Cancer

Blessings & Curses

Cancer has been both a both a blessing and a curse. Strange as that blessing part may sound, it’s true. At least it’s true for me. And I don’t mean it in that sentimental now-I-know-what’s-really-important-and-just-living-every-day-is-a-blessing kind of way. We’re talking practical blessings here. A lot of the time, strangely enough, they just happen to show up right in the middle of the curses. And a lot have shown up in the past couple of weeks.

Take my latest crazy PET scan. Enlarged liver, messed up lungs, yadda, yadda, yadda. But what it doesn’t show is the new lump I found. That’s where the blessing comes in. I don’t miss a thing going on in my body. Knowing your body from head to toe is your first line of defense. Always check yourself. Always go with your gut! I asked for a biopsy on the lump, and this time, I was lucky. Benign. But I believe in me. I will always trust my own instincts and never let my guard down. I am my best hope.

Another recent blessing-inside-a-curse involves my daughter. This summer, she’s been playing a lot of soccer. (Quite well, I might add.) A couple of weeks ago, her premier team had just won the championship, and she was pretty happy. Then she started getting sick. Normal flu-like symptoms, but she’s tough and didn’t complain a lot. It went on for about a week. She was feeling better as we headed for the beach, and while down there, she started getting terrible headaches and running a low-grade fever.

I started getting nervous. My antenna was up. I saw a rash on her back and rushed her to the emergency room. I’d never seen a bull’s-eye rash before, but i just knew. Even when others around me were downplaying the symptoms, I went with my gut. (To be fair to the others, the doctor had just given her a clean bill of health at a well visit, plus it seemed possible she was just having a reaction to vaccinations.)

Turns out, she had Lyme disease. It was diagnosed early, and she’s now on treatment and back playing soccer. Again another blessing: Cancer has given me not only medical knowledge but a certain strength — or courage, if you like — to not listen to anyone but myself! To believe in me and what my gut tells me to do. Had I not, my beautiful daughter might be facing a more serious illness. I sat on the beach the other day and watched my brave and lovely lion play in the sand and jump the waves with her long, red hair flying behind her. Tears ran down my face. I’m proud of me and the mother I have become. The mother with the courage to stand up for what I believe in and what I think is right. I’m going to pass that strength onto my daughter.

I’m not always so smart. Sometimes I think I’m superhuman and just want to forget I have cancer. It’s fun to forget once in a while, but not when it comes back to bite me!! Last week, I didn’t listen to my body and paid the price. I overdid it, got very sick, then went to my maintenance chemo session without telling my doctors I hadn’t been well. I knew if I told them, they wouldn’t have let me get the monthly dose of chemo I count on. I thought I could handle it. Now I know different. With my immune system compromised, I got VERY sick. Scary sick. Live and learn, they say.

As mothers we want to do everything and be everything for our families, but our bodies don’t always allow us to do those things. Be smart … listen to your body!!!!  I learned my limits for sure and with all my blessings, I don’t want to squander them. Like I always say, I’m the luckiest girl around. … I just happen to have cancer.

Mother’s Day has many meanings

Happy Mother’s day to all the mothers out there who are fighting the good fight.

That could mean so many things really. The obvious of course … a wish for those of us who are fighting cancer and struggling to be good moms every day while remaining brave and positive for our children.

It could also be meant for all those women out there who lift us up and help us be better — be stronger — moms. Or for the women out there who are praying for us when we cannot pray for ourselves. It is all these selfless women I stand with today.

Tomorrow, when we rush off to work or run to the gym, stop and say hello to the stranger we see every day during your morning commute. Reach out to our neighbors because they are reaching out to us. We never know how a kind smile or a warm hello could change someone’s day. Remember our bad days and smile. Isn’t that what Real Mothers do? Don’t we usually feel warm with memories of a mother’s touch or kind smile. Just think of the power we have as women. We are so remarkable.

I know one thing, I will live a lot longer if I smile than if I don’t.

The Cancer Attitude

I think there are certain personality types that maybe you are or you become that get you through cancer. (For what it’s worth, I think it’s been the latter for me.) You have to be a bit hard-headed, driven, determined … have tunnel vision, for sure. But most of all, I’ve discovered people with these personality types are too busy getting well to look back. What I mean is, now that I’ve been fighting for three years, one thing I recognize is that I’ve never really stopped to say “Oh, why me,” or “Let’s get angry at God.” Blah, blah, blah, what a waste of my time. All I’ve ever wanted (or want) to do is concentrate on the important things like being around for my children.

