Friday, November 30, 2012

It's Not About the Snorkel

Sometimes it seems like everything that has happened was meant to be. Or rather, everything good that has occurred happened to prepare me for everything bad that was to come.


"OK, Laura, breathe in... And out. Now big breath in and hold." This was the mantra spoken over the microphone six times a day for five weeks. While I lay there as still as possible with my nose pinched tightly by a clamp, holding a one-time-use disposable snorkel between my teeth, I followed the instructions given by the voice to a tee - desperately trying not to swallow in between breathes, as that would cause my ears to pop, leaving me with uncomfortable be-popped ears until the day's treatments were finished.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

Surgery Stuff

Now that I've gotten past the surgery part of my treatment, here is a list of a few things that I found invaluable.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Free and Cheap Stuff for My Peeps

Cancer almost inevitably results in having less moola to get by on. You're working less or not at all, you have hella medications to buy (some costing as much as $3000 a dose), you're constantly shuttling yourself back and forth from the hospital paying for transit or parking.

In the absence of a Cancer Discount Card (which I would totally love to set up if there is anyone out there who wants to work on that with me) it helps to grab whatever free or almost free stuff you can. Aside from the well publicized ride services and free wigs (via the Canadian Cancer Society) there are a number of other freebies available to us, some logical, some kind of random.

Cottage Dreams provides one week at a cottage in Ontario to anyone who is currently not in active treatment. I imagine that taking Tamoxifen or getting your year of Herceptin infusions doesn't count, but I guess it's worth asking. If you are in treatment you can apply now for when you have finished treatment. There is a $100 registration fee and a $175 refundable deposit.

It gets cold without any body hair. Victoria's Quilts will send a free quilt to anyone in cancer treatment in Canada. There is a US version of Victoria's Quilts as well.

I normally don't like scarves, but France Luxe has some nice ones. Through their Good Wishes program, France Luxe sends free scarves to anyone in cancer treatment, US shipping included. Canadians are asked to pay the postage.

Cleaning for a Reason coordinates free house cleaning for breast cancer patients through participating house cleaning services across North America. There doesn't seem to be very much availability though - I've been trying all year with no success.

Who doesn't need free soap? Bethesda Skincare has what they call "the melanie policy" - they will send a free bar of soap to anyone with cancer, all you have to do is email them.

My biggest hobby is traveling, so you'll forgive me if most of the freebies I've found are travel related...

Athletes 4 Cancer runs one week water based active programs in Maui for the 18-40 set. The programs are mostly free (one has a fundraising component) except for travel to and from the program site.

YACC has started a new series of active retreats for people between the ages of 18 and 39 who are 1 to 5 years out of cancer treatment. Their inaugural retreat is happening right now in Gros Morne. The retreat is free except for travel costs to and from the program site.

YACC also has not so active retreats for the 18-39 set. Once again these are free except for travel costs to and from the retreat.

First Descents is based in the US and offers active retreats for cancer peeps between 18 and 39. Rumour has it they've started a program for the 40+ set as well. The activities range from rock climbing to white water rafting to (my favourite) surfing. The retreats are (sing along kids) free except for travel costs, although they might be able to help with that too.

Women Beyond Cancer isn't just limited to the premenopausals, but it is limited to the double-X variety of human -- specifically those who have or have had cancer. Their retreats involve kayaking, horseback riding, yoga, and/or just lounging and being fed in various parts of the US and Costa Rica. Most retreats are free except for travel costs.


Just Ask
Many places offer senior and student discounts. It's worth it to ask if they will extend those discounts to people with cancer; they often will.

Find more freebies for Americans in But Doctor, I Hate Pink's List of Free Stuff.

Update (Feb. 23, 2013): A Nerds World provides free family portrait services for families dealing with cancer.

Update (Oct. 6, 2013): Ovations for the Cure will send a nice bracelet to women with Ovarian Cancer. https://www.ovationsforthecure.org/programs/princess_form.php

Sunday, August 5, 2012

The Fight

Cancer patients don't lose their battle like a boxer, they lose it like a soldier. Sometimes you're put in a position where the only possible outcome is your own death and there's naught you can do about it.

Friday, July 13, 2012

On Finishing Chemotherapy

Wow. When I started chemo back in March the end seemed an eternity away. Now I am done and just awaiting the final set of nasty side-effects to kick in and eventually pass. Unlike most breast cancer patients I'm still at the beginning of my treatment. This is not a graduation for me. But I'm hoping that this is the end of the worst part. The repeating "get sick, get better, get sick again" cycles have become more of a way of life than I imagine surgery or radiation being.

So what does it feel like to have finished? Well, my attitude in the chemo ward ("day care" as they call it at Princess Margaret to distinguish it from inpatient care) was 180° from my attitude during the first session. I was excited to get started. I had a huge smile on my face for most of the session. But now that chemo is done... what do I do now? My surgery date will be determined by the results of the various scans I have next week due to a loverly complicating case of DVT that I got during chemo. Will the cancer come back while my surgeon is working out a crafty plan to make recovery from surgery as uneventful as possible? So I guess now the recurrence fears will start up in earnest. I'm back to big unknowns - the thing that makes cancer so scary.

Anyway without further delay, here is a pictorial account of my last chemo day.

