BREASTLESSNESS: Part 2 by Guest Blogger Christine Handy

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Christine Today.

OCTOBER 1

The call came in around 8:45 am. The diagnosis was stage 2 level 3 breast cancer, triple receptor positive. It was a Monday morning and I was home alone. I knew right when I picked up the phone that it was the doctor himself, no nurse to tell me everything was fine. As I was listening to the doctor, I sat down in my bedroom with the phone at my ear- trembling. I then asked one question, “was I going to die”?  I have no idea what the doctor said after that, other than he never answered the question. The rest of the day was a blur.

Things happened pretty quickly the days that followed and then weeks. I had a lumpectomy 6 days later in Phoenix, Arizona and shortly thereafter my parents, my husband and I flew back to Dallas to begin the immediate search for an oncologist. I begged every doctor I met not to have chemotherapy, but by doing so I raised my chances of survival. Finding an oncologist that I trusted was not