Wednesday, October 12, 2011

What do you do when a nightmare comes true?

I wrote the following on August 15, and forgot about it until now:

"...I started worrying about cancer lurking in me in places no one would think to look. And last night when I went to sleep, I had a horrible nightmare about being diagnosed with cancer again, going through treatment all over again, and then cutting off 'cancer-prone' bits of flesh all over my body because I had read on the Internet that's what you had to do to prevent a recurrence. It was such a yucky dream."

I can't believe my nightmare actually came true. I mean, it's common for cancer survivors to occasionally have nightmares about being diagnosed with cancer again... that's part of being a cancer survivor. Typically, this kind of anxiety is best dealt with through something like meditation and chocolate, you know? But WTF, my nightmare came TRUE less than two months later! So was it really my intuition, telling me to get that mole check? It led to a melanoma diagnosis, and now every 3 months or 6 months (jury's still out) for at least a couple of years, I have to have skin checks...which will most likely lead to, just like in my nightmare, the dermatologist "cutting off cancer-prone bits of flesh," i.e. moles.

I don't know what to do about this. In general, I'm not anxiety-prone. I've always had a pretty good head on my shoulders, and weigh risks appropriately. I take rational precautions, as opposed to being too fearful or too cavalier. But now... it's going to take a lot of mental strength to not turn into a worrywart hypochondriac. How do I come to terms with the fact that despite being young, healthy, physically fit, etc., I've been diagnosed with two different cancers? I've always been a happy, optimistic person, in general. But right now I'm having a hard time trusting my body or trusting the universe, and I have this crazy urge to have every possible body part and internal organ biopsied or scanned. When I start worrying about some aspect of my health, I don't know how to calm myself down, because I really can't believe, "Oh, it's nothing!" I've never had a benign biopsy.

I'm behind with work and sleep and doing a poor job keeping in touch with friends. There's so much to do, and yet, I feel like spending all day reading the Tao te Ching, which is all about how to be more at peace with the uncertainties of life and life however it is.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Conflicted

I'm having a hard time with the fact that there were two different types of cancer in my 32-year-old body. This means that I now have to be hyper-vigilant about TWO cancers for the rest of my life. I will need to take whatever measures I can to attempt to prevent a recurrence of either one, and I will need to get regular skin checks and breast exams of various modalities, for the rest of my life. I'm feeling overwhelmed by this.

I'm feeling quite discouraged by the fact that I was diagnosed with a second cancer despite having spent the past 2 years adopting an anti-cancer diet and lifestyle. I've been taking lots of anti-cancer supplements, eating lots of anti-cancer foods, avoiding sugar, de-stressing, etc. Now I'm torn between two mindsets - part of me wants to say SCREW IT, it clearly doesn't work anyway, so why bother?, and eat all the damn ice cream sundaes I want. The other part of me thinks, I'm obviously not following the anti-cancer rules ENOUGH and need to do even more - e.g. maybe cut out dairy, be even MORE strict about no sugar, meditate daily, etc. The problem is that following all of the anti-cancer rules to a T is nearly impossible, and trying to do so stresses me out... and paradoxically, it makes things worse. Dr. David Servan-Schrieber made clear in his book, Anti-Cancer, that your immune system is strongest when there is joy and passion in your life and you're "living a life worth living." So if I stressed myself out by trying to follow the anti-cancer diet and lifestyle rules to a T, I'd be missing the point. I need to find a balance, of course.

The thing about melanoma is that it's much more preventable than breast cancer is. It's really interesting that following my treatment for breast cancer, I became obsessed with learning about the environmental links to breast cancer and advocating for the elimination/regulation of toxic chemicals, and then was diagnosed with a second cancer that, as far as I can tell, has very little to do with environmental toxins. Melanoma risk can be drastically reduced by decreasing one's exposure to UV sun rays. That's pretty clear cut... I've already started buying new sunblocks and researching products such as sun protective clothing (50+ SPF) and laundry detergent that makes your clothing more resistant to the sun. I have a bad feeling that I could go overboard with my attempts at preventing melanoma recurrence, to make up for the fact that there's so little I can do (relatively speaking) to prevent the breast cancer from returning. So, friends, please don't let me turn into a sun-phobic vampire, okay?

Thursday, October 6, 2011

Double Cancer

This is how it all happened…

Two years ago, September 2009, I had a mole that worried me, right under my arm pit. Freaked that I had cancer, I made an appointment for a physical, mainly so I could ask for a referral to a dermatologist to get that mole checked out. At my physical, I was surprised when the doctor found a lump in my breast, and recommended that I get THAT checked out. So, I got both the mole and the breast lump checked…the mole turned out to be no big deal, but SURPRISE! The breast lump was cancer.

After half a year of breast cancer treatments, in September 2010, I went back to the dermatologist for my first annual full-body mole scan. I looked at the mole I had been worried about, which now looked so silly and benign next to the surgical scar on my breast right next to it. “Isn’t it strange,” I mused to the dermatologist, “that I came in here thinking I had a cancerous mole, when actually, the cancer was a couple inches over to the left, in my breast?” We were both happy that I was healthy and well.

