ONE YEAR LATER

One year ago today I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember that moment as if it were yesterday. Reading those words that would change my life forever. I remember the room feeling as if it were spinning. I left work immediately and called Luke. I knew he was in class but I sat in my car just calling him over and over again. He answered and I don’t even remember what I said to him, I was so hysterical. He was in the middle of a test and just got up and left class and drove home. I will never forget pulling up in the driveway and seeing him standing in the front door, the look on his face broke my heart. I collapsed in his arms. I remember saying over and over again “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die. I want to stay with you. I don’t want to die.” I cried harder than I ever have in my life that day, as all the life I still had to live seemed as if it were just taken away from me.

Its crazy that it has been 365 days since then. In a way it seems like that was a lifetime ago. Cancer is still such a presence in my life. I still haven’t gone an entire day without thinking about cancer. But instead of thinking about it 1,000 times a day I am probably down to 100 times a day, and for that I am grateful. It’s hard not to assume that every ache and pain is the cancer spreading through my body. Sometimes I am literally frozen in fear when I have a new pain in my hip, or weird feeling in my side. But then I will have moments where I actually have to stop and think “did that really happen to me?” Sometimes it feels like it didn’t really happen, like it was all a bad dream.

I have to admit, as much as I am thankful that I am still here to see this day come, I have also had a tremendous amount of anxiety about it. I have been relieving those moments and it has been overwhelming. It’s just so painful. As much as I love the month of October I wont be upset to see it end. Each day is another reminder of some of the worst and most terrifying days of my life. But I am certain that with each year that passes these “anniversaries” will become less and less anxiety provoking.

Life is back to normal. I will never take for granted doing normal things ever again. When you’ve seen bad, you know what good is and my life is GOOD! I returned to work at the end of May and am now back to taking care of those sweet tiny infants I love so much. I had my final reconstructive surgery in July and that marked the official END to my breast cancer treatments! I just had my 3 month check up with my oncologist, at which she told me everything was “perfect”, and I wont see my breast surgeon or plastic surgeon until next year! What a lucky girl I am.

So what is next for me? 191 days left of  grad school and 303 days until I marry the love of my life and become Mrs. Thompson🙂 Life has never seemed brighter and I have a lot of life left to live. I wouldn’t have made it through the last year without the support of my Lucas, parents, family , friends, and all of you that have prayed for me, encouraged me, and cheered me on. Thank you will never be enough.

For anyone out there going through this now know that you are not alone. You can fight and you can win. You can still have the future you always wanted-cancer can only take from you what you allow it to. Laugh when something is funny, cry when you are scared, and know you don’t always have to hold yourself together. Lean on the people you love most in the world. Just keep telling yourself “this is not how my story is going to end.” Keep fighting. Even in your darkest moments. Fight like a girl!

Here are pictures from the past year. Starting with a couple weeks before my diagnosis and ending with pictures from a couple of weeks ago. You can click on the pictures to make them bigger.

Surgery, tissue expanders, and drains, oh my..

During this entire process I have been obsessed with searching the internet to find blogs and pictures of women who have had breast cancer and mastectomy’s so I could somewhat know what to expect. I want this blog to serve the same purpose for other women who are facing a mastectomy. That being said, some of this info and pictures may be TMI for some but I am hoping it will help other women in my same situation.

On March 12th I had my bilateral mastectomy and right sentinel node biopsy. I also had tissue expanders placed during the surgery, which is the beginning of the reconstruction process. I woke up very early that morning, around 4 AM. I wanted to allow extra time for myself to shower and say goodbye to my breasts. As I showered that morning and washed my breasts with the pre surgical scrub I had a bit of an emotional meltdown. It suddenly hit me that this would be the last time I would ever see or feel my real breasts, and something deep inside of me began to ache. As the tears flowed I finished my shower, dried off, and looked at myself in the mirror. This would be the last time I would ever see this familiar reflection. I stood there and looked at myself for what seemed like a lifetime, wiped the tears from my eyes, and got dressed. I had said my final goodbye. That is the last time I ever saw my breasts, I didn’t look at them again before surgery.