Monday, June 4, 2012

FEC Tips

Last week I started the second half of my chemotherapy experience, with my first doses of docetaxel and Herceptin. Over the three cycles of FEC that I had, I learned quite a lot about how to manage my side effects. No doubt you have already read a number of tips for how to survive chemo (and FEC) with your sanity intact - if you haven't then check the forums at breastcancer.org - there are tons of tips there. Below are my personal must-do techniques while getting FEC.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

It's Cold Out There When You Got No Hair

I am lucky to live near Canada's top cancer centre, Princess Margaret Hospital. In addition to the medical care and research done at Princess Margaret, the hospital also has an extensive patient education and survivorship program. The focus on caring for the patient as a whole extends into all areas of the hospital, including the hospital's Wig Salon.

At the beginning of my wig fitting appointment at the PMH Wig Salon, Zane gave me a tour of the store focussing on the various types of headwear I may need once my hair fell out. The focus was on practical needs. It turns out that there are some considerations to keep in mind beyond trying to look good.

Here are a few head accessories suggested at my wig appointment that have come in handy.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Favourite Product: True Lemon / True Lime

On chemo days I have a funny taste in my mouth that just won't go away. One of my favourite ways to combat the taste is to drink homemade lime sodas. Normally you would have to squeeze half a lime or lemon into a glass of club soda, but modern technology has made this previously tedious process easier than pie.

One of the shops at my local market sells a product called True Lemon (there's also True Lime and True Orange for other citrus lovers). This product comes in individual sachets of dehydrated juice (of your citrus of choice), each equivalent to 1/2 a tablespoon of juice. I simply pour a glass of club soda then empty one or two sachets into the glass. Voila! Instant yummy citrus water goodness.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

MUGa Heart Scan

The MUGa Scan was another scan where I was the radioactive one. The goal of this scan is to evaluate the condition of the heart. Before the scan started I was injected twice -- once with some sort of tin fluid and once with the actual radioactive stuff. For more details on the actual injections check out the Wikipedia article. Funny side note: the guy who gave me my first injection just happens to live in my building.

Again I had to lay on a table which moved up and into the scanning machine. The technician hooked me up to a bunch of electrodes. When he started the scan I just had to lay still, nothing to do, nowhere to go. I tried doing some relaxation breathing during the scan. I could see the read out of the electrodes, so I occasionally watched how my breath affected the reading.

Once the scan was over the technician was awesome enough to let me watch the video of my heart. All in all a very easy test with a bonus video at the end.


Test Ratings
Time Required [short, medium, long]:  short-medium (~45 minutes from arriving to leaving)
Pain Factor [0-10]:  1 (two small injections and a few adhesive electrodes)
Comfort Factor [0-10]:  9

MRI

The MRI was by far my favourite of all of the tests I had to do. If you have never been in an MRI machine, be prepared, it is LOUD.

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

CT Scan

My second, and least favourite, test was the CT Scan. I've had two CT scans before, so I knew what to expect. This one was actually much faster than either of the others -- maybe because I had warned them that the contrast medium makes me incredibly nauseated.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Chemo Cycle 1 - Day 1

It has started! Yesterday I went for my first chemo session. Anxious? Yes! Terrified? Yes! Sobbing like a baby? Of course! It was too soon but it couldn't be soon enough.

Bone Scan

My first test was scheduled for the day after I first met my team. It was a bone scan - my very first nuclear test. My mother had had several scans using nuclear isotopes during the period of her life when she had non-Hodgkins lymphoma (she's been in remission for over 2 years), so I was able to grill her regarding her experience. Mine was only slightly different - I was allowed to leave the hospital during the waiting period.

Diagnosis

It was Leap Day, February 29th, when I found out I had breast cancer. What's worse - it had metastasized in my lymph nodes. I would have to wait another week and a half before I could see my new Surgical Oncologist, who would be coordinating my care. I felt lost. I was certain I was going to die. It was the longest and worst part of this experience so far.

I finally met "my team" at Princess Margaret Hospital on March 12th. They immediately had me scheduled for several tests to determine if the cancer had spread. Regardless of the outcome, they knew exactly what to do now. They started a search for the first available Medical Oncologist - chemo doctor. Because the cancer is in my lymph nodes and is a fair size (about 2 cm by 3 cm) chemotherapy would be administered first. This should shrink the tumor (possibly even wipe it out) so that the surgery can be less drastic. It will also give the medical oncologist a good idea of how my cancer responds to the drugs given. After completing chemo, and having a rest to recover, I will hopefully only need a lumpectomy with axillary lymph node dissection followed by radiation.

The tests to be performed were: CT Scan, Bone Scan, MUGa Heart Scan, and an MRI. Installation of a marker clip in the primary tumor was scheduled - in case the tumor does completely disappear with the chemo my surgeon will know where to look for tissue samples to check if all of the cancer is gone. In addition, the lab that made the initial diagnosis had not performed the tests necessary to determine the hormone receptor status and HER2 status of the cancer, so a request was sent to them to provide this information.

Today I finished the last of the tests - one day after my first chemo session, 9 days after meeting my medical oncologist, 27 days after meeting my surgical oncologist, and 1 month after learning that I had cancer.