Needless to say, I’ve noticed that “we” (meaning those of us who have experienced cancer) stand in this unique position. Sometimes on the outside looking in. We experience things with different eyes. An openness that has no time or patience for anything but cutting right to the chase. For example, our school district (not unlike our government) is going through some growing pains. The community is divided and it is heartbreaking. Everyone is fighting. Everyone needs to be right or they can’t move forward. And the one thing that everyone seems to be missing is that the children are caught in the middle of their very adult struggle. If we could just throw a little cancer into their problems, they could see more clearly. Everything could be put aside, and the children would be what is most important again. Isn’t that a crazy thing to say?

It’s weird, I’ve just recovered from another surgery — I couldn’t even tell you what number it is because there have been far too many — and for the millionth time I’m trying to build up my battered body so I can be strong for my children. Because “we” understand that’s all that’s important in life! THAT IS ALL THAT MATTERS … and at the end of the day, it’s an accomplishment.

My awesome husband, Jere, even bought me a gym membership to help me recover. It’s the first time I’ve been in a gym in three years. Sooo much has changed. But instead of taking it slow like I should for so many reasons, I jumped on the treadmill with the “Bull in the China Shop, Tunnel Vision” attitude I now possess and WENT FOR IT!!  Now I’ll admit, it wasn’t the smartest thing I’ve ever done. I did almost pass out … but HOW GLORIOUS!!! Tears streaming down my face, music blaring in my ears, looking like a lunatic and not caring! What a great feeling.

Compared to the tired person I was in my last post, it is so invigorating to just let it all go. I’m still the same girl that wakes up every day with cancer, but I’m a great mom and every day I make a small difference with my new attitude.

Tired. Just tired.

I’m so tired. I went for chemo today, I looked around the room, and I was just so, so tired. Even the nurses noticed I wasn’t my usual self. Yes, I am very grateful to still be alive, but I can’t help reflecting. It’s all taken such a toll on me. It’s been three years, and I still drive two hours to receive my treatment, get sick, walk it off, then get back in the car and drive the two hours back home. I repeat this every month. All the other patients come and go. No one is ever the same except for me.

I feel numb from it all. I feel defeated. I will continue to fight for a future with everything I have, but I see now that my future will always require tubes and needles and chemicals. It’s exhausting being me. Sometimes I feel like I could slip into a black hole. Of course, I never would, but it’s a heavy burden to carry. My children and family shine the light on my way forward — and I’m so grateful for that — but sometimes lately, when I’m alone, the dark starts to creep in. It’s like being out on the ocean in a small boat and paddling and paddling and paddling but never seeing land. Oh, and the boat has a leak.

I have another surgery scheduled for the end of the month. The pain of recovery and the new problems it usually brings are sometimes so difficult to bear. I don’t cry much because I’m always looking ahead, but tonight is different. As I write and share all this, I am in tears. I’m that tired.

I’ve put so much energy into not accepting my terminal diagnosis that it hit me only today that the tubes and chemicals are really the main reason I’m still alive. All that fighting I’ve done, and, yet, I’m still dependent on drugs, doctors and grueling treatments. I’m tired of being sick!

I am a positive person, so I don’t want the tone of this post to give you all the wrong impression. I believe it’s important to get the negative out sometimes so you can leave it behind. Even the toughest of us still cry. So taking that advice, I guess I will dry my eyes and head for bed. I have an awesome husband waiting for me there.

Time to put my big girl panties back on … my friends are dying out there and I am very blessed to still be HERE. Even when I’m tired.

A Midnight Call for Strength

Let me start today with an apology for not returning to my blog for the last six months. It wasn’t my intention to stop writing. It just happened. All of the sudden, it wasn’t helping me anymore. When I last wrote, I had received a bad PET scan and since then I’ve been struggling with heart and lung problems while continuing my constant monthly chemo. And here’s a shocker … sometimes all the doctors can be so overwhelming!! I’m writing today still without resolving many of those new problems, but I suppose I am moving forward in spite of the unknown.

January, I’ll be sick 3 years. The doctors didn’t believe I would still be here, but I knew I would. And, now, I’m feeling restless. Restless, because I’m just getting sick and tired of the many doctors, all the surgeries and all the pain that is constant in my body. Let me be clear,  I will never give up on me, I will never feel sorry for me, but I will allow me some time to acknowledge the fact that I really hate all this crap. All the doctor appointments and all the time it takes to poke and prod through a diagnosis.