I honestly was not all that nervous in the pre-op area. This was the day I had been “preparing” myself for for the last 5 months and I was ready for it to be over. I didn’t even cry or get emotional until right before they wheeled me out and I said goodbye to my parents and my Lucas. I held it together hugging and kissing my parents. Luke was the last one I hugged and kissed before they wheeled me into the OR and I instantly got teary eyed. I feel like I am a pretty strong woman..except when it comes to him. I remember asking him ” everything is going to be ok, right?” to which he replied “Yes, love, everything is going to be fine.” and just like that I was instantly calm and at peace. The next thing I remember is waking up in recovery, in that foggy state of mind that only those who have been under anesthesia themselves can understand. The first thing I asked the recovery nurse was about my lymph nodes. I wanted to know if cancer had been found in my lymph nodes, to which she replied NO! I cried for what seemed like hours. Even though my family and Luke already knew that my lymph nodes were negative I just kept telling them over and over again “my lymph nodes were negative, my lymph nodes were negative.” 5 months of constant worry and anxiety had been calmed. Prayers had been answered. The cancer had not spread into my lymph nodes and I couldn’t seem to quit saying it over and over again.

My night in the hospital was interesting to say the least, but I wont go into much about that. Let’s just say that being a nurse was not in my favor while being in the hospital; I know the correct way things are supposed to be done, so when they aren’t done that way its beyond unnerving. I was very thankful that I only had to stay there one night.

The first few days at home are kind of a blur. Filled with emptying drains, scheduled pain meds, and the never ending attempt to get comfortable. I have two drains, one on each side. They have to be stripped, emptied, and the output recorded every few hours. Thank God for Luke. I could barely move my arms those first few days and he did all of my drain care those first few days. He didn’t even flinch while emptying drains filled with blood and clots. He carefully and meticulously sanitized the tubes and emptied them every few hours. He also got me up and made me do my arm exercises, which I was less than excited about, but very grateful he did because I already have improved motility in my arms. I wasn’t able to shower until 48 hours post op and wasn’t allowed to get the drain sites wet. Luke wrapped me in saran wrap, put my drains in a fanny pack that we put around my neck and helped shower me. I would have loved to have been a fly on the wall during that experience because I can only imagine what a hilarious sight that was to see. I am not sure what I ever did to deserve the love that Luke has for me. He is and always will be my greatest blessing. The end and the beginning to my life. He has done everything in his power to protect me, take care of me, and keep me as comfortable as possible. I never envisioned at the beginning of our relationship that he would one day be caring for drains coming out of my side, bathing me, helping me get dressed, waiting on me hand and foot, but he has, and is doing so with nothing but pure love and devotion . I am the luckiest girl in the world to have him by my side.

Monday, March 17th I got the call from my oncologist about my pathology report. The chemotherapy didn’t kill as much of the cancer as we had hoped it would but my lymph nodes were clear and we got clear margins (meaning all of the tumor had been removed and there was no other cancer found anywhere else in my breast). Even though she was disappointed with the chemo my oncologist said this was an excellent pathology report and said the words I had been waiting to hear for the past 5 months, “You are cancer free!” I will not be requiring any additional chemotherapy and will not have to have radiation! Hallelujah!

So my job now is to relax and heal. I had read prior to this that the drains were the worse part of this experience and boy were they right! Every little movement I make pulls at the drains, the sutures are constantly sticking my side and its almost impossible to be anywhere near comfortable with them in. The max amount of time they can stay in is 3 weeks which will be April 2 but I am praying they can come out sooner.

This is how I have been sleeping every night. 9 pillows. Yes, 9 pillows. Note Luke’s one pillow next to my mountain of pillows. We laugh about this every night, as I am not even able to see him laying next to me. I am glad he and I can always find the humor in any situation.

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The next picture is of my left breast incision and one of my drains. The right side of my body looks the exact same.

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This is how I carry my drains around. I’m bringing the fanny pack back! And don’t be jealous of my ever-stylish outfit either😉

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I will see my plastic surgeon when its time to take the drains out and they will begin to expand the tissue expanders as well. They will inject saline weekly into my expanders until I am at a size I want and then I will have the surgery to switch out the expanders for a permanent implant.

