Friday, February 27, 2009

Long Overdue

I have a few friends who have traveled this Big C road. And I checked their blogs every day. I counted on their updates and was so glad they kept me in the loop with them. So please accept my apologies for being so slow around here. Especially since it's really all good news these days. For a change.

First bit of good news, which I realize is old news to many of you.

Remember this machine?

It is the PET/CT scan machine, and by far, the easiest of all tests. Here is a link to a more complete description of what it does: PET scan. Essentially, though, after they take some of my blood, they mix it with radioactive isotopes, re-inject it, and then scan my whole body to see if they find any cancer baddies anywhere. I had this test done right before we went to Disneyland.

On the day of the test, I re-discovered my old friend Anxiety. And his best friend Panic. The scan is easy; the waiting is hard. I convinced myself that the cancer had spread and grown, and I was overcome with distress all afternoon. I called my doctor at least four times, begging for the results, "even if it's very bad news."

When she finally called at 5:30, I burst into tears when she told me that they couldn't see any cancer baddies anywhere ... not in my breast, lymph nodes, or anywhere else.

See? I have bad days. People often wonder at my positivity and optimism, and about 90 percent of the time, it's that good for me. I feel great. But that day was a bad day. I didn't even want to write about it for a while because it brought back those yucky feelings.

Next up: surgery. I probably mentioned that my doctor recommended a mastectomy of my left breast because there were two tumors there, plus the cancer had spread to my lymph nodes. However, I opted to remove that one, plus the girl on the right, so that I wouldn't need to have constant tests, worry, and frequent visits to Huntsman. Having a bilateral mastectomy would reduce my chances of a breast cancer recurrence by 90%. So I went for it. Part of the reason for that decision was that my grandmother had breast cancer, too, in one breast (which she had removed), and two years later, it showed up in her other breast (forgive me if I've mentioned that before). I am not particularly interested in going through this again if I can help it.

Now, for more talk of breasts and their size and so forth. At the time of my mastectomy (two and a half weeks ago now), they placed "expanders." Those are sort of like empty implants, which they filled with a little saline at the time of surgery. Then, every few weeks, they'll add a little more saline, until they're all filled up to the size I like. That's when I'll have my final surgery, when they'll replace those babies with real implants.

Right now, I have what I call "Frankenboobs." It feels like I had a funky breast reduction. They don't look terrific. But soon, my doctor assures me, I will have "Barbieboobs." These are perky and nipple-free, just like Barbie's. They can tattoo on a nipple if I'd like. But really -- who needs 'em?

And now, because you have endured all this talk of surgery, nipples, and breasts, I will share the best news of all.

After surgery, the pathology department conducts a complete analysis of all the breast tissue and lymph nodes that were removed during surgery. And guess what, people? There was no cancer anywhere. This is huge. You would think we weren't completely surprised because of the PET scan, but really, you never know for sure until the pathology report comes back. I'd like to say this: I am officially cancer-free. They told me that only about 10 percent of people have such a complete response to chemotherapy, so I feel extremely blessed and grateful.

Thank you for your prayers, thoughts, positive energy sent my way, brownies, cards, e-mails, cookies, and other outpourings of support. I strongly believe that you helped my treatment to be so successful.

Now, I will continue to heal from surgery, and I'll start radiation in March. I'll also continue to have Herceptin every three weeks for a year.

I promise I'll try to post more often now, and soon, I'll even post a picture of me and my crew cut. It's not that cute. But at least it's hair.

Saturday, February 07, 2009

Reduce Your Cancer Risk

Cancer seems to come at us from every direction. Plastic bottles, cell phones, food. But it’s possible to cut your risk, says Dr. David Servan-Schreiber in his book. Here’s his 4-step approach to fighting the Big C, just in time for National Cancer Prevention Month.

Our bodies continuously make defective cells, our genes can undermine us and our environment assaults us. And while they're well-equipped to detect and eliminate damaged genetic material, sometimes the broken DNA leads to cancers that our bodies can’t repair without help from drugs and other treatments.

That’s where David Servan-Schreiber, M.D., comes in.