So please allow me to call on all the sick women out there. A new year is around the corner and we need to come together in spirit when the clock strikes midnight. Close our eyes and call to each other for the strength and support women are so good at giving and sharing. We are women on a mission — mothers, sisters, daughter, wives — and we need to push each other through our difficult times. It can be so lonely shouldering this burden alone, trying to be strong for our spouses, our children, our families and friends. But if with stick together, we just might have a chance. The bottom line is that no doctor or other professional has to create our fate or our days spent. We can do that.

So on December 31st at midnight, I’m not gonna waste my time on silly resolutions. I’m gonna use my power to join all the women all over the world to help each other fight this godawful disease. I hope to find some peace in that quite moment. And I hope to share with all of you.

Is it just my imagination? I need to know now

Imagination is a funny thing. As a parent, I’ve loved watching my children at their various stages of development using their imagination in the most remarkable ways. Imagining they are fighting dragons with swords or hosting tea parties filled with impressive people. And as they grow, their imagination grows with them. Imagining they will score the winning goal on the soccer field and be carried off to the roar of the crowd, or playing piano for kings and queens. How marvelous!!!

But for me, not so much. Lately my imagination has been running wild with scenarios no one should have to imagine. A couple of weeks ago, I got a bad PET scan. Not a good thing for a stage 4 cancer patient. Of course, the doctors want to put me through stages of grueling tests to rule out this and that, but I already know. … Or do I? Is it my imagination running wild or is the cancer really back?

I am a fighter not willing to sit around and wait for them to take more tests and compare this to that, so I must find the truth quickly. I don’t have the luxury that children do to allow my imagination to run wild. I must push my doctors to upturn every stone. I need to know what I’m up against.

I realize this is probably not a good thing, but I am in battle mode now. I have my sword out, and the fighting begins again.

Coming Out of Hibernation

It’s been a while.

I know some of you must be wondering why I haven’t posted in awhile, and I do apologize for that. I have been healing from major surgery and finding my new normal.  They say God doesn’t give you more than you can handle … well, God must think I’m a real Bad Ass!!

sunheartIt’s been quite an uphill battle these last few months, and, as spring comes in, I am beginning to emerge from my hibernation. I will say that from the minute I started getting back on my feet, my friends and family have been so happy to see me. I am so fortunate. I show up at a girlfriend’s birthday party or a friends Bat Mitzvah and I’m greeted with such warmth. Maybe because I’m sick I notice everything more, but I look into my friends eyes and there is such genuine pleasure for me, that I am doing well and out and about. I know I have said this before, but I’m so blessed.

As I turn another year older — or, to be more precise, as I turn another year older surviving with cancer — I am grateful for the new year. Grateful that, despite all that the doctors have told me, I am able to celebrate another birthday. It’s funny because if anyone would have ever said I’d be happy to be 48, I would have thought they were high. So today I not only celebrate another year but I celebrate joining my family at the dinner table again. I celebrate attending my kids soccer games and volunteering at their schools. I treasure getting back outside and starting to walk again with the air on my face and my music blaring in my ears. I look forward to going to the movies and out to dinner with my husband. And I love shopping with my mom.

So just a little advice …  when your head hits your pillow tonight, dream of your children laughing, dream of a beautiful sunny day, dream of that perfect ice cream cone and dream of another day.

Living … for the big events and everything in between

Two years ago, right around this time, my doctors told me that I wouldn’t be alive for long. Wow, what a pill to swallow. You see, I was talking to the doctor about my son’s Bar Mitzvah and how it was set for November of 2012 … and he said I wouldn’t make it. He was saying that I wouldn’t see my son on the day he would become a man in the eyes of Jewish law, not to mention all the other things I wouldn’t be here for. But I was determined to prove him wrong. That very day, after I left the doctor’s office, I went home and put down a deposit on a venue for my son’s party.

Viki and Dell on the day after the Bar Mitzvah

Viki and Dell are all smiles on the day after the Bar Mitzvah

And, as you might have noticed, I’M STILL HERE! Last week, I stood on the pulpit with my son and my family and witnessed my son become a Bar Mitzvah. The emotions that I have experienced in the past week are unforgettable. I’m here today to tell the world how proud I am of my son, my family and myself. How surreal is that?!

I will remember that day as one of the greatest in my life. I was surrounded by my family and friends who love me. I could feel their emotions too, pulling me into their warmth and willing me to make my future dreams come true.

I danced!! I did … I danced and laughed and really enjoyed myself. I have been planning this event for two years, and it was everything that I wanted it to be and more. It was such a fun party. Dell had a great time with his friends, and every time I looked at him, he was shining. I think he may have changed a bit himself that day. Today, he seems to walk with more confidence. I think he’s going to be OK. He will make a fine man someday. And no matter what my future holds, no one can take away my part in helping my son grow into the kind of man that would make any mom proud.