I am not great at explaining things so here is a visual at how the expanders are filled.

tissue expander

I am beyond blessed to have one of the only breast surgeons in area that will perform a nipple sparing and skin sparing mastectomy. Meaning the only thing removed is the breast tissue itself, not the skin or nipples. The tissue behind both nipples was biopsied to ensure there was no cancer in the nipple and they both came back negative!. Looking at me you would never know I had a mastectomy, other than the bruising, incisions, and drains of course :) I honestly don’t look much different than I did before and am very confident that I will look even better than I did once this process is all over!

I am going to end this entry with this exciting news..not that I haven’t already told everyone in the tri-state area:)

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Luke proposed to me on March 1st!!!  It was without a doubt the best moment of my life. Already starting the planning for the wedding which will likely be in August of 2015!

THANK YOU for all the prayers over the last few months!!! They have been answered and I am one blessed girl! I am ready to take my life back and FINALLY close this chapter.

So, here’s to health, life, love, happiness, and……. KICKING CANCER’S ASS!!!!

Just keep swimming..

I realized today that I haven’t posted any updates in over a month so here we go..:)

The last week in December I started my weekly Taxol treatments. The original plan was for 12 weekly treatments followed by surgery. My oncologist felt that 12 may be “overkill” so we have decided on 8 weekly treatments before surgery. My last chemo is scheduled for February 14-Happy Valentine’s Day to me! Depending upon the final pathology report after surgery I may or may not have more chemo. If the final pathology report shows absolutely no signs of cancer then I will be done with chemo! However, if it shows even the slightest amount of residual cancer I will finish out my Taxol treatments. Only about 30% of patients experience a pathologic complete response to chemo so I am preparing myself for a couple more rounds after surgery.

Compared to the A/C Taxol has been a breeze. I have read that the side effects of Taxol seem to have a cumulative effect, meaning the side effects get worse as the weeks go on. I have found this to be true. Every week that passes I feel a little bit more fatigued and run down. I am also starting to experience tingling sensations in my hands and feet and more joint and muscle pain. Even with these side effects I would take the Taxol over the A/C any day! I have been preparing myself for the loss of my eyebrows and eyelashes from the beginning, which thanks to the Taxol I have also started to lose. Compared to losing my hair the eyebrows/lashes haven’t been as upsetting. I do feel like I have officially moved into the “cancer patient” look but I guess that’s just part of it.

The most exciting announcement is that my hair is starting to grow back in!!!! It seems so strange to me that Taxol takes my eyebrows/lashes but allows my hair to grow- but I will take it! I have found that I am obsessing as much over my hair growing back in as I did about losing my hair. I sit and stare at my hair in the mirror for what seems like hours-just cheering it on-GO SPROUTS GO!!

These are pictures taken last Saturday, Feb. 1. This is 7 weeks after my last A/C treatment. I am going to try to take weekly pictures to track my progress.

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School started about a month ago and so far everything is going very well. My professors could not be more supportive or helpful. Although, I must admit, every time one of them mentions the possibility of me taking an incomplete for the semester or suggests that I drop to part time the fire inside of me grows stronger and stronger. I WILL graduate in May of 2015! Cancer can’t stop me! I read this quote this morning: “Courage is looking fear right in the eye and saying “Get the hell out of my way, I’ve got things to do.”” How perfect.

