Why I Won’t Survive Cancer

Why I Am Not A Cancer Survivor
The musings expressed here are strictly those of a woman making her way through breast cancer and are based solely on her personal beliefs and experience. They are not intended to sway or convince anyone of anything other than to honor-with-action what is right for them.
  Okay. Now, that’s out of the way. Picture this. You’re standing in a hallway. The light is dim. There are two doors. One says Survivor. The other, Thriver. That’s it. No other door. No third option. Which do you walk through? And on what do you base that decision? Those presenting me with the standard medical model don’t see the hallway. They don’t see the two doors. As a matter of fact, a few of them don’t even see me. When they look at me, they see cancer, a breast that is gone, and a pathology report that says cancer cells may be left behind. And they see their particular medical offering of what might constitute a cure. Some of these specialists don’t like the questions I ask or that I ask them at every turn. They don’t understand that I am not questioning their expertise. They don’t understand that I am gathering information critical to my peace of mind – a peace of mind that necessitates I am part of the equation in this medical maze of treatments. (After navigating the insurance maze, I might add.) Am I sounding frustrated? Well, ride with it because I am. And, at times, I am also dismayed, shocked, aghast; disappointed with the “one size fits all” approach I am being offered after a mastectomy that showed no cancer in the lymph nodes taken or in the blood.
I have chosen my door. Thriver. Because thriving is something I can do now.
I don’t want to survive. I don’t want to wait 5 years, or 7 years, or 10 years to be pronounced cured of cancer. I know myself well enough to know that I won’t do well with a finish line way out there. And, if I follow through on the treatment offered me, I may very well be dragging myself – prostrate – across that finish line. Will I be able to resume quality of life after surviving cancer treatment – and cancer? (Assuming a car does not hit me first.) And what about during the extended treatment and recovery time – how many years down the road? I have to work. Ray’s battle with cancer took him to the other side of the veil. We have no children. And, though I am blessed with amazing family and friends, I will not add to the loads they are already carrying to appease a medical model that doesn’t fit my circumstances – and invites caregiver challenges down the road. The specialists, who call me out on my judgment or dismiss my concerns with “I can write you a script for that,” won’t be with me down the road. They won’t be living in my body, in my house, or holding my hand if I need to pursue medical treatment for a leaky heart valve, tunnel vision, disintegrating bones – or any number of the side effects that show up after the treatments they say I must endure. (With no guarantee of a cure because they cannot actually see or measure the cancer left behind.) They have to believe in what they are doing. I get it. I’m glad they do. They help a lot of people. But I don’t have to believe in what they are doing. I have to believe in what I am doing. Today, I respectfully defer the big guns to last resort treatments and will do my best to thrive while I wait to see what this body God gave me can do with less invasive modalities because thriving is what I want – now. Not surviving – down the road. If I have miscalculated, in not agreeing to the arsenal approach first, then so be it. I will thrive – one day at a time – in peace with God and my decision. In conversation with a friend a while back, I found myself saying that cancer warriors take on the chemo and radiation and that I can’t be counted as a real cancer survivor because I am not doing any of that. All I did was surgery. She was quick to point to the courage and dedication it takes to walk down this less beaten path – and to stick with it. Diet. Exercise. Attitude. And all maintained while grieving. This is the gift that losing Ray to cancer gave me: determination with no fear. I do not wish to be a bad poster child for this more holistic approach – as one specialist inferred. The way I see it, there is no bad poster child where cancer is concerned. It all takes courage and each one of us is on this walk for those who come behind us. (Caregivers included.) We share experience, strength, and hope in our daily discoveries until better-targeted cures can be found. (Ones that don't devastate bodies and leave families stressing with mountains of debt afterward.) My mother-in-law was diagnosed with breast cancer in her 80’s and chose not to pursue any treatment. She lived to be 101. Her death certificate stated cause of death as “breast cancer.” I say she died because she was 101 and her body was tired. And, guess what? She had quality of life into her late 90’s. I’m thinking she wants me to remember that. Even though statistics will place her on the side that supports what happens without treatment. If you are living with cancer, you cannot be a bad poster child. That’s my story and I will thrive with it. I am willing to bet you have a survivor-thriver story of your own. There are lots of experiences in this world that grab us by the seat of our pants. Don't stay in that hallway too long. Life is calling!   By The Seat Of Your Pants eBook Cover By The Seat Of Your Pants is one of my Bucket List projects. It’s a downloadable eBook and my gift to you. No hitches. Enjoy and Share! CLICK HERE to find out more. Subscribe to this blog or follow me on Facebook! Remember, sharing is caring. If you found something here that inspired, you may know someone else who will feel the same. XO Bernadette  