Now, as I bask in the warm glow of memories of that day, one thing is clear about the past two years. Having that important event to look forward to gave me huge incentive to drive myself harder and harder every day so I could be there for my son. There wasn’t anything that would prevent me from keeping my promise to my son that I was going to share that special day in his life.

My daughter turned 10 last week, which means her Bat Mitzvah is in three years. The year 2015. I can do this. I know this goal is further away than the first one was, but I’m very capable when I set my mind on something. Besides, I’ve always treated my children equally … why would I change that now? If I was there for Dell’s big day, I must now be there for Bella’s big day as well. So as I write this today, I’m making a promise to myself, my daughter and to my family that I will do whatever it takes to be here on this earth for her special day. Everyone out there who may be reading this, I ask you to help me push forward and continue to keep the inner strength that I know I possess to keep my promise to my daughter.

Family and big family moments are what drive me forward. And it’s also important for me to have a focus within a focus. What I mean by that is, I wake up every day and I walk when it hurts and I take my meds that make me sick and I go about my day with positive energy and joy that today is Monday or Tuesday.

But, make no mistake, I will also wake up and mark my calendar and think, “OK, how many days until Bella’s Bat Mitzvah? Is there anything I need to book or order in advance to ensure her a perfect day? Because her mom is going to enjoy another family moment.” Because her mom is strong!!

A Different Kind of Bucket List

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I didn’t think of all the things I haven’t done yet or all the things I need to get done. I thought of my family. Because I have young children, my first thoughts were of them. Wanting to see them grow up, to become responsible adults … and know I had something to do with that. My dreams have been concrete: of weddings and Bar and Bat Mitzvahs, of first dates, of my son’s first shave, of my daughter’s first period, of teaching them both to drive. It was never of all the places I may have once dreamed of going. As a mom with young kids and cancer, I look at things differently than I might at another stage of life. Sure, I used to dream of the places I wanted to travel to when my kids were off to college and I didn’t need to work anymore. But then I got cancer and just didn’t care about that anymore.

Not only are my priorities wrapped up in my children, but so are my finances. Cancer, if you don’t already know, is an extremely expensive disease. There’s the loss of work and income, the health and drug expenses and so on. So concern for my children’s financial future also plays a part in my life plan. All I ever wanted was to have my family secure and happy and be there to take part in it.

But a girl can always dream, can’t she?!! Almost every summer since I was a kid myself, my family has gone to the beach. As a child, it’s a wonderful happy time to run in the sand and play in the water. And as a parent, it’s wonderful to watch your children have those moments. So one of the things I had long wanted to do was go to the beach for longer than a week. (I could rarely get off work for more than that). Last summer, I was knee deep in radiation treatments in Indiana, which means our family hasn’t been to the beach — or barely anywhere, for that matter — in two years. We really deserved a break!

So awhile ago, I started to plot. Now that I’m on maintenance chemo, it finally seemed possible. I spoke with my doctors about rearranging my meds so that I could take some time off. Everyone pulled together to make this happen. At the beginning of July, I grabbed the family and our new puppy, headed to the beach, and didn’t come back until the months end. What a glorious time we had!! The kids buried themselves in the sand, jumped the ocean waves and ate all the junk food they could stomach. I got to put my feet in the sand and feel the ocean spray on my face. I even went down the volcano water slides with my kids and husband!!!!

Poor Jere was so worried because sun and someone who’s just been through radiation don’t exactly mix, but I wore my goofy hat with pride and sat under two umbrellas and had the time of my life. My kids would ask me, “What are our plans for today, Mom?” and I would answer, “ANYTHING WE WANT THEM TO BE!!!!” What a contrast to our day-to-day life that is usually overscheduled with either my doctor appointments or their activities. And the best part was, if they wanted to change their minds, they could. We were free to do anything we wanted. It was glorious.

Though I’m home now and back to all my doctor appointments and busy schedule, I can still close my eyes and smell the ocean breeze on my face. I smile. I may not have a bucket list, but I sure did make a dream come true this summer … cancer and all.

Weighty Issues


I decided to go to a cancer dietitian. I’ve been so confused about what are the right foods to eat and what aren’t. Take milk, for example. For the past year, I’ve been drinking soy milk because I was told cow’s milk and dairy products aren’t good for cancer patients. Then I find out that soy milk is loaded with estrogen, which doesn’t seem like such a good thing for someone whose breast cancer is estrogen-driven. So I went to the specialist and really learned a lot.

