Mother’s Day and Breast Cancer

Mother's day cancer

My mother died in 1999 after a recurrence of breast cancer.

With little information at the time–no internet, only the beginnings of patient rights–we didn’t recognize the signs of a recurrence until it was too late. Her behavior began to change over time, showing signs of recklessness and forgetfulness. And then she suddenly had trouble walking, having collapsed at home.

Doctors in the ER informed my father that a scan revealed tumors along her spine. She was released home with pain medication, but little else to do as far as next steps. Her extreme reaction to chemotherapy in 1992 precluded any more chemo treatment for the recurrence, and so we were left with pain management and the awareness that her time with us would be limited.

After a call from my father, I drove home from college. She died the next morning on our couch.

Since then, I have regularly avoided going out on Mother’s Day, and that now includes social media as well. People say that the pain and loss of losing your mother–or any other family member, for that matter–lessens over time, but I believe it is more your learning to live with the loss.

And now this year, I have breast cancer yet again. The same cancer that killed my mother so long ago.

I am finding this day to be more difficult than I expected. My flat chest, many medications, and constant pain only serve to remind me of my mother in the most horrible way, that of a shared illness and possible death. And the celebrations that litter my Facebook stream only enhance that awareness.

My mother was loving but a rather complicated woman in that she had a misdiagnosed mental illness. If she had lived longer, she might have been able to receive the treatment that she needed. I know that she did the best she could considering her struggles, and I will honor her for that.

But I cannot join in on the celebration of this holiday, especially this year. I loved my mother despite everything, and the pain of her loss is still too great even after all these years.

If this is the first Mother’s Day that you face alone, please know that my heart and prayers are with you.

Things I Didn’t Know about Estrogen…

Things I didn't know about estrogen

Although fertility is an issue for so many women facing breast cancer, it has never really been a problem for myself or my husband. We decided a long time ago that we did not want to have children, and we’re still content with that decision.

Too, if a hysterectomy and anti-estrogen therapy just removed my ability to have periods, I’d be totally fine with that. My periods have always been horrid, and cancer treatment has brought me great relief in this part of my daily life.

But as I get deeper into my anti-estrogen treatment and think about scheduling my hysterectomy, I realize just how important estrogen is to our bodies.

Now, I realize that menopause is a natural occurrence in a woman’s life, but chemical menopause is something else entirely. There is no natural transition over a decade or so into a crone. Chemical/surgical menopause is instantaneous and harsh, affecting every part of a woman’s health and lifestyle.

And all too often, breast cancer patients who face this are much too young to even be in peri-menopause, much less the beginning stages of menopause itself.

And no, HRT is not an option. Some people that hear about my being treated with Anastrozole mistakenly believe that this drug is a form of HRT and thus “balances” my hormones to relieve the symptoms of menopause.

Actually, the opposite is the case. The drugs that I take further decrease any remaining estrogen in my system after a hysterectomy, or as in my current state, in conjunction with Zoladex, which shuts down my ovary function and allows me to take the Anastrozole.

So what have I discovered about estrogen now that it’s gone from my body?

(Or at least being chemically suppressed.)


It’s important for eyesight. Even with my fairly new prescription for bifocals, I am increasingly having difficulty reading, which is one of my favorite pastimes. Books almost have to be loaded on to an e-reader so that I can adjust the print size, and even a large print Bible is too much of a strain on my eyes at this point. This has been a surprising and really disheartening side effect of this treatment.


There are increased problems with insomnia. Stress is obviously part and parcel with cancer treatment, and this can most certainly contribute to an inability to sleep. But when hormones suddenly drop, as with the Zoladex–and eventually a hysterectomy–along with the Anastrozole, it becomes more and more difficult to sleep.


It’s important for memory. Although the linked article seems to have a mixed view on the topic, the significant part in the language seems to be that the combination of chemotherapy and anti-estrogen therapy produces a worse result cognitively. (At least that’s how I’m reading the medical jargon.) Too, I have to wonder how many of these women in the studies are truly post-menopausal or have had it induced so that they can take the anti-estrogen therapy.

I am hoping that more research delves into the experiences of younger women with chemically/surgically-induced menopause who are taking anti-estrogen therapy. You can find comments about Anastrozole and similar therapies from women on The Underbelly’s Facebook page.