Eenie, meenie, miney moe. Pathology report, here we go. Anatomy of a decision.

Eeinie, meenie, miney moe. Pathology report, here we go. Surviving breast cancer.   “Without adjuvant treatment local regional progression, distant spread and death are risks.” What would you do? My breast surgeon was expecting to find a 3.5 cm tumor – but found a 4.8 cm tumor instead. Pathology later uncovered an additional 2 cm tumor – hidden in the dense breast tissue that she removed. No indication in any of the many imaging tests prepared us for either surprise. Sentinel lymph node report, clear of cancer. Nine additional lymph nodes clear of cancer. Blood also clear of cancer. My surgeon said I’d made the right call to go for the complete mastectomy with no nipple sparing as the tumor was irregular in shape and attached to my nipple. (Imaging tests had indicated that I was a candidate for a lumpectomy with radiation. Hmmm.) Good news so far, right? Always nice when I make a good decision and God knows this was not an easy one. (See Kiss My Breast Good-bye.) It appears, however, that my life and death, decision-making muscle is being put to the test once again. Seems I have no clean margins. Or, in doctor-speak, margins of the tissue removed from my breast test positive for cancer. So, though the cancer party-crasher stayed local and never left the house, it played to the edges of the walls that contained it. Doctors don’t like dirty walls. I get that. My breast surgeon gets it, too. That I am disappointed because, all along, I have been weighing in on quality of life issues and risks that can present down the road as a result of invasive cancer treatments. And that I have been nutritionally proactive with alternative approaches since diagnosis. (A decision that, I believe, kept the cancer contained in the breast – through months of delaying insurance coverage complications, I might add.) But her job is done. She took all that she could take – short of muscle. Now I must consider what the radiation and chemo oncologists bring to the table.
Full breast radiation (hello, it’s gone) with 20 weeks of chemotherapy and 10 years of hormone treatments.
Still leaving me with a 10% chance that the cancer will return within 10 years and not guaranteeing complications will not be present in other parts of my body as a result of the triple-treatment hit. I am really wrestling with this decision, guys. Focusing on the fact that the tumors and all my breast tissue are gone, this feels like they are engaging the canons where a few well-placed snipers might do. But there don’t seem to be any snipers available. I know of women who are going through this cancer treatment regimen right now who still have their breasts with sizable tumors. (My prayers go out to those of you who have already made these tough decisions. You have my respect for the courage you express, everyday, to show up for yourself and your loved ones in the ways you have decided are best.) Survive as Yourself from Bernadette's Musings from the Messy Room on Breast Cancer Remember when I told you that if I blog about ReaLLy meSSy STuFF it will be for us to build muscle? Well, roll up your sleeves because I’m not playing alone. This is where my decision-making drama with cancer becomes your decision-making drama with [fill in the blank.] You make decisions every day. Now, what if every decision you made mattered – even ones that are not in a life or death category? Like the preference ones that say, “I want this. I like that.” Or the reaction, “Stayed up too late. Hit snooze. Reschedule that appointment.” ones. Even avoidance, “Let someone else make that decision.” ones. And lets not