Now on to surgery. Both my medical oncologist and breast surgeon have recommended a lumpectomy with radiation. Current studies have found that the overall survival rate is the same between lumpectomy and mastectomy. Recurrence rate for a mastectomy is about 3 % and is slightly higher with a lumpectomy. I have been so focused on the chemotherapy that I had almost forgotten about the decision of surgery. I was initially overwhelmed by this decision. Anyone who knows me knows I tend to be very indecisive and now I am being faced with the biggest, most important decision of my life. What is the lesser of the two evils? Neither is the option I want. What I want is for this whole thing to have never happened. It is so incredibly surreal to me that this is what I am contemplating at this time in my life. This isn’t how I envisioned my life. Deciding between breast cancer surgeries, one of them being the complete removal of my breasts at 25 years old? No, definitely not what I had expected to be doing. I sometimes feel like I am not far enough along the grieving process as I should be. I feel like by now I should be completely in “fighter mode”, which I am, but I find myself still being very angry and sad. Still crying most every day. I am just so angry that this is happening to me. I miss my old life and want it back desperately. I shouldn’t be bald, with a port in my chest, receiving weekly chemotherapy treatments, contemplating surgery. I shouldn’t have the thoughts of not being around to watch my children grow up or not being able to grow old with Luke. It’s not fair. These are the fears and thoughts that have led me to my decision. I have chosen to have a bilateral mastectomy. This may not increase my odds of long term survival but at least I will know I have done everything I can to rid my body of this horrible disease. We have been very aggressive in terms of chemotherapy so how can I not be as equally as aggressive surgically? If the cancer wants to come back, it will. I know that there is nothing I can do to completely stop that. But if that ever did happen I don’t want to look back and regret the decision I am making now.  In the end it doesn’t come down to textbooks or statistics, or odds, or what others think I should do. It comes down to what is the best decision for me personally. What will give me the most peace of mind? And for me that is a bilateral mastectomy.

As odd as it may sound I am not sad about the thought of losing my breasts. At this point all my breasts represent to me is illness. Heartache. Cancer. They no longer make me feel womanly, or attractive. They honestly just feel so medical if that makes any sense; just a constant reminder of this whole nightmare. What makes me sad is the fact that I will never be able to feed my babies. It won’t even be a possibility. Something that my body was specifically made to do is being taken away. It’s more than a physical loss, it’s such a personal and deep loss. A cellular loss. What I fear is looking in the mirror for the first time and learning to accept and love my new body. I fear I won’t ever be able to do that, but I will just deal with that when I get there. As terrible of an experience this has been I know that this too shall pass. This cancer cannot take anything away from me that I don’t let it take. I will find light out of all this darkness. 2014 is the year I will become cancer free and move from breast cancer patient to breast cancer survivor! The year I put this all behind me and move forward. What a beautiful year it will be.

Surgery is scheduled for Wednesday March 12. I will stay one night in the hospital and then recovery is said to be about 8 weeks. Please, everyone keep your fingers crossed that I have a great final pathology report and can officially be DONE with chemo!

Once again, thank you for all of your love, support, and prayers. I know that I am not in this alone. And for that I am eternally grateful.

One Step Closer

The past few weeks have been pleasantly uneventful. Last week I finished up my second semester of graduate school and I couldn’t be happier! When I was first diagnosed the thought of continuing school was overwhelming. I couldn’t imagine being able to concentrate on studying and going to class with all of this going on. I wanted to give up. I wanted to give in to my desire to hide out, try to sleep through this process. But then I went back to my first blog posting and reread the words “I am NOT cancer.” I couldn’t and wouldn’t let this stop every dream I have ever had. I have little control over my life right now, but this is one area I can control. So I made a vow to myself that I would give school my all and graduate on time in May 2015. I could not have done this however without the amazing group of girls I have beside me. I work with these ladies and we are all in the same class together as well. Lauren, Sarah, Allison, and Katie, I will never be able to thank you enough for what you’ve done for me these last few weeks. Thank you all for being my friend. Thank you for encouraging me, supporting me, and pushing me to succeed. Thank you for sitting beside me when I told the rest of our class what was going on. Thank you for making me feels normal and laughing through the tears with me. I have been blessed with your friendships and I love you all so very much.

 

Last week was also my last of the 4 Adriamycin/Cytoxan treatments. I am one step closer to the finish line! On December 27 I will begin my 1st of 12 weekly Taxol treatments. I am hopeful that the weekly Taxol will be easier on me than the A/C. I have read that some people even start to have hair growth on Taxol, but I am trying to not get my hopes up with that. I will be so happy when I am finally finished with all chemo treatments (tentatively March 14). Chemo so far has been rough and I am so very thankful for the good days that I have.