I struggle now to complete even simple tasks, and my ability to think creatively and to write has been significantly impaired. Recalling even simple words or memories can be extremely difficult for me now. That “it’s on the tip of my tongue” sort of feeling is a constant, everyday thing. I seriously wonder if I will ever be able to function normally in a workplace setting while taking these drugs.


It’s important for bones. Honestly, I already knew this, but I suppose I wasn’t aware how significant a part anti-estrogen therapy can be in the weakening of bones, thus putting even young women at a high risk for osteoporosis and broken bones. As a part of this, of course, another side effect of Anastrozole is bone pain.


It’s important for your heart. And unlike the information in the linked article, HRT is not an option to deal with this particular side effect.


It’s important for weight control. There is also the additional problem that anti-estrogen therapies often cause weight gain, whether through the effects of the drug itself or the lack of desire to exercise due to the constant muscle and joint pain.


I’m sure I’m missing more of estrogen’s effects throughout our bodies, but you get the idea.

(Just wandering through my virtual home at the moment, scratching my head and wondering why I came into the kitchen. And when someone says something to me, I say, “Eh? What’s that sonny?”)

Although menopause in your 50’s and 60’s may be natural, that experienced by younger breast cancer patients is not. The side effects of the surgery and treatments are severe and long lasting. And pervasive.

I suppose if you are still healthy and enjoy the effects of estrogen in your body, my advice would be something akin to that of Robert Herrick, in his poem, “To the Virgins, to Make Much of Time”:

Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.

 

When Life Stops

When Life Stops

It will soon be almost a year since I was diagnosed with breast cancer for the second time.

It seems like life has effectively stopped for me, leaving me untethered from all that provided me with the structure of daily life. While my work once created the boundaries of my days, now the treatments have taken over that role, resulting in new, smaller borders and limited capabilities.

Depression has set in big time.

Although I have struggled with this much of my life, the onset of this most recent episode started not long after I began taking Anastrozole, which can cause depression and insomnia, among other things. The depression with Anastrozole is different than any previous darkness. It is much deeper and foggier, with fatigue as an added weight.

I’m gradually moving out of this depression, but it is taking time. Still, there is some progress.

I was blessed to be prayed over twice this week, and I feel a lightening in my spirit even though my circumstances are still the same.

Things are changing, and I believe that this spring will bring new opportunities.

Right now I feel the need to focus on recovering spiritually and emotionally after all that has happened this past year. That means more private time, more scripture, more prayer. Clawing my way up out of the darkness bit by bit.

Until my writing juices are up and running again, take a moment to read this article that I wrote for Compassion That Compels, a great organization. If you have a bit of extra money this month, please consider making a donation.

And if you need prayer, please comment on this post with your prayer requests. Even if I can’t hug you or offer you a cup of coffee, I can be there with you virtually, praying and believing.

Venturing Out

Venturing Out

I went to church on Sunday. This was my first real outing since my surgery and of course, radiation.

Everything was wonderful except for the pain.

Now that I have technically finished active treatment, people look at me and seem to see just a normal, healthy person. So many memes now mention “hidden” illness and pain, and I suppose I have an intimate understanding of this after beginning Anastrozole. Others don’t get why I continue to experience pain and fatigue, both of which urge me to stay at home.

As one person said when I mentioned that the drug causes pain, “But medicine is supposed to make you feel better!”

Precisely.

Going out and about can be a cause of anxiety for cancer patients. Our bodies no longer look or act like they used to, and facing healthy folks’ reactions can be a bit of a scare. Add pain to the mix, and it’s all too easy to stay at home.

Cancer treatment can often mean accepting the Devil’s own bargain. The various treatments offer the possibility of a cancer-free life, but that life may be one of pain and illness. We accept that awful bargain, though, because we love our families and want to stick around for a while.

Puttering around the house and allowing myself to rest when needed sound much more pleasant nowadays than social interactions. Cancer changes you, and it ages you.

The pain should subside after a few months on the medication, but until then I may have to learn to just say “No” when it comes to going out with others. Hopefully folks understand.

 

 

 

 

 

The Best Laid Plans

Best Laid Plans

Releasing my own expectations and plans has been a difficult part of my own cancer journey. I had worked hard to build up my reputation with my employer, and I was proud of my accomplishments. I had my own expectations for my life and what would happen in the future. After my cancer diagnosis last year, my life began changing rapidly.

My body and my plans went awry, so to speak.

During cancer treatment, you learn pretty quickly to roll with the punches. Depending on the results of scans or reactions to medications, the direction of treatment can veer around the corner into a new neighborhood, leaving you wondering at the scenery.