As a cancer survivor himself, Servan-Schreiber has firsthand knowledge of the challenges in treating the disease. And as a researcher, he has logged long hours studying the brain’s processes.

Ironically, his own research led to his diagnosis. He was mapping brain activity on people who performed mental tasks while undergoing MRIs. When one volunteer didn’t show, the doctor took his place, and a walnut-sized tumor in his own brain was detected.

Servan-Schreiber’s book, Anticancer – A New Way of Life (Viking Adult, 2008), details his journey through cancer and discovery of the role of alternative and complementary medicine in treating illness. Although he acknowledges the importance of modern medical science, Servan-Schreiber is convinced that the healing process involves more.

So he looked at environmental factors. If our bodies can fight the development of tumors naturally, he asked, how can we assist it?

The cancer researcher describes four new approaches to boost the chances of preventing and defeating cancer. First, he focuses on environmental factors that he feels promote the onset of the disease.

Cancer used to be a disease of old people,” he says. “Now it is common to know a younger person with cancer.”

Second, our diets should include vegetable-derived compounds known to fight tumors, he says. Some of the easiest steps are adding certain spices and foods. “Consider adding green tea, turmeric or garlic to your diet,” he says.

For 25 foods that fight disease, click here.

Servan-Schreiber’s third focus is psychology. “There has been no link established between stress and the development of cancer,” he says. But in animal studies, “Reaction to stress can speed up or even slow down cancer growth,” he says.

And fourth, Servan-Schreiber wants us to create “a relationship with our bodies that stimulates the immune system and reduces inflammation that makes tumors grow.”

Focusing on yourself as a living, breathing human and “loving yourself” for as little as 15 minutes per day can have positive health benefits, he says. Too many self-help efforts start with a negative.

Add “some new spices to the diet, walk each day for 10 to 15 minutes and work up to more, or join a group with common interests,” he says. Once you build confidence in your ability to adapt new behaviors, “then you are better able to let go of old habits,” he says.

Here are some of his suggestions for an anti-cancer way of life:

Approach #1: Detox Your Environment
Environmental toxins have mushroomed since the 1940s, according to Servan-Schreiber. Some strategies to protect yourself include:

  • Air out dry-cleaned clothing.

  • Avoid pesticides and insecticides.

  • Avoid parabens and phthalates in cosmetics.

  • Avoid chemical cleaning products.

  • Avoid cigarette smoke and other atmospheric pollutants.

  • Filter your tap water.

    Here are his suggestions to minimize cell-phone electromagnetic radiation exposure:

  • Don’t allow children under 12 years old to use cell phones, except for emergencies.
  • Avoid carrying a cell phone with you constantly.
  • Don’t use the phone when the signal is weak because it will maximize power to find a source.

    Approach #2: Change Your Diet
    So what changes does Servan-Schreiber suggest for our diets?

    About 56% of our calories are from three sources that were nonexistent when humans were emerging, he says. These include refined sugars, such as cane and beet sugar, and corn syrup; bleached flour; and vegetable oils, including hydrogenated or partially hydrogenated trans fats. Servan-Schreiber recommends minimizing these.

    He also urges using low-glycemic foods (which don’t cause a blood sugar spike) in place of sweeteners and other starches. Agave nectar and stevia are two plant-derived sweeteners with a low glycemic index. Instead of bleached flours, he recommends mixed, whole-grain cereals, multigrain bread and whole grain rice, such as basmati or Thai.

    Swap in lentils, peas, beans, sweet potatoes and yams for the higher glycemic starches found in potatoes. Avoid jams, jellies and fruit cooked in sugar, or fruit in syrup. Fruit in its natural state is preferred and can be sweetened with agave nectar.

    Finally, he recommends a glass of red wine a day with a meal.