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This has not only been hard on a physical level but on a very emotional level as well. Lately I find myself constantly going back and looking at pictures of myself before my diagnosis. I sit and stare at the person in those pictures, the one with the long brown hair and genuine smile. I find myself being jealous of her. That girl didn’t know pain, or suffering, or fear. I so badly want to go back to those days, just to feel that innocence one more time. To wake up and not think about cancer or look into the mirror and cry. How I wish I wouldn’t have taken my health for granted before. I find myself a lot of times being very angry and wishing this wasn’t happening to me. It is very easy to have a pity party for yourself. But then I think about my life now compared to two months ago and I am so proud of myself. Look how far I have come in such a short period of time. Look at what I have accomplished; the heartbreaking decisions that I have made and worked through. This experience has shown me what I am made of and how truly strong I am. It has shown me what is really important in life. I know now there is nothing I cannot do…how priceless is that?! It has also made me truly appreciate every moment. I never realized before how lucky I am just to wake up every morning. Before this the thought of getting married, having babies, watching them grow, and growing old with the one I love were all experiences I felt I was entitled to. Now, these are the experiences I live for, the experiences I fight for. What a privilege it is to grow old. I feel lucky that I now have this appreciation for life. I will never again take anything for granted. I am blessed with an amazing family and fabulous, supportive friends. To my Lucas- I fight every day for a lifetime with you.

Thank you all for the prayers, love, encouragement, and the most selfless and beautiful acts I have ever witnessed. I am truly humbled by all that I have received. What a lucky girl I am.  

 

The New Me

Well, just as I had been told, exactly 14 days after my first chemo treatment my hair started to fall out. I thought I had prepared myself but seeing my brown hair fall out in clumps hurt more than I could have ever imagined. I knew what I had to do. So with a big pep talk and an even bigger glass of wine my sweet Lucas buzzed my head..and then let me buzz his🙂 It was almost a relief. The moment I had dreaded for so long was finally over and now I could move on. With the little hair I have left now falling out I am now trying to accept the new face I see in the mirror. I don’t know who this person is; feels more like the shadow of the girl I used to be. Its not like I didn’t know this would happen. But knowing you have cancer and looking like you have cancer are two totally different things. I am allowing myself time to mourn the loss of my hair. As silly as it may sound it truly feels like a death to me. I know I will move past this and learn to embrace the new me. The space that my hair left behind is now filled with that much more determination and fight. I will not quit until I have won this battle. Cancer messed with the wrong woman!

I decided I wanted to film this experience. Once this is all over with and far behind me I want to be able to look back and see how far I came and how truly strong I am. My sweet Dad edited the film and made it into a video. He did a great job! Thank you, Dad! 

Here is the edited version…

https://docs.google.com/file/d/0B2TFV5oElTYLT2NZcV9XOXpDa3M/edit

And in case anyone is in the mood to watch a movie, here is the entire 38 min video. ..

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KGuDVKStlyI&feature=youtu.be

 

 

 

My New Normal

By now most people know about my recent cancer diagnosis. I have been told that journaling is a great way to aid in the coping process. My hope is that this blog serves as a way to help me deal with and heal from this experience and also give me the opportunity to share my story.

On October 15, 2013, sitting at work in the NICU of Kosair Children’s Hospital, I logged onto Mychart and pulled up the pathology report of my recent breast biopsy. It was then that I read the words that changed my life forever. Mammary Carcinoma. I remember reading these words over and over trying to make sense of what I was seeing. This cannot be right. How is this possible? I’m only 25 years old. A million things instantly went through my mind. I instantly viewed this as a death sentence. I felt robbed of every dream I ever had for my life. I would never be able to finish school and become a nurse practitioner, I would never be able to get married or have babies or grow old with the man I love. I felt cheated and angry at my body for betraying me.