forget those coin-flipping, daisy-petal-picking decisions. Most decisions move you easily along while on cruise or autopilot. Others put you on notice, requiring stand-up attention. Sometimes, you know why you made a particular decision. Sometimes, you are clueless as to the criteria that motivated you. (Was alcohol involved?) But here is the one, most consistent thing about any decision you will ever make – and why you want to pay attention. You will live with the consequences. Life is an assumption we make while dying. Death is an assumption we make while living. Your decision.
When your decisions no longer matter, you stop living.
Make a decision to pause for a moment and take that last sentence in. Eeinie, meenie, miney moe. Pathology report, here we go. Decisions on breast cancer. I am making a decision to get comfortable with the question mark that now resides where my breast was. It offers a gift that reminds me of the preciousness of each day – found in every decision I make. How will I use my time today? How will I love today? Who will I laugh and cry with, today? And, as a nutritionally proactive woman who intends to beat this thing as naturally as she can, what will I eat and not eat that will strengthen me, today, while I wait two weeks for the results of another test that I asked the oncologist for? Why? Because, no matter who rolls the dice, I will be the one living with the consequences of my next decision. Not my doctors. I’m not an expert. I’m just a messy muse blathering on in a messy room – with dirty margins. Thank God, I don’t need to be an authority to make decisions matter. I just need to be the author of my own life. I have no more time to entertain ghostwriter decisions made on my behalf – unless they come through Grace and The Divine. I have a proposition for you. Walk alongside me for the next few days and take note of your decisions – like they matter. Consider three decisions – big or small – that you will make matter this week. And you are welcome to share them in the comments below! Here are some decisions that mattered to me this week.
  • Helped a friend organize her studio so she can move into the next level of her business. I played prima donna while “helplessly” sitting, pointing and suggesting. She did the heavy lifting that doctor's orders wont let me do. (5 lb. limit.) Amazingly, I found I can be a prima donna and maintain a friendship.
  • Gave myself a two-hour break from this dang compression bra that I am supposed to wear 24/7 for 6 weeks. I promise you, I did not do jumping jacks. And my poor right breast was very grateful.
  • Standing by my June decision to not feed the cancer by staying off dairy, meat, and refined sugar. I feel so much better and, surprisingly, not deprived at all. I made another decision that I did not have to be 100% perfect about this. For me, the need to hit the mark perfectly originates from fear – thus feeding it. Besides, 95% lets you have dark chocolate and eat out with friends.
  • Asked for the ONcoType DX testing, even after the oncologist said it wouldn’t mean anything because my margins were dirty. He finally understood that it was an important part of my decision-making process.
  • Met with a Doctor who specializes in oncological physical therapy to help with the aftermath of chemo (should I go that route). Right now we are focused on reclaiming range of motion in my mastectomy arm – and NOT getting lymphedema.
Now it’s your turn. As always, I am grateful for your visits and appreciate your comments. Remember, sharing is caring. If you found something here that inspired, you may know someone else who will feel the same. XO Bernadette