    The anti-cancer diet also includes:

  • Animal proteins (optional, if you’re a vegetarian) derived from fish, organic meat, omega-3 eggs and organic dairy products

  • Whole grains

  • Fats and oils, such as olive, canola or flaxseed oil

  • Herbs and spices, such as turmeric, mint, thyme, rosemary and garlic

  • Vegetables and fruits and vegetable proteins, such as lentils, peas, beans and tofu

    Approach #3: Address Your Emotions
    Persistent anger or despair, social isolation, denial of true identity and a sedentary lifestyle all can inhibit immune cell production and aggravate inflammatory responses, Servan-Schreiber says. He recommends:

  • Resolving past traumas

  • Facing one’s difficulties
  • Obtaining support from family and friends

  • Finding someone with whom you can share your emotions

  • Engaging in regular physical activity

    Approach #4: Get In Touch
    Several studies have shown that touch and massage reduce stress hormones and increase protective cells in women with breast cancer. If you have the disease, Servan-Schreiber advises:

  • Trying easy activities that stimulate the body gently

  • Joining a group

  • Having fun

  • Figuring out the appropriate activity level for your cancer

    Want more? Get your own copy of Anticancer - A New Way of Life.

  • Saturday, January 24, 2009

    MRI'm So Happy!

    I am a fan of clinical trials. In fact, I would (and have) sign up for every one I could, as long as my doctor approves. I'm in two right now, but will let you in on the next one as soon as that starts ... after surgery. Until then, I have Really Good News.

    Perhaps I've mentioned this trial in previous posts: it's the MRI trial. With a very long and complicated name that I can't recall. Essentially, though, the purpose of the trial is to complete several MRIs through the course of treatment to see if, ultimately, women going through breast cancer treatment receive better information, response, and if the data gained from the frequent MRIs ultimately affect their results.

    People often ask me why I didn't have my surgery first, and there are two answers. First, I was originally considering a lumpectomy, as opposed to a mastectomy. The surgeon strongly recommended chemotherapy before surgery to shrink the tumor first. So I started chemo. Then, they found a second very small tumor in the same breast when they did my MRI. Thus ended my hopes for a lumpectomy. However, I probably still would have done chemo first so I could be a part of this study. My long discussions with my doctor assured me that the survival rates for neo-adjuvant and adjuvant therapy (surgery first or chemo first) are exactly the same).

    And now, for the Really Good News. My latest MRI, which was actually in November (I know. I'm very slow.) revealed that the cancer is gone. People, the radiologist couldn't even find either tumor, even though he could still see the little metal markers that were placed in the tumor at the beginning of all this.

    Naturally, this is a huge relief to me and, I think, a giant advantage to doing chemo first. I know the chemo is working. I hope that if I am unfortunate enough to have little cancer cells anywhere else in my body that are too small to see, that the chemo is working on those, too. It has made me hate chemo less to know that it is wiping out the wicked bad dudes even as it has been killing my own healthy cells.

    On this journey, any good news is welcome, and this news made me exceptionally happy!

    Friday, December 19, 2008

    What Do You Know?

    How much do you know about cancer prevention? I got 100% on this awareness quiz. Tells you what I've been reading about lately, doesn't it?

    Click here to check your knowledge:

    Nutrition, Physical Activity and Cancer Quiz...Test Your Knowledge

    Tuesday, December 09, 2008

    Cookies for the Cure

    You may be in the mood for a Milano (or, my favorite, a Mint Milano) after playing this game:

    Circles of Inspiration (I just call it the Cookie Game)

    Wednesday, December 03, 2008

    Your Mother Was Right

    Broccoli Compound Fights Cancer Growth

    (Dec. 3) - The mystery of how a compound in broccoli and cabbage fights cancer has been solved, scientists announced Tuesday. And the discovery may lead to the development of anti-cancer drugs with fewer side effects.

    The compound, indole-3-carbinol (I3C), diminishes the activity of an enzyme in rapidly advancing breast cancer, University of California, Berkeley, researchers said. The compound is already undergoing clinical trials in humans after it was found to stop the growth of breast and prostate cancer cells in mice.

    A compound in cabbage and broccoli called indole-3-carbinol lowers activity in an enzyme associated with late-stage breast cancer, University of California, Berkeley, scientists announced Dec. 2. The discovery could lead to anti-cancer drugs with fewer side effects, researchers said. Click through for other studies on disease-fighting food and food compounds.

    Though I3C has been known to fight cancer since the 1970s, the new findings are the first to explain how the compound stops cell growth. Scientists are hopeful that the discovery will help make drugs that are more naturally effective in fighting a range of breast cancers and prostate tumors.