The first thing I learned was that, yes, soy does have estrogen … but it’s still better then cow’s milk and there’s not enough estrogen in it to really be harmful to me.  But, if I’m still worried, almond milk makes a nice alternative.

And, I wanted to know, just how important is it to eat organic? I mean, I want to eat what’s good for me, but I don’t want to go broke. Here’s what the dietician’s advice basically comes down to:

  • Spend your money on organic, grass-fed chicken and turkey (corn has lots of hormones that are bad for cancer patients). Wild-caught fish is worth it, too.
  • Save your money on vegetables and fruit by buying only in-season and locally grown. When you stick to the stuff grown close to home, she said, there’s no compelling reason to buy organic. It’s less costly and more healthy. The reason you want to stay away from out-of-season produce — even if it’s labeled organic — is because chances are it’s from out of the country and you never know what “organic” means on produce grown outside the United States.
  • Eating nutrients from your own environment is good for you. Organic, locally grown honey, for example, has properties that are best for the people living in the region it’s made in.

The dietician explained to me that all the major chemo and radiation I went through (different from the maintenance chemo I’m currently on) killed all the cancer cells, and now the idea is to replace those cells with healthy cells. The more healthy cells I have, the better my immune system is and the stronger I can be for future fights against those nasty cancer cells. (That’s life with Stage 4 cancer: always shoring up for the next big battle.)

It was interesting learning about the different foods and what they can do for the body. Carrots, yams, tomatoes, garlic and flax seed oil are highly recommended because each has properties that are particularly helpful to breast cancer patients. Processed foods are highly discouraged. Anything with carotene and other antioxidants are excellent cancer fighters. And don’t forget the fiber … we all know what that’s for. Other fantastic veggie and fruit choices on her list included kale, spinach, broccoli, legumes, tree nuts, strawberries, cantaloupe and blueberries.

I left the dietician’s office determined to do as much of this as possible. (See a few meal ideas below.)

So the question is, how do I find the right balance? I want to enjoy the life I’m living, and eating bark and dirt is not my idea of living. I’ve pretty much cut out all red meat, switched my chicken, fish and turkey to organic, and try to eat fruits, veggies, greek yogurt and nuts. But I still eat some processed foods. And unless you’re a truly dedicated vegan, you’ve got to have your chocolate and treats once in a while.

I’m trying. I really am.

That’s why I was so bummed when I went back for a second visit and discovered I hadn’t lost any weight. I couldn’t believe it. The dietician assured me that, diet-wise, I was doing as much as any of us can do. But here’s the thing I didn’t know:

Almost all cancer patients lose weight (that’s what makes many of them look so ill). Just my luck, though, breast cancer patients usually GAIN weight. HOW CRAZY UNFAIR IS THAT??? I mean, really. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I thought the one good thing about it was that I could count on dropping those extra pounds I’ve always been trying to lose. If I have to be sick, the least I can be is skinny, for crying out loud! I looked at this woman wide-eyed, and she just laughed at me. Afterward, I asked around and it seems she’s right; many breast cancer patients do gain weight. Usually it’s the fault of the medications we take and the changes our reproductive system goes through. So basically, we are all screwed!!!

So she goes on to tell me that, despite all the weighty forces of evil against me, the good news is that I’ve maintained my weight in the 6 months since the initial gain after radiation treatments. She attributes it to the fact that I’m walking most mornings and trying to eat right. I know that’s something to be grateful for — but now and then I do wish for my flat stomach again.

* * *

A few ideas for quick and delicious meals fit for a Stage 4 cancer patient

Breakfast
Greek yogurt with cinnamon or cinnamon in organic oatmeal, or cinnamon on shredded wheat with unsweetened almond milk (the vanilla’s not bad). Top any of these breakfast dishes with flax seed powder for an extra boost of fiber, antioxidants and essential fatty acids.

Lunch
Whole fruit preserves with a not-too-thick layer of organic peanut butter on whole wheat bread. It’s a very satisfying in a stick-to-your-ribs kind of way.

Dinner
Organic chicken tenders sautéed in flax seed oil and fresh garlic — get the garlic in the pan no more than 10 minutes after cutting or it  will lose properties — along with grape tomatoes and spinach (or broccoli or kale). Toss it with some whole wheat pasta and you’ll have a well-balanced, healthy dinner with a wide variety of the specific properties you’re supposed to eat. If it seems a little dry, you can use a little organic non-fat chicken broth, too.