Breast Cancer Bites. Kiss My Breast Good-bye.

Breast Cancer Bites. Kiss My Breast Good-bye. I find myself on the merging ramp to a mastectomy and wishing to yield, for just a moment, before this breast becomes a blurred memory in the traffic flow of life. She is the part I must release to protect the whole but she will not go without notice or appreciation for what she held space. There is a body of experience in this sweet breast of mine. She and her sister were late bloomers. No doubt, I got that premature training bra because my mother was tired of fielding questions that always started with a whiny “When???” As intimate partners go, both breasts have been first class beyond their champagne-glass classification. But she is the one that held space over my heart. For that I grieve her loss. I would love to kiss her for all that we’ve gone through together – but she is not that large nor I that agile. Sound strange?
Our bodies are living, breathing temples that hold space for a fusion of body, mind and spirit – from the most elemental level to the most sublimely sacred that life has to offer. And each part speaks to aspects of experience that leave imprints – clues – as to how we maneuver through and integrate events from the significant to the mundane.
From the time she first popped onto the scene, this sweet gal of mine protected my heart from, as well as expressed it to, inexperienced curiosity seekers and seasoned explorers until she found the one who gave her no need to shield and every reason to expand into a union of body, heart and spirit. She is visible, palpable evidence of an evolving woman’s journey into and through the greater portion of womanhood – edging into crone. Granted, she does not hold the life-sustaining importance of a lung or heart but she holds emotion-sustaining space for what works – and what doesn’t – in choices made to love and nurture self and others. Choices for expression, play, creativity, sensation, flirtation, exhibition, pro-creation, courage, pride, compassion – just pull out a dictionary and read on. You will find a piece of her on every page. She never nursed a child but experienced the loss of two miscarriages. She was with me through betrayal, reunion, divorce and death. She was present to those who honored and dishonored her, to those who gave love and withheld love. She registered the difference between body-to-body encounters and body-to-heart lovemaking. Eaten away by cancer, she is not looking particularly attractive by today’s standards but she is beautiful to me, for she kept vigil at the altar of my heart. And she is taking the hit for the cancer of disappointment, grief and good old-fashioned stress. Her final act of nurturing is one of surrender, as she and I hope to contain the damage with her removal. She will be replaced by a re-constructed stand-in, made to mimic her and topped off by a knotted piece of skin and tattooed nipple. (Somewhere, I hear Joni Mitchell singing, “They paved paradise and put up a parking lot ... don’t it always seem to go that you don’t know what you’ve got ‘til its gone?”) Trust me, though I joke, I do not feel flip about this loss – one that rides on the tails of an overlapping grief for Ray, who lost his battle with cancer in March. (See Life. Death. Breast Cancer.) Surely there is a ritual fitting for this part of my body that represents sexuality and sensuality – courtesan and Madonna alike? This part of me that society deems a symbol of my femininity, both object and recipient of pleasure and sensual sensation that now speaks more to the simple pleasures found in life. Right now, it’s hard to register how I will respond when this part of my body is no longer able to feel the hot water from the shower or the itchy sweat from yard work, the pressing purr of one of my kitties or the clutching ache of grief. So much in this world carries on without notice or appreciation – body parts included – until there is a failure or challenge in the system. After which, maybe, we wake up and realize how much we took for granted and strive to correct that with gratitude for what is left. (Kind of like people in our lives.) Is this post self-indulgent? Perhaps. But you know what? I don’t care. Because, by now, I hope you realize that I am also casting light on LIFE and how we race through it – with or without body parts. There are too many precious moments lost in the flip of a calendar. Too many fast good-byes, the depth of which don’t register until it’s too late. This is one good-bye that will not be lost in the blurred shadow of cancer. Indigenous cultures offer rites of passage marking significant transition points – and this gal of mine is going to get one. I don’t know what other women have done to mark the point of life-before and life-after cancer, but would love to hear any stories you are willing to share. And I mean that for any type of cancer or life altering dis-ease. For now, I will savor her, throw her this virtual party (as well as one at the local coffee shop) and kiss her a mindful good-bye. She resisted gravity’s pull pretty darn good. I will strive to do the same without her. For every bit of love that she now hands over to her sister and me – for every woman who lost or is losing this intimate partner, as well as any other – I kiss my breast and yours for what they held space. And, even if all your parts remain intact, take a moment to extend some gratitude with a little self-pampering, sweet ones. Sharing is caring. If you found something here that inspired, you may know someone else who will feel the same. XO  

When grief answers first … wait.