So many things happened during those first two weeks. My first appointment was with my breast surgeon, Dr. Berry, who went over my diagnosis and treatment options. I had it in my mind that all’s this would require was some radiation and a lumpectomy and then it would all be over. Unfortunately, this is not the news I got that day. Going through my options Dr. Berry said the one word I had tried so hard to keep hidden and locked away, chemotherapy. I instantly dropped my head into my hands and cried harder than I have ever cried before. I know in the scheme of things losing my hair seems like such a small sacrifice. I loved my long hair and had no plans of ever cutting it short. It was part of what made me, me and the thought of losing it all was almost more than I could take. Chemotherapy was not the only upsetting discussion that day. Dr. Berry explained the importance of me being tested for the BRCA1/2 genes. She explained that if I am a carrier of the genes I have something like a 50% chance of the cancer coming back. This would mean that if I am a carrier that I would need to get a double mastectomy. Once again, a flood of emotions came over me. I mourned the loss of my hair, the loss of my breasts, and never being able to feed my babies. I think at that point I just went numb. I had so much devastating information being thrown at me that my brain just shut down.

3 days later I went in for a breast MRI to make sure the cancer was only in my right breast, genetic testing for the BRCA1/2 genes, and met with my oncologist. The oncologist made me feel better and was very positive and optimistic about my disease. He told me that it was very early stage and very treatable. He told me that with proper treatment I had up to a 90% chance of recovery and somewhere near 80% chance of the cancer never returning. This would mean 16 rounds of chemo, a lumpectomy/or mastectomy/ and 6 weeks of daily radiation. I was told that they were being so aggressive with me because I am young, my body can handle it, and they want to make sure they kill every possible cancer cell in my body. I left that day feeling very determined, I knew what I had to do and I was going to do it!

I decided that in order to start the process of losing my hair that I would need to get it cut short. I felt that this would be an easier transition. I cried the entire morning of the haircut. It just felt so unfair. If I was going to chop off my long locks I wanted it to be my choice; instead I was being forced into cutting it because of chemo. My cousin Jenny is the best hairstylist I know and she was the only person I wanted to do it. I knew she would make it look fabulous and make the experience fun with her bubbly and loveable personality. I was right. The day I had dreaded so much was filled with laughter, a few tears, and lots of wine🙂 She did a great job and I will never be able to thank her enough for making that experience easier on me.

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The next week I had my port surgically placed. A port is basically a medical device placed under the skin of my chest. The port connects to a catheter which is threaded into a large vein in my neck. The port is accessed with a small needle and used for lab draws and is where the chemotherapy is given. The surgery went through relatively uneventful and even though it is still pretty uncomfortable I am slowly getting used to it.

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October 30th was my first round of chemo. I was very anxious that morning, as I did not know what to expect.It actually wasn’t all that bad. I am very fortunate to have a very loving and supportive family beside me. My mom, dad, stepdad, and Luke were all at my first session. Their presence made the experience not as scary.

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I was told that I wouldn’t feel bad until maybe 48 hours after chemo, and that even then I would probably just feel “icky” for a day or so. Oh boy were they wrong! 45 minutes after the chemo I got terribly sick. It took me a good 4-5 days to even be able to get off the couch. I felt very defeated. That was probably the worst week of my life. I have never been in such a dark, lonely, place. I found it hard to get up, shower, eat, and do any of my normal activities. Cancer had consumed my life and my every thought. I didn’t know how I was going to make it through the next 6 months of my life. Last week I hit a breaking point and knew that to get through this I had to force myself to change my attitude. I made myself do my homework, go to school, do all the errands that I had put off, and even went and had lunch with two of my girlfriends. I found that forcing myself to think positively and do my normal routine did help in making me actually feel normal again.

I miss my old life. I know that I will never again live carefree and without a worry in the world. My life has instantly changed, forever, and I am still in the process of accepting that. It makes me sad that every memory and experience from now on will be automatically categorized as “before breast cancer” and “after breast cancer.” I am taking it day by day. I am not sure why this is happening to me but I am choosing to believe that it is all for some higher purpose. Maybe one day I can help other young girls going through this process. I am not going to let cancer define me. Yes, I have cancer, but that is not who I am. I am a daughter, girlfriend, sister, granddaughter, niece, cousin, friend, nurse, and student, but I am NOT cancer. I am NOT sick. I am going to take this thing head on and try to hold my head up high the entire time. Having cancer at 25 sucks, but kicking cancer’s ass at 25 will be oh so SWEET!!