Fast forward a year to September 2011, when I went back for my second annual full-body mole scan. This time, she found a different mole that looked suspicious to her, and she shaved it off to be analyzed.

I received a letter in the mail Monday evening, saying “The results of your biopsy show concerning abnormal pathology. Please call ASAP.” It was past business hours, so I couldn’t do anything until the morning. I was scared. Waiting to find out whether or not you have cancer is almost worse than knowing you have cancer. To me, the adjective “concerning” in front of the words “abnormal pathology” seemed like codespeak for "cancer." I couldn’t eat or work or focus on anything, and I just wanted to fall asleep fast. I spent a while debating whether to take my very last Ativan (anti-anxiety pill). I had been given a very small Ativan prescription while experiencing anxiety during radiation, but I had saved the last pill “for emergencies.” I figured this qualified, and I also figured, what the hell, if it turns out I do have cancer again, I’m sure I can get more Ativan pills NO PROBLEM. Ha. I took the stupid pill and zonked out at 9:30 PM. I had horrible dreams about my body decaying until it was as porous as a sponge.

First thing in the morning, I didn’t call the dermatologist, I went straight to her office. When I introduced myself at the receptionist’s window, she immediately ushered me into a room, and that’s when I had the oh, shit feeling. And yup, the doctor came in and told me: malignant melanoma. She knew my breast cancer history, and she said, before I even could, “I know, this is so unfair.”

I cried for all of 20 seconds before taking a deep breath and asking, “Do we know what stage and grade? And what do we do now?” It’s bittersweet to now be so much smarter, stronger, wiser about cancer… in 2009 when I was dx’d with breast cancer, I cried a river, could not listen to a single damn word the doctor said, and felt like the ground was disintegrating underneath me. This time, I knew what to do. I got a print out of my pathology report, and began Googling to find the most helpful melanoma resources online, being careful to take people’s stories with a grain of salt, knowing that typically it’s the people with the “worst” cases who are the most prolific posters. I called my girlfriend and my parents and a couple close friends for support. I took the day off of work to care for myself, and I did cry several times, but I also ate anti-cancer foods (blueberries, cabbage cooked in turmeric, green tea, 72% dark chocolate), took a long walk, and meditated in the woods. I started re-reading “Anti-Cancer: A New Way of Life” by Dr. David Servan-Schrieber, because it’s the most uplifting, practical cancer book I know. It’s “the good book,” as my family refers to it.

All day, my recurring thought was, “I can’t believe I was diagnosed with cancer for the second time today.” It felt so unreal. I keep reminding myself that a stage 0/in-situ melanoma is really not so horrible and worrisome, and it’s going to be completely dealt with in just one quick and easy surgery. From a rational standpoint, this is pretty minor. It’s just difficult emotionally, to have two types of cancers, by age 32. It makes me feel like I’m “cancer prone” or something, and makes me wonder what the hell else might be lurking in my body undetected. However, through brief Googling, I discovered that it’s likely that there is actually a link between breast cancer and melanoma. That is, several studies have found that women who are diagnosed with breast cancer are at higher risk for melanoma, and vice versa. No one had ever told me that before, so I’m not sure how true that is… but it’s something for me to research further. At least if there’s a link between the two cancers, it makes me feel better, in a way – it means I’m not just susceptible to developing any and every cancer, you know?


I have a lot of researching to do now. (If you have good melanoma resources or info, let me know!) I’ve been so immersed in the online breast cancer world; it’s strange to now be at square one with getting to know a NEW cancer. It’s wrong and unfair and I shouldn’t be in this position. But I’m trying to believe that something good is going to come out of this, that I just can’t see yet… because as much as I hated hearing anyone suggest that “cancer is a gift,” I must admit, my life post-breast cancer is so much better than my life pre-breast cancer. My amazing girlfriend and I have been together for 13 wonderful months now, and I won’t get into the whole story, but – I wouldn’t have met her, if I hadn’t had breast cancer! That makes it all worth it to me. If having cancer is what it took for me to find the love of my life, then so be it. What’s this melanoma going to bring into my life? That remains to be seen.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

WTF, Universe?

Happy F’ing Breast Cancer Awareness Month…

I was just diagnosed with cancer AGAIN. Except this time it’s malignant melanoma. Every cancer survivor’s worst nightmare is being diagnosed with cancer again. What are the [bleep]ing chances that a healthy, 32-year old woman would be diagnosed with two separate types of cancers in a two-year span?

I will never again trust a doctor who says, “Oh, I’m sure it’s nothing, but we should biopsy it anyway.” I have never had the experience of having biopsy results come back normal. Granted, I’ve only had two biopsies, but both times, the doctors said they weren’t concerned, and both times, IT WAS [BLEEP]ING CANCER.

The melanoma is, thankfully, in situ/stage 0. That’s the very earliest it can be caught, and the only further treatment required is having a larger chunk of skin excised in the area where the mole was (my left lateral thigh, by the way).

