breast cancer

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.

Good Intentions

I finally had a little time away from doctor appointments and went to my favorite store, Target. The greatest store ever!!! Anyway, I was happily shopping when I sort of noticed a woman following me around the store. It took some time, but she finally did approach me. I was wearing my compression sleeve and glove, as I always do, and she pointed it out and asked if I had cancer. I said yes, and she went on to say she’d also had breast cancer, stage one, and she’d had to wear a sleeve as well.

Then she told me she no longer has to wear one and it will get better for me, too. Her intentions were good. She told me her daughter also had cancer and her niece had stage 4 breast cancer. I told her I also had stage 4 breast cancer. She gave me a hug and we spoke for a while, as I said I was in a good mood. Shopping does that for me!!

So I let my guard down and asked “the question”: “How’s your niece doing?” She just gave me this horrified look. She knew what she had done. She’s gone, she said. Tears started rolling down my face. Crying … in Target, my favorite store. Why did I ask that question??? Deep down I knew the answer, but I had to, was compelled to, ask.

Why is it when people find out you have cancer they have to share every cancer story they know with you?!?! My sister had cancer, my brother had cancer, my best friend, my mom, on and on and on. I left Target and went straight home so exhausted from tears that I slept the afternoon away. I’d been having a good day until I met a well-intentioned “cancer sharer,” as I call people like her. And just like that, I was no longer having a good day.

Everyone has a different way of sharing. Some people talk, some people write, some people need time and space. I’m writing now, but it’s taken me two years to get here. I didn’t even tell my family or friends about my blog until a couple of weeks ago. When I’m out and about, I don’t want to hear anybody’s sad stories of dying from cancer!!! However, I may be interested in hearing about SURVIVING. Stories of hope, strength and encouragement should be shared, but, even then, only if the person you are talking with wants to hear them.

I recently heard that a friend of mine is ill. I want to help her. I want to offer her advice, to take some of the burden off of her. But is that in her best interest … or mine? I’m torn because I don’t think we should have to go through this all alone. We’re strong women with children and active lives and we are fighting cancer … and that means something! On the other hand, I sure don’t want to become an unwelcome “sharer.”

So how do we know if they want to be heard? I suppose we need to ask before we speak. We women have got to stick together and encourage positive thoughts instead of focusing on horror stories. Who benefits from depressing discussions of illness?

I will say one good thing did come from this experience: The woman I met in Target did think I was in my early 30s. As a woman in her mid-40s who is being pumped full of cell-killing drugs, I have to say I was very pleased with myself. So that is what I will remember when I go back to Target. Because no one is going to ruin my favorite shopping store with negative vibes.

Cancer’s Made Me Smarter … In a Good Way

I think cancer has made me smarter. If that’s possible? My mom and I were talking today about nothing particularly special and she mentioned that she thinks I’ve changed. Not in the “oh-my, I’ve-found-God” kind of way, but in subtle ways. I think she’s right, and I like it.

It didn’t start right away. It’s been a slow transition for me. I’m just not so uptight about certain things. Examining it now, I think I feel calmer. So strange. A doctor basically tells me I’m gonna die, and somehow I’m calmer.

I also think that many of my family members have changed as well. My mom and I, who have always had a good relationship, now have a better one. I think we trust each other more. She has been by my side every step of the way. Every step. Every doctor appointment. Slept in the hospital with me. Moved halfway across the country with me for treatment for two months. And maybe it’s because we are with each other so much or maybe because we cut to the chase more. I’m not sure when it happened, but we don’t irritate each other anymore (like so many mothers and daughters do). We’ve been totally together in this fight for my life. And we’ve come to realize that no other fights matter. We’ve become so comfortable with each other, and we look at each other with profound deepened respect. She respects me for my determination, and I respect her for her unwavering support. Cancer has changed us both.

My father, brother and sister have all slowly grown different as well. I think what they all have in common is that they are more open with me. Somehow more approachable. At the beginning, we were all so scared but as time goes on we are still scared but we have insight. We have come together, we make more time for each other. It’s so nice. I think maybe cancer has made us nicer. Wow, how weird is that. Just when you think you should be angry, you’re not. Funny how that works.

I don’t sweat the small stuff anymore, and that feels good. Don’t get me wrong, I still worry. But I worry about the right things. Not worrying about the small things is such a relief.

I like me better now.

Boobs

When I first got my prothesis during the holiday season, I came home and showed off my new silhouette to my family. I was so proud to have a figure again. What I didn’t realize was how pleased my children were for me. Just as my extended family all started piling into my house to share the holiday meal, my 12-year-old son points to my chest with a huge proud smile on his face and says, “Hey, look what Mom got!!”

For a moment, with my family members still bundled in their coats and perched on threshold of my home, there was nothing but silence. Then they all looked at me, and we all started cracking up.

At first my son was a bit worried he’d done something wrong. He sheepishly said he thought it was OK to tell family, and I assured him that it was fine but hoped he would refrain from telling the mailman and bus driver … what a sweet boy I have!!  I’m so lucky to have such a nice family. So caring. So supportive.

As I learn more about breast cancer, I realize how many differences there can be from person to person, from case to case. In my case, everything is so difficult. Being Stage 4 is not very convenient.

I speak with other women who have had or are living with breast cancer, and everyone’s story is different. For me, I had a double mastectomy about a year ago, and I’m still so far from getting reconstruction. And when I do begin reconstruction, I’m told it will take three or four surgeries. It seems to me everyone I speak to has been either able to have reconstruction at the same time as the mastectomy or within 3 months’ time. I’m a year and counting.

Something is always going wrong. Now granted, I do have Stage 4, so things are a bit trickier. But I didn’t really understand, I guess. Most people I know think it’s crazy that I want to get reconstruction given all I’ve been through and maybe what’s ahead of me, but, right now, I’m determined. Not necessarily for vanity, but for various reasons.

One, I am determined to survive this disease even given my odds. Why should I assume otherwise?

Two, wearing a prosthesis has a major downside. It may look nice under my sweater, but my chest gets all bruised and irritated. When I move one way, it moves another. (I have an expander on my right side, so I wear a prosthesis only on my left.) I want to be able to feel like my breasts are connected  to my body … a part of me. Even though I know they won’t be the same in any way they once were.

And three, my family will be happy if I do this. Let me be clear: I have a great husband and two wonderful kids who love me no matter what and put no pressure on me to get breasts. But I think that, collectively, we will all feel better if I do. I’m not sure if it’s a little bit of, well, … trying to forget I’m sick.  My current deformed body is a constant reminder of my illness. It would be nice to look prettier and maybe be able to forget once in awhile. Is that so bad?? Is it so bad that my family wants that too??