Self Talk

About a year ago, I started training seriously at a gym. I had tried other places in the past, including LiveStrong through the YMCA, a very good place to start if you have the credentials (cancer patient/survivor, sorry to those who aren’t in the club). I’d been reading and podcasting a bunch about such things, and thanks in part to my brother, I came across a compelling case for weight training. Co-incidentally, my medical oncologist pointed out that the Tamoxifen she had me taking to prevent subsequent cancer (don’t get me started!) would also attack muscle mass, and that I’d better do some weight bearing exercise as an intervention. Grump!

Off I went to a very scary-looking gym that now makes me feel quite the thing, thank you. After a few weeks of hard work, my brother shared with me some of the things he and a buddy tell themselves as they work out. One was “This set makes me stronger.” That was useful a year ago and now again as I return to strength training. By the way, the new drug I’m on to prevent cancer causes osteopenia (bone density problems, prone to fractures). There are two fixes for it, the first is (drumroll): weight bearing exercise. Grump!

Right now, I find myself saying “all the sets make me stronger” because, well, I’ve lost a lot. I’ve been burned inside and out and cut up stem to stern. But yesterday, the assignment was three sets of inclined dumbbell bench presses. I started with 10 pound dumbbells, down from PR of 25 pounds but up from the five pounds my first day back. This day, I bumped up set two to 12.5 pounds and the third strength building set to 15 pounds. Grunt!

Trying to maintain training through surgery and chemo ultimately became futile, but it was the last thing that I took off my plate for the sake of treatment and recovery. It was the first thing back on the plate from the all clear. It sounded like a good idea at the time. For so many reasons. The reality is so much more challenging and difficult than sitting back playing Zelda. I also feel so much better for it. I can do hard things.

Would it be OK if the gym went back to being the hardest thing I do in a week? At least for a while.

Words You Might Hear on a Cancer Journey or Rather, Hope To!

Installment 2: a bit of aftermath

Suggested accompanying sound track: I Will Survive by Gloria Gaynor

Remission or Cancer Free

I have not heard the word remission with regards to breast cancer. I hear it more with leukemia and other types of cancer. I have been told that I am cancer free. Twice. Hm. It carried more joy the first time. Being the second in the same body part, my skepticism is strong, maybe justified. My son, statistics-minded as he is, on hearing my dismay about my numbers/odds (not really justified because my numbers are objectively good, but feelings have no IQ) reminded me that all these things are “independent variables.” My limbic system isn’t buying it. Yet.


Another word I’ve heard twice now. Curiously, as long as we aren’t dead, aren’t we all survivors? It seems a very low bar with a wide range of conditions. From just hanging on by a thread or a tube, beyond suffering–morphine, to fullness of life (think: building a business, writing books, serving the community, making beautiful art, nurturing one’s family). So it is a weak word packed with powerful baggage. If survival is the goal, quality of life takes a back seat. Continuing to breathe is necessary, but who can sustain that as the only goal? Surviving leaves little room for what comes next. It does mean that one has endured very hard circumstances, not dead yet. This is good.

As for cancer, I will be surviving* for at minimum the next ten years, or until I don’t. There will be regular check up appointments, daily pills that go after every molecule of estrogen in my body, future surgery (who knew silicone implants have a shelf life?), and wondering if what they’ve told me is true; today I am cancer free. Sort of. I am not free from treating cancer. I am not free from surviving. I am not “free to go.”

*Note: I will do better than survive. I train at a gym (Power Strength Training Systems) where my favorite workout is called Thrive. Bless them richly for that title. Active cancer treatment has meant earning my survival. Now it’s time to move on to thrival.

Because I Can Do Hard Things

Tomorrow will be my first gym day after active cancer treatment. I’ve spent the entire summer in flip-flops (no real hardship there!) because of chemo. I had mild neuropathy, a predictable side effect of chemo that made shoes painful to wear. But the gym requires shoes, not flip-flops. Obviously. So today is a pedicure day so the toenails will be in good shape for weight bearing exercise.

Meanwhile, my bone density scan last week has revealed osteopenia, also a cancer thing, that will get worse as I start on anti-hormone therapy going forward. I will add calcium to the pillboxes multiplying around the house.

Goals for tomorrow are modest but real:

  1. Show up.
  2. Complete the warmup.

Bonus points if I don’t cry.

Healing points if I do.

Update: Bonus points were awarded.

On tap for July

I have finished chemo treatments! Now I’m waiting for side effects to subside, including tiredness and mild neuropathy (numb feet, sometimes painful). As a method of keeping one alive, I suppose chemo must work or they wouldn’t do it, but only the desperate should attempt it.

Yet to come this month, radiation will start with a “simulation” in which the machines are set up and my person is tattooed with marks for lining things up. Then I will start the course of 30 treatments. That means 5 times a week for 6 weeks. We expect that to begin around July 22 if all goes as planned. Fatigue and skin problems at the site are the big nasties with radiation.

In the meantime, hysterectomy is scheduled for July 17. Recovery is not too bad, no lifting (even laundry) for 6 weeks with no gym for 8 weeks given the type of gym I will resume ASAP. I am grateful to have it overlap the radiation, to compress the inactivity. I do have some physical therapy on offer, and that particular therapist will serve me very well restoring me to the life I’ve lost touch with since March.

This week I shaved what remained of the hair. It was still coming out and very patchy. Clean slate, no purple dye etc. We’ll see what comes back.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow?