When Grief Answers First When grief answers first, it isn’t pretty. And, sometimes, it's raucous and self-involved. At least that’s my experience with it. Maybe I am more messy than most – though I suspect not. I suspect that what I am giving voice to here will not seem strange – or sacrilegious to the preciousness of life – if you have spent intimate time with grief. Singular grief sucks. Multiple grief sucks. Overlapping grief sucks. I’ve done them all. When that gut-punch, double over, drop-to-your-knees moment hits, it is hard to imagine that there is anything beyond the pain. When I found out I had breast cancer – just months after Ray took his last breath – grief spoke first. “Well, here’s your ticket out of all this pain. Your work here is done. It’s been a good run.” When losing someone or something you love becomes a reality, it throws off the order. Ray’s run with a cancer that ended in death turned my days – and my morning prayer time – upside down. The pain felt in his absence left me with a desire for connection at any cost. Even if it meant I spoke to Ray first – and God second. Something I never did while he was alive. My healing hierarchy fell out of balance while cancer cells feasted on estrogen without supervision – or should I say without “super vision.” When the small lump grew and ate away breast mass, I witnessed what the physical demonstration of grief must look like in a part of my body designed to nurture life as well as receive pleasure. There are those who believe that disease gets its footing in times of dis-ease. As I look at the overlapping distress and disappointment, compressed into a span of five years, I have to say my dis-ease has carried on long enough. Even for this messy muse. Each day, I wrestle with angels until I find a blessing – knowing that it will not be a blessing that offers a re-do. It will be a blessing where grief – singular, multiple or overlapping – learns to live with grace and gratitude, moment by precious moment. When grief speaks first, I am learning to let it say its piece and forgive myself for what feels like an indulgence, for grief is not indulgent. It is simply a part of life. Then I wait for the whisper of grace. And I embrace grief as a part of evolution – not involution.
I wrestle with a greater awareness of love through the face of loss. And I evolve because I love – not because I loved.
Grief and grace invite me to be part of the equation. To notice the places where I am missing from myself as I am missing him or her – or this and that. To love more deeply and receive more freely. How much grief and grace can a heart hold? A lot. An awful lot if we allow ourselves to evolve and expand through the process. I intend to heal through this grief AND the cancer in my breast. And that means I have to give my ALL to the process. I have to be fully honest, fully present and fully human. (Got that human part down pat.) I told you in my “Life. Death. Breast Cancer.” post that it would get messy here. I also said that if I share anything heavy, it would be to build muscle. So, if grief is a challenge for you in this moment, you are not alone. When our hearts expand, they touch. Here’s to building muscle, together. I welcome your journey with grief here. And if you, too, are working hard for a physical healing in your life while wrestling with an overlapping grief, I would love to hear how you are doing with it. Sharing is Caring. And feel free to subscribe.

Life. Death. Breast Cancer.

Life. Death. Breast Cancer. I have no clever first-line hook for this post. And it won’t be neat and tidy with a beginning, middle and end. If you’ve spent any time here at all, you know I am not shy about sharing when life gets messy – though never for drama’s sake. God knows we all have our tribulations and don’t need another magnifier in the world.
A wise woman recently said it perfectly. If I am going to share the heavy stuff with you, it will be to build your muscle – not sink you.
When I posted about the only New Year's resolution you'll ever need back in January, I had no idea the hurricane that was mounting at sea or that there would be no stopping it when it hit shore. I also didn’t know how challenged I would be to catch my breath, let alone post anything in the messy room. I figured, when I could show back up here, I’d post about my beloved’s battle with a cancer found too late (that had metastasized throughout his body) and all the stuff you witness to in that agonizing race to buy time – at least enough time to digest the news. But then he died. Just 50 days after diagnosis. So, I figured I’d make my way back here and blog about death and grief and how precious life is and the things we say “Yes” and “No” to and all the silly stuff that captures our attention while the really important stuff gets lost in the hooplahah. But now I find myself in a most bizarre overlap. The cancer train has not yet left the station. It seems that I have breast cancer. That the lump they told me was benign in January, before the hurricane hit shore, is not benign now. It has grown and gotten greedy and is invasively feeding off healthy breast tissue. Another intimate life-long partner, challenged. Were it not for my journaling, my morning quiet time spent with God and His divine messengers, and the tribe of wise souls circling around me, I would have washed out to sea before the third tidal wave hit me. But I’m not drowning. I’m here. And I’m back. And I’m writing. My walk with life, death and cancer continues. And I have messy stuff I want to say. I awake with grief and grace, daily, in a scavenger hunt for gratitude and understanding. I am not in resistance – but am in persistence – as I prepare for this next round. It would appear that my life is in what marathoners call a “split run race.” (That’s when you run faster in the second half than the first.) By divine design no doubt. A sacred overlap, perhaps, with my beloved who is now assisting from the other side. I am the stuff of stars. Not cancer. And I will find out what this old girl is made of as I work to reconstruct my life in this next most curious chapter. So, get ready to build some muscle with me or unsubscribe – cause the messy room just got messier. Thanks for listening.