happy Birthday, assuming her oncology appointment went well since she looked so healthy. Li was a mess. She said that her doctor sent her to her breast surgeon for an immediate biopsy and the look on her doctor’s face made her feel like this was extremely serious. It was. The rash was skin legions from Metastatic Breast Cancer (MBC) and she also had it in her bones. She was Stage IV and had to start chemo again right away.

I ended up moving back to LA permanently in July 2011. I was very glad that I could be with Li so much during the last seven months of her life.

Li’s strength, courage and determination throughout her treatment were amazing. I felt awful especially thinking back to the day when we were going through primary treatment and she was going to have what I thought was  her last chemo the next day. We were together in front of our favorite restaurant “Lucy’s” in Santa Monica. Li’s red cells were awful so she had to sit down on a bench. I said to her “Li this is the last chemo you will ever have to do again in your life”. Sadly I was wrong.

Li worked very hard putting her affairs in order before the cancer traveled too far for her to have treatment anymore. As soon as she was sick with MBC she asked me if I would take care of her dog Shelby. I said, “of course” yet I hoped she was around for a very long time to enjoy the joy that Shelby brings. I remember when she was getting close to the end and I asked her if she was afraid. She said, “I’m not afraid of death but it’s the indignity of all of it that bothers me.” I knew that losing her mobility and not being able to do things for herself plus ending up thin, bald, and with a huge stomach from her liver metastasis building up fluid was no picnic. Luckily we found the most wonderful caretaker, Cora, who Li and I adored. She was such a comfort to Li constantly cleaning and making Li’s home beautiful plus running any errands Li needed done.

A few days before she died the caretaker Cora, Li and I had dinner. Li sat up in her hospital bed that we had in her room at home while Cora and I sat in chairs surrounding her. I said, “Li remember when we first went through chemo and we thought we knew so much about breast cancer? Boy were we wrong”. Li and I just laughed. We were trying to be normal having dinner, but truthfully there was nothing normal about anything that was going on. Li was getting more tired and going from moments of extreme clarity to moments of disorientation and confusion.

The last night of her life I came to join Li for dinner and she was particularly tired and didn’t feel like eating. I held her hand for some time while she went in and out of sleep. She said to me “I always love when you come by for dinner”. I told her that I loved her and was so grateful for our friendship, which I said at the end of so many of our conversations. She said she loved me too and went back to sleep.

She died that night and I received the call from another great friend who had also been by Li’s side through this daunting process. Li donated her body to science and did not want a funeral. When they came to get her body for UCLA, I was so impressed by how dignified they wrapped her up in a beautiful white sheet.

Since I promised her I would take care of her dog Shelby, I took Shelby and all of her things back to my home that day.  I miss my friend a lot. Thanks to her incredible gift of Shelby I feel Li’s presence every day.

Li’s death from MBC along with the friends I know who have cancer that has metastasized has made me determined to make an impact on seeing that we have an end to this disease.

I know that 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer in their lifetime and 109 women in the US die a day from breast cancer. (I haven’t forgotten that there are also men that get breast cancer too). This means one death every 14 minutes. With each person there is an important story.

I feel guilty sometimes that it wasn’t me instead of Li. It still could be me. That’s what is so cruel about the disease. We think we know so much more about the disease, but when it comes to the loss of lives we haven’t made much progress. True we can keep someone alive longer with chemotherapy drugs, but eventually cruel cancer figures out a way to outsmart the drugs so they no longer work.

My fearless friend Li, was not just another statistic. We had an incredible bond as a result of breast cancer and we cemented our friendship with being supportive of each other as breast cancer was always with us.

I know her spirit lives on through the memories of her.  I especially get comfort every day from Shelby. I am truly lucky that I got to know Li and I treasure the time that we got to spend together.

%d bloggers like this: