My Life will Never Be Normal

I was reading Marie ‘s Weekly Round Up on her blog “Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer” as she quoted  Eileen’s blog,  where she writes, “If there’s anything I’ve learned in my process that will help another, I owe it to myself and others to share it on my blog.” There was an article written about me in the ASCO Post’s Patient’s Corner that I have been hesitant to tell people about because I felt a little exposed. Eileen and Marie helped me realize that I should share this article with everyone. The skills of the interviewer and writer, Jo Cavallo, really impressed me. I did the story with her because I wanted oncologists to benefit from my experience.

Ironically when all of social media was beginning to explode on the internet, I was afraid to use my real name because so many aspects of breast cancer are very personal.  Thanks to a dear friend that I met at a National Breast Cancer Coalition Advocacy Meeting in DC, I started my Twitter account as well as Facebook and my blog, and I ended up putting my name out there. I am grateful to her and many others for finally helping me to get this process started last May.

There are so many other bloggers who continue to inspire, empower and uplift me through their blogs. I am also thrilled by all the friendships I have made through social media. Thank you to all of you who give me so much encouragement with your feedback. Although the story below is about my breast cancer case, there are so many cases and people with experiences “Weaving through Breast Cancerland”. You can go directly to The Asco Post Patient’s Corner, My Life Will Never Be Normal, to read the story or read it below.

 

My Life Will Never Be Normal

I thought I could go through breast cancer treatment, and afterward my life would return to the way it was before. That’s not what happened.

By Susan Zager, as told to Jo Cavallo
March 15, 2013, Volume 4, Issue 5

Despite my concerns, I’m happy to be alive and I try to live life to the fullest. I have become a patient advocate for breast cancer survivors and find great satisfaction in helping others become better educated about their disease and more proactive in their care.

—Susan Zager

After being diagnosed with stage II invasive ductal carcinoma in my right breast in 2004, I did an Internet search to learn more about my treatment options so I could be prepared when I met with my oncologist to discuss my treatment plan. I was especially interested in therapies that would be effective but allow me to salvage my hair. Despite my efforts, however, in addition to a lumpectomy, my oncologist was recommending the standard course of therapy for my type of cancer, including four cycles of a high-dose combination of doxorubicin and cyclophosphamide, followed by four cycles of paclitaxel, plus 35 days of radiation therapy over 7 weeks.

With this regimen, I knew my hair didn’t have a chance. What I didn’t expect to see was all my toenails floating to the top of the water one night while I was taking a bath. Although I didn’t feel any pain, the sight of my toes without nails and my head without hair made me truly sad.

I know that the point of all this treatment was to make me well, but I couldn’t help but feel that one by one, I was losing parts of my life that made me who I am. The cumulative side effects from my treatment, including fatigue, nonstop vomiting, weight loss, and “chemobrain” were overwhelming. And because I was so sick and weak from all the chemotherapy, I couldn’t take adjuvant tamoxifen therapy.

Problems of Reconstructive Surgery

I have wondered if skipping tamoxifen may have contributed to a local breast cancer recurrence a year-and-a-half later, but I have friends who are ER-positive and have had distant metastatic recurrences. I’ll never know for sure if tamoxifen would have made a difference, but the ensuing physical changes I’ve experienced since my recurrence guarantees that my body and my life will never be the same.

The new cancerous mass was small and confined to my right breast. I decided to have a bilateral mastectomy to avoid the possibility that I might develop cancer in my left breast as well. It had only been 15 months since I ended treatment, and I believed my body was determined to have more breast cancer. The bilateral mastectomy sparing the left nipple made the most sense with my set of circumstances. I have no regrets about that decision.

Since I had had radiation therapy and subsequent skin damage, there were problems using implants for my breast reconstruction. After several failed reconstruction attempts including a lateral flap, I found a fantastic plastic surgeon who was able to do various things surgically and give me a beautiful aesthetic result. Nevertheless, the reconstructed breasts are hard to the touch and do not feel natural.

Women contemplating a contralateral prophylactic mastectomy need to be aware that no matter how skilled the plastic surgeon, reconstructed breasts are not the same as natural breasts. They also need to know the complications that can arise as a result of radiation-related skin damage and be given advice on which type of reconstruction surgery has the best chance of success. I’m disappointed because my oncology surgeon never told me of the potential complications of using implants to reconstruct my breasts, even though I had asked if the type of surgery I chose made a difference.

Living My Best Life 

The cumulative effects from all the drugs and surgeries over the past 8 years have taken a toll. And a hip break due to osteoporosis, a late effect from my treatment, has added another scar to my already tattered body. However, I maintain a regular exercise routine and have worked hard to restore my strength. I am so happy that the chemobrain faded away, and I feel that my mind and memory are in top form again.

More than the physical effects of having breast cancer, I worry about the statistic showing that 30% of early-stage breast cancer survivors eventually develop distant recurrence and stage IV disease, especially because my best friend—who had chemotherapy for primary breast cancer at the same time as me—was in the 30% and died of metastatic breast cancer. I have many friends with metastatic breast cancer, and I am determined that they be helped.

While I am thrilled that I currently have no evidence of disease, I am concerned that those with metastatic breast cancer have sometimes been lost in the sea of pink survivors. I was prescribed tamoxifen after my cancer recurred 5 years ago (and have tolerated the drug), but I live with the knowledge that my cancer could eventually become metastatic.

Despite my concerns, I’m happy to be alive and I try to live life to the fullest. I have become a patient advocate for breast cancer survivors and find great satisfaction in helping others become better educated about their disease and more proactive in their care. I have been to two major Breast Cancer Symposiums and the San Antonio Breast Cancer Symposium, among other professional meetings. I am delighted that the oncology community is interested in patient advocates’ insights, recognizing how educated patient advocates can be and how much we have to offer.

While I keep vigilant for any new signs of health problems, I never forget to take pleasure in the ordinariness of every day. ■

Susan Zager is the founder of Advocates for Breast Cancer and lives in Los Angeles, California.

Valerie Harper Inspires

I am so touched by Valerie Harper. As I am sure my readers are aware , not only is Valerie an incredibly accomplished actress, but her warmth and grace has been so touching during this terrible diagnosis of leptomeningeal carcinomatosis, a rare condition that happens when cancer cells invade into the fluid-filled membrane that surrounds the brain. She has been told by her doctors she will likely be able to survive about three months.

I had the good fortune to meet Valerie at a hair salon that I used to go to. She was always down to earth and always friendly while at the salon to others. When I thought her appointment was ahead of mine she told me it was not and that I was to take my turn.

valerie-harper-00-300She has bravely gone on television, visiting The Today Show, The Doctors, The Talk, Good Morning America , and spoken with People Magazine. Each interview had her glowing with life accepting her diagnosis when you know she is in shock. It is so wonderful to see such a loving relationship with her husband.

She is also a lung cancer survivor. She never smoked. So many lung cancer survivor’s never  smoked or quit a very long time before their diagnosis. I think that lung cancer is the cruelest of all cancers because so many people assume it’s only from smoking and I know many people who have had or are living with lung cancer and they are all non smokers. It’s a disease that deserves no blame. There is a campaign around lung cancer where we attach the words, “no stigma”. Meanwhile Valerie caught the lung cancer early and survived it.

Now she faces such a difficult diagnosis. We see her looking healthy and beautiful and as so many with metastatic cancer do. People are surprised because they not look as though they are very ill especially at the beginning of their diagnosis. Different cancers at different metastatic stages are like that and each one has a different set of statistics for how much time a patient has a chance of living. With my close friend Li when she was metastatic we often talked about living through the dying and making the most of the time we have. Like Valerie we wanted quality of life, not quantity.

There is a wonderful article by Donna Kaufman in I Village that talks about the 10 most inspiring things we’ve learned from Valerie Harper that I am going to copy and paste here. Valerie’s courage and willingness to share this private part of her life with all of us teaching us so much is just beautiful.

The 10 Most Inspiring Things We’ve Learned from Valerie Harper

1. Don’t blame yourself for tragedy. “If you die, you’re not a failure,” Harper said on Today. ‘You’re just somebody who had cancer. And that’s the outcome.”

2. Live in this moment, right now. “I’m not dying until I do,” Harper told Today. “I have an intention to live each moment fully.”

3. Remember that death is part of life. “I really want Americans, all of us, to be less afraid of death,” Harper said on The Doctors. “Know that it’s a passage, but don’t go to the funeral before the funeral. While you’re living, live.”

4. Let yourself be sad — but stay hopeful. “I don’t mean this to be Pollyanna! I allow myself the grief,” Harper told Today‘s Savannah Guthrie, when asked if she ever felt sad. “What I’m saying is keep your consciousness, your thoughts open to infinite possibility and keep yourself open to miracles.”

5. Don’t give in to despair when there’s more pasta to eat. When Harper first heard her diagnosis, she said on The Doctors, “I broke down. I absolutely sobbed. I let myself do it. Then I said, ‘Okay, you’ve been the drama queen. Now get over it and make the pasta.'”

6. Deal with your battles in the way that makes sense to you. When one of the Doctors asked Harper why she was spending her final days on a press tour, she responded, “Dr. Travis, this is not for everyone. This is my way of dealing with it.”

7. Don’t live in denial. “I’m trouble,” Harper admitted in a video message for People, “but when the smoke clears, I’ll be standing. Until I’m not. And I’m ready for that, too.”

8. Don’t forget to live just because you’re dying. “‘Incurable’ is a tough word. A lot of people were calling — ‘Can I come by the house?’ ‘Are you in a wheel chair?’ — because they hear it as this death sentence,” Harper said on Today. “Which it may be. But I’m not dying until I do. I promise I won’t.”

9. Never be afraid of what’s next. “I don’t know what’s ahead, but I’m ready for it. Onward!” Harper told fans in her People message. “I love you. And know that I’m okay. I am okay on this venture.”

10. Keep your loved ones close. Harper says she’ll be spending her last months with her husband and daughter while she undergoes treatments to try to slow the progress of her disease. “My doctor said it’s incurable — so far,” Harper said on GMA. “And I love that possibility. We all need to live in infinite possibility.”

Valerie speaks of how important it is not to blames oneself for a cancer diagnosis. She talks about living in the moment and not focusing on the dying. She says to deal with your battles in your way. For her it was going on Television and speaking to her fans. Most important she speaks of keeping family close. Even though she knows that her disease is “incurable”, she still lives in a world of “infinite possibility.”

Her message is one of so much hope for so many that have faced incredible obstacles in their lives. I just love everything about Valerie!