My latest tour through the unknown was my reaction to Tamoxifen. After a little over a week on the drug, I found myself calling my oncologist and asking for help with the side effects, all of which could be found in the “Incidence Not Known” listing. I was taken off the drug immediately.

The new plan is Zoladex + Anastrozole until I am able to have a hysterectomy. When I meet with my oncologist next month, I’ll most likely get a referral so that the plans for my next surgery can begin taking form.

Can I admit something right now? I generally don’t like change.

Although I try to cope with things in a healthy manner, I’ve sometimes resorted to not-so-healthy ways, such as eating frozen cookie dough. Yes, you heard that correctly. Each night, when everything was quiet and I had plenty of time to think, I suddenly had the overwhelming need for the cold sweet stuff.

I’d feel ashamed, but then I’d do it again the next night. Finally I put a stop to it by putting the bag of sinful goodness in front of my husband. It was gone that night.

I know that many cancer patients like myself have struggled with their own unhealthy coping mechanisms. Too, we feel even more ashamed when we fall down because of the incredible pressure to be a positive, healthy-eating, exercising, full-of-gratitude, and all-around perfect cancer patient. If we don’t live up to that ideal, then we feel even more awful.

The truth is, we’re only human. And that sometimes means eating cookie dough at night in order to cope with often overwhelming circumstances.

As Mike Foster says in Rescue Academy,

“It’s human to run from our hardship and our feelings. It takes recognizing God’s grace to stop running and turn around to face the lion that is chasing us.”

So, at least from my perspective, I say give yourself a break. Cancer treatment is long and tiring and downright awful. You’re doing the best you can. And if you fall down, pick yourself up and try again.

At this point in my treatment, I’m beginning to think about my future again. My original plans and my body have already gone awry, and so I must gather up what remains to re-shape and re-form my life once everything finally settles down.

The thing is, this is me now. Cancer changes things, and it changes you.

The fun of Anastrozole will be with me for a long time, and the risk of a cancer recurrence is high. Any plans I make will have to incorporate all of this, allowing me to jump on the airplane of change at a moment’s notice. What will that mean for my future? I honestly have no idea at this point.

Mike Foster goes on to say,

“…God provides us with permission to embrace it all. And we mean all of it! We start to see our hurts and hang-ups on par with the bright and beautiful, not as ‘better or worse.'”

Like it or not, cancer is part of my life and will most certainly be so for the rest of my life. But life goes on.

And if I occasionally eat some frozen cookie dough, that’s ok.

Now What?

Now What

With cancer treatment, you seem to be maneuvering through an obstacle course in the fog. Just when you scale one wall and begin to run again, you encounter a bunch of rocks that make you slow to a crawl. It’s sort of an endless cycle of doctors and medications and scans and side effects.

You’re often left wondering, “Now what?”

Having finished radiation, I began to recover strength, both of body and mind. After a bit of a break, I started the Tamoxifen. For a while, I experienced no side effects. I was sure I was going to get off scot-free. I congratulated myself on being one of the lucky ones.

“Not so fast,” life said.

The pain and fogginess began gradually. I thought at first that it was simply my body recovering from the radiation, or perhaps just a bit too much exercise. But the side effects only grew stronger each day, and I knew it was the anti-estrogen pill.

I’ve struggled to recall names and facts, or sometimes even form a coherent thought. And the pain is similar to when I was receiving the Neulasta shots. Pain that is constant and limiting, very similar to some of my worst days during chemotherapy.

I’ve found myself thinking, “What fresh hell is this?”

I now understand why women often say that anti-estrogen therapy changed their lives more than chemotherapy or even surgery. And I also know the desire to quit taking those darn pills.

I will be on Tamoxifen for three months, after which I will again meet with my oncologist and schedule a hysterectomy. After that surgery, however, I will begin taking another anti-estrogen medication, a medication regimen that will last for ten years.

It’s possible that the side effects may lessen as my body becomes used to the medication. However, I think it’s pretty certain that my body and my life will never be what it once was. Learning how to live with these changes is now my current challenge.

As Mike Foster says in Rescue Academy, we often let our pain define God. When your life becomes centered around medications and pain and doctor visits and scans and whatnot, it can seem like that’s all that’s left, a shell of a life that once was. But maybe we can turn it around, let God define the pain.

That’s what I’m trying to do at this point. Turn my view around and live.