I woke up Monday feeling so much better! The port has healed up so it is irritating but no longer painful. Driving is even comfortable enough now! I’m taking Tai Chi and restorative yoga classes at the cancer center (free stuff is awesome!). Yesterday I did a workout at my gym. Body weight stuff only. Not impressive, but it did get my quads lit pretty good! I’m planning on workouts tomorrow then Tuesday of next week.

The big news this week is hair loss. It is starting to come out. My nurses tell me it will take a while, but I probably will not have any hair by the time of the next chemo. Cycle 2 of chemo is set for Wednesday, May 8. I will see my doc on Monday the 6th for labs and adjusting medications to deal with the side effects, which were as advertised, miserable.

This week seems  like a reprieve and I will be looking forward with great anticipation to this part of cycle 2.

This Week in Cancer

The slate of events in honor of Chemo Kickoff Week are as follows:

Monday April 15 (tax day): Final pre-chemo workout at Power Strength Training. Just when my hamstrings were recovering from their removal from the couch, my doctors have advised that the next two weeks should not be spent pushing sleds around even though they deserve it.

Tuesday April 16: Port placement bright and early (7:30 AM, EDT). It’s a bummer but might save some abuse of my veins during chemo.

Wednesday 17: Chemo 1. We arrive at Lemmen-Holton Cancer Pavilion downtown Grand Rapids for a mid-morning appointment. Labs will be drawn, and the pharmacy will mix my particular cocktail of two chemo drugs. Before administering those drugs, I will have a course of steroids, Benadryl and anti-nausea meds. We expect this process to take four hours.

Thursday, April 18: Neulasta injection that you see advertised on TV. I will indeed be getting that same protocol administered not by arm as in the commercial, but by belly, which interferes with sleep and clothing less than the arm band placement you’ll see.

Thus ends chemo cycle one, except for the lab work the following week and the crash in white blood cells that make social contact and business as usual inadvisable due to infection risk. Should infection ensue, there will be dire consequences to chemo and my well being.  I haven’t found a way to make that funny yet. Maybe someday.

Breast Cancer, Part the Second

HR+, HER2- for those keeping score

In February, my regular post-cancer checkup began a cascade of new “chief complaints.” I am once again a cancer patient, and this time, chemo and radiation are both part of the treatment plan.

Last month I had a lumpectomy which is healing very nicely. It’s really been the easiest surgery I can ever remember having. Happily, the tumor was quite small this time, and all the margins and lymph are clear. However…

There are many appointments to come. Chemo itself will have at least two preliminary appointments (that I know of), then 4 treatments separated by 3 weeks, totaling a 3-month course. Radiation will commence two weeks after chemo is resolved. That will be 5 days a week for six weeks. After all that, they will readdress hormone interventions with Aromatase Inhibitors (maybe it will diminish my sense of smell? Jim is hopeful) and whatever else needs to happen in order to allow those drugs to be used.  It’s complicated but a problem for 5 months from now.

“How can I help?”

I’m glad you asked.

I would like to have many inputs of joy. Please share with me moments of joy in your daily life (even just one time). I would like emails, texts, responses on this blog, cards via snail mail, you name it.  Words or pictures, fun music links you’re enjoying. But let them be from you – not memes. Please remember I am unlikely to respond to some or most of these for what I hope are obvious reasons, but they will be appreciated.  I will try to put out updates periodically on this blog, as I am able and have something to say.

As for more practical/tangible help, we will have to see how things develop.  I have learned that different people react differently to these treatments, so whether I will need help with food or transportation or something else is unknown at this time.

“How can I pray?”

I’m glad you asked.

There are numerous side effects on tap for the remainder of my treatment plan, all of them unpleasant. Of most concern to me right now is neuropathy (nerve pain) in fingers. I am quite dependent on my hands to cope with stress and the world in general.

Fatigue/sleep. I am not sleeping well.

I am sad about my workout routine getting clobbered. It has helped a great deal with pain and stress. Surgery has already interrupted it and will interfere more.


This is a journey I did not want to repeat, let alone repeat with the added complications of chemo and radiation.  But, I am here and so I will soldier on.  Thanks for caring with me and for me.

Photo Op

At noon today,  I was living strong at the Y. Seven other cancer survivors and I get to work with personal trainers on circuit training machines designed for short folks (5 feet, 8 inches and under; I can get under). I have been wearing my breast cancer awareness t-shirt that says “Nope, not today” in really big, can’t miss it, letters. It is rare that I announce the cancer so boldly, and my enthusiasm for the message has certainly grown over the last year. Thank you to my dear friend who gave me my first cancer swag. My collection is growing.

Today’s gym encounter is going to prompt me to wearing my cred more.  A gentleman who had been on a piece of equipment prior to our group’s entry approached me and asked if another class member was a cancer survivor (rather an obvious guess, let’s be honest). He was trembling severely, and when I replied, “Yes, in fact we all are,” he began to weep. I said “you must have someone you love very much…” and he nodded and whispered that his mother is actively dying.  He asked if he could hug me (of course!) and apologized for being all sweaty. Have I ever hugged a sweaty male not related to me? And he asked if I would be willing to take a selfie with him.  Grateful to have worn makeup today, I smiled big for that photo!

Cancer stakes are high. I have seen scary and amazing things and people before, during and after cancer treatment. While I would still rather be shallow, it is a kindness from God to be able to share moments like these with others who suffer.

May we all look with great hope for that day when, reunited with our loved ones, we will have no need for strength, endurance, medicine, because the chesed (loving-kindness) of God the Father will be all those things for us.