    "Humans have co-evolved with cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and Brussels sprouts, so this natural source has a lot fewer side effects," said study coauthor Gary Firestone.

    I3C, one of many plant-derived chemicals called phytochemicals, inhibits the enzyme elastase. Breast cancer patients with high levels of elastase respond less effectively to chemotherapy and endocrine treatments, and they have lower survival rates.

    I3C, which is available as a supplement, is a preventative treatment for recurrent respiratory papillomatosis, a condition involving non-malignant tumors of the larynx. Scientists said this shows that the chemical may also help treat cancers other than those of the breast and prostate.

    Wednesday, November 26, 2008

    Field Trip

    Since a day of chemotherapy is so much fun, I thought you might like to join me on a field trip.


    It's not a bad drive to Huntsman. I just head up Foothill, past the University, then a little further east to the hospital. Would you believe they have valet parking? With no tipping allowed? It's very convenient.

    I stopped in the middle of the road to take this picture, so please take a moment to appreciate it. It was quite crooked until I used the "straighten" tool in Picasa. Have you tried it? I love it.

    This really is a gorgeous facility and doesn't "feel" like a hospital, which is so very nice. It is light, clean, and modern, but doesn't even smell like a hospital. Actually, it feels more like a hotel, but I haven't had the pleasure of a sleepover ... yet. There are two good restaurants on the top floor. I'll tell you more about those shortly.

    Every few weeks, I see my doctor first. She checks me out and answers all my questions and always has a big hug for me. I love her. Have I told you that? Dr. Saundra Buys, in case you should find yourself in need of an amazing breast cancer doctor. My friend Courtney echoed my sentiments exactly about these doctor visits: it feels like Mardi Gras because everyone always wants me to lift up my shirt and show them my girls!

    Next stop: the IV and labs. They draw my blood every time I have chemo (which is every Friday, by the way) to check my kidney and liver function, my white and red blood cell count, and a whole bunch of other stuff. Assuming everything is working okay, I get the gift of toxicity. So far, they haven't turned me away yet, which means that my body is handling the chemo just fine. Sometimes, a nurse will strongly encourage me to get a port, which is a thing about the size of a quarter that would go just under my collarbone and stay there until I'm done with chemo. I don't want one, though, and since I don't have to have one, I choose a different vein each time for my IV. If I were scared of needles or if I had already had surgery, I would need one, but for now, I just tell them where to stick it.

    While I wait for my labs to come back and my chemo to be prepared, I usually have time for lunch. There are two really good restaurants on the top floor, and if I have time, I nearly always get the blackened salmon, steamed vegetables, and green tea. Antioxidants, anyone?

    This is the long, long hallway that goes to the infusion room, which is the place where everyone gets their chemotherapy and any other injectable, like blood, I guess, when you have to get hooked up to an IV to get it then sit and wait a while. They plunk me in a recliner that has a TV, offer warm blankets and pillows, and connect me to the toxins.


    It usually takes me about three hours or so to finish up, so I always take my laptop. Sometimes, the beeping and cancer talk all around me start to make me a little nuts, so I've found it's really helpful to take my big old Bose headphones and a movie. I like to chat with the other patients, too, and have some good friends there since we see each other all the time, but not everyone is chatty. Some people will have chemo for the rest of their lives, while others like me will finish up and move on, and the nurses sing, ""Happy end of chemo to you ... your therapy is through!"

    This is the infusion room nurses' station. They are all extremely nice and helpful, like everyone I've met at Huntsman, and one of them is assigned to me the whole time. When I'm done and the alarm beeps, they free me from the IV, which always makes me happy. They nearly always have a big basket of chocolate (smart ladies) and there are always free hats that nice people knit or sew and donate to us baldies. Our heads get cold in the winter.

    It helps to have cute socks, because I like to kick back in the recliner and I wouldn't want to have ugly feet. Thank you, Brent, for the cute socks.

    Was that fun, or what? I'm glad you joined me on the field trip via blogland, because a real day of infusion therapy is really quite boring.