I’m a bit speechless. TWO cancer diagnoses by age 32? WTF, universe?

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Pinktober

Here it is, October. It's October first and I haven't yet left my house today, but I’m bracing myself for the obnoxious pink onslaught.

Breast Cancer “Awareness” month is more annoying than it is helpful, for numerous reasons. It should be Breast Cancer Prevention month or Breast Cancer Action month, for starters – we are all plenty AWARE, thank you very much, that breast cancer exists and is bad. For myself and many other breast cancer survivors, or people who have had loved ones die from breast cancer, it is insulting and painful to be confronted at every turn with pink products that, at best, are just ridiculous (pink toilet paper, pink frying pans), and at their worst, may contribute to breast cancer (pink-bottled alcohol, Komen’s toxic-chemical-containing “Promise Me” perfume). If I have the misfortune of having to refill my Tamoxifen in October (which happened to me last year), the pharmacy gives it to me in a bottle with a breast-cancer-pink cap. AT THE VERY LEAST, pink items that are trying to increase people’s “awareness” of breast cancer should be aimed towards people who genuinely may not be aware of all there is to know about the disease… NOT women who are already being treated for it!

Even just going to the supermarket during October is an ordeal for those of us who have been affected by the horrors of this disease – everywhere you turn, there’s pink. Hey, pink crackers, because we want you to be aware of breast cancer! Pink yogurt! We care about breast cancer! Pink paper plates! Pink ribbons on cereal! Breast cancer! Breast cancer! Hey, think about breast cancer! Pink bottles of seasoning blends! BREAST CANCER! Pink plastic forks and knives, because HEY, THINK ABOUT BREAST CANCER! PINK! RIBBONS! Pink bags of chips for breast cancer!!!! It’s exhausting and difficult. I’m more “aware” of breast cancer than I ever wanted to be, and October just feels like I’m having breast cancer shoved in my face again and again. If I’m not careful, I can get sucked back into the painful memories – sobbing on diagnosis day, followed by months of wires, needles, blood, fear, stranger’s hands. Spending the day before my 31st birthday agonizing over the decision of whether or not to have both of my breasts cut off. Yeah, pass the bottle of pink crap, let’s take a trip down awareness lane.

In some ways, people argue, this commercialization of breast cancer is good, because more money is put into researching a cure, helping women access treatment, etc. However, things have really gone too far. Michaels, a craft supply store, has an entire pink/breast cancer awareness section during October. There are pink ribbons, stickers, paper, etc., including stickers that proclaim “LOSING IS NOT AN OPTION!” and other slogans common in the ‘fight against breast cancer.’ There are also Pink Parties, where you can pay $25 to take a class at Michaels and make breast cancer cards, banners, and scrap books. What the hell? We're supposed to happily make some lacy, pink, anti-breast cancer scrapbook, with pink-ribboned rosettes?? Think about how weird and wrong it would be if you went into a craft supply store and were confronted with a big display of, say, diabetes craft supplies, or alcoholism craft supplies. Can you even picture it?? There’s so much breast cancer paraphernalia to buy it almost seems like – as disgusting as this is – we’re supposed to find it “fun” to be a member of a special club and wear the cheerful, “FIGHT LIKE A GIRL!” shirts, the pink ribbon earrings, the promising perfume, while creating breast cancer art projects. It’s insane, and it doesn’t happen with any other disease. What about all the other types of cancer, huh? There are people who have cancer of the tongue, bladder, anus, brain. They don’t get t-shirts and baseball caps and jewelry and craft supplies. And I’m in no way arguing that they should! I’m saying that the energy that goes into creating and marketing and selling junk like pink toilet paper, pink alcohol, and pink buckets of fried chicken could be much better spent.

Nowadays, many companies are enthusiastically jumping on the pink ribbon bandwagon, pink-ing their products because it will increase their profits, not because they really care about eradicating breast cancer. Many consumers will choose pink products because they want to help end breast cancer, and it makes them feel good to purchase a pink product that they think is really doing something. It’s quite possible that it’s not. One woman who posted to BCAction’s Facebook page had come across pink office paper from a company that had promised to donate a portion of sales in 2010 to breast cancer research. It’s now 2011 and the paper is still being sold at Michaels, but not a single penny from those sales is going towards breast cancer research anymore. It’s all going to the company that makes the paper. I emailed Michaels to ask if any of the money from their Pink Parties goes towards breast cancer research, and if so, how much. The only response I received was from a customer service rep suggesting I snail mail the coporate office for "additional information about donations." "Additional" information, implying that I already had some preliminary information, which I did not. There's no information on Michaels' website about what they do with the profits from Pink Parties.

Breast cancer is not fun, pretty, pink. It is not something to celebrate and have a party about. Wake up, WAKE UP.


Edited to add, I really like this blogger's perspective on things. Here is her letter to the Susan G. Komen foundation, asking them to stop the Pinkwashing: http://cancerfree2b.com/2011/09/27/dear-susan-g-komen/