Tag Archives: side effects

When Will You be Done?

This is the question I hear most frequently from people.  They see my hair growing back and assume either I’m done with treatment, or must not be going through treatment at the moment.  The answer is, I will never be done treating for metastatic breast cancer.  If I am “done” with treatment, it will mean that I’ve decided the disease has progressed so far and fast that treatment will do nothing but further diminish the quality of my life.  At that point, I’ve decided I won’t put myself through the side effects and will spend the time I have left with my family.  I’m already considered an “exceptional responder” in that I’ve survived more than 5 years with mbc.  The odds of that are only 1 in 4.

I am still actively treating.  Currently, I’m on an IV drug called Gemzar or gemcitabane. The side effects include flu-like symptoms, fever, nausea, fatigue, and lowered platelet counts. Hair loss is minimal and mostly consists of hair thinning.  I have treatment once a week for 3 weeks and then have one week off.

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Treatment starts

The off week happens because usually, after 3 rounds my blood counts have lowered to the point that it would be dangerous for me to have another treatment.  The off week gives my body a chance to recover and get ready to do it all over again.  My last scans showed that this treatment is holding things steady.  It doesn’t mean that the cancer is gone or has gotten less severe. It means that the chemo is keeping things in check and more or less, nothing new has grown.  I have a few new spots, but they are small and some other spots have gotten a bit better.  So, the fire wall is holding and we are keeping things at a nice, slow, contained burn.

 

In the meantime, I do what I can to support my body and me.  There is no magic or nutritional cure for cancer.  You can support your body and immune system, and I do. But eventually, the cancer will outsmart your immune system and spread.  This doesn’t mean I give up and don’t do what I can to help myself.  I like to say I’m a “realistic optimist” and I do all kinds of things nutritionally and otherwise to support my mind and body.

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How I look a few hours later. Blaghh.

I’m fully aware of reality and what can happen.  I’m just hoping it doesn’t happen for a long time. That’s one of the scariest parts of living with the unpredictability of this disease. Things can happen so quickly.  Even though my scans look stable there is a tiny part of me still nervous.  This is because I have lobular breast cancer and my tumor markers are at one of their highest points ever. Usually, when a chemo is really working, my markers will go down. Lobular bc is notoriously hard to see on scans.  It grows in sheets, or fingers instead of compact tumors.  Which makes organ involvement harder to spot.  But for today, I’m good and I’ll stay with that!

 

Despite being on Gemzar I’ve been busy.  I’m not sure how chemo side effects and timing have worked out so well, but they have.  We’re gearing up for Ladies Midsummer Wine Night, our annual fundraiser for mbc research.  This year we hope to break the $100,000 mark!  I also gained a greater understanding for why supporting small research grants is so important.  In my enthused, energetic chemo break last winter I applied to be a consumer advocate for the DOD Breast Cancer Research Program.  I was accepted and served on a committee looking at incoming research grants.  I’ve never been in a room with so many MD/PhD labels! IMG_2492 Before research grants can apply for certain funding levels, they have to support their proposal with preliminary data.  Many researchers have fantastic ideas, but don’t have the funding to gather this preliminary data and take their ideas to the next funding level.  This is what Team Judy helps to support with our mbc grants.  We choose a researcher to support at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota, so they can gather their preliminary data in order to apply for the larger DOD and NIH grants.  It’s disheartening when you realize how few research dollars goes towards metastatic research.  Over 1600 Americans die every day from metastatic cancer.  We must find a way to figure this out.  It’s also why I was happy to participate on a panel at the University of Minnesota Cancer Moonshot event on June 29.

IMG_2470Too many Americans are dying from cancer. We need to collaborate and share the data that comes out of publicly funded research grants.  Often times, large institutions delay in sharing their data.  That’s not cool, so to speak. We also need to look at all sides of the problem.  We can’t just focus on prevention and treatment of curable cancers.  If we don’t understand how cancer metastasizes then we are missing vital pieces of the puzzle and won’t have a clear picture on how to control metastatic disease.  If you’d like to help Team Judy support metastatic breast cancer research grants you can donate to our crowdfund page.  100% of what we raise goes directly to the labs of researchers at the Masonic Cancer Center, University of Minnesota.

 

Colors

I’ve been thinking a lot about the book ” My Many Colored Days” by Dr. Seuss.  It’s been an apt descriptor of what life has felt like recently.

“Some days are yellow, some are blue.  On Different days I’m different too. You’d be surprised how many ways I change on different colored days.”

My last scan showed some cancer growth, with new lesions on my spine and one of my left rib.  The pain in my spine has been tolerable and well controlled with pain meds and by managing what I do physically.  I have been surprised by how much I’ve felt my rib pain.  Last month after my scan results my doctor and I discussed what to do next.  Both of us felt that given the new lesions it was unlikely the Ibrance was working anymore. However, since my next treatment option was IV chemo I wanted to wait another month to see what would happen next.  Moving to the next drug would have a significant impact on my quality of life.  Unfortunately, during this last month the pain in my ribs has increased quite a bit.  I’ve learned that I really do have to stay on top of my pain meds and not try to martyr through it.

“Some days, of course feel sort of brown.  Then I feel slow and low, low down.”

I like to think I’m pretty tough, but this has taught me that sometimes I’m just not.  Pain is exhausting.  It makes me crabby and  lowers my patience.  Steve is much happier when I stay on top of the pain meds, and so am I.  I’ve learned that the importance of sleep continues to be underrated in this country and it’s tough to sleep when you can’t roll over without groaning and letting out an expletive;  tough for both of us.  I met with my doctor again last week and was truly surprised at how much the pain had increased.  This of course bought me another set of bone and CT scans to make sure nothing else has grown.  Bone and CT scans aren’t the best way to look at lobular breast cancer, but it was too soon for insurance to pay for another PET scan.  Based on these most recent scans it looks like my rib met has increased a little bit and so has one spot on my spine.  Nothing really huge, but enough to know that the treatment I’m on is no longer working.

“On purple days I’m sad.  I groan. I drag my tail.  I walk alone.”

Monday I went into Abbott and had a port placed.  I’ve been lucky and unlucky that I haven’t had this yet in 9 years of treatment.  A port is a device placed under your skin.  It is connected directly to your vein and makes it easier to have labs, chemo and contrasts for scans and other tests.  I have pretty terrible veins and sometimes it’s an event in itself to get an IV in me.  This will make things much easier, but on the not really important, but still kind of stinks side of things; it means I have another scar and another “thing” in my body that just shouldn’t be there.  Next Thursday I’ll start IV chemo.  There are no other oral chemo pills for me to take at this time.  Cancer will now get to run a little bit more of my life.  I’ll head down to the oncology office one day a week for three weeks and then have one week off.  Treatment should be fairly quick, about 2-2.5 hours.  I asked my doctor how long I’ll have to do this.  Here’s what he said ” Until this works like a charm and kicks back the active metastatic lesions, ( MY first choice), or until the cancer grows and we know it’s not working and have to switch to something else, (another IV chemo) or until we figure out you are not tolerating it well and we have to switch.”  In other words, welcome to the new reality.  It also means I’ll be “outed” as a cancer patient. I’m going to lose my hair again.  As annoying as it can be sometimes to feel really crappy and still have people say how great you look, I have enjoyed being able to be incognito as a cancer patient.  I can still wear a wig, but it won’t be the same as having hair no matter how great the wig is. So, how do I feel?  I’ve felt just like Dr. Seuss describes.  I’ve had all kinds of emotions.  Anger, fear, sadness, loneliness and then round about back to acceptance.

Green days. Deep deep in the sea.  Cool and quiet fish.  That’s me.”

People say they admire my bravery, courage and strength.  I want everyone to know that I don’t always feel that way.  Sometimes I’m not brave and I don’t have a lot of strength.  I cry, I get scared and I lose faith.  This cancer is not a gift.  It can teach me things, but I have to choose how and what I’m willing to learn.  I have to make a choice some days to get up off the floor and to act like I have faith even when I’m not feeling it.  There are nights I go to bed and will wake up with a panic attack; scared and wondering how I’m going to make it through this.  How much will it hurt?  How long will it go on?  How much can I really handle before I fall apart?  It’s then I have to remember to grab on to the tiniest of things to be grateful for and hold on for dear life.  I whisper to God that I’m losing it and need help.  I don’t always feel calm right away, but I keep remembering that I need to quit thrashing and start floating.  So I take long, slow deep breaths.  I keep telling myself it’s going to be ok until at least my heart and my body start believing the words and i can go back to sleep. And basically, that’s how I manage cancer.  One day at a time, one moment at a time.  I practice gratitude, because I know there is always someone out there going through something harder than I am.  I leap blindly with faith and hang on to the belief that somehow this will be manageable and I’ll make it through until the end.  I cry and despair and then I get up and live another day.  Some days with more grace then others.

“Then comes a Mixed-Up Day. And WHAM!  I don’t know who or what I am. But it all turns out all right you see. And I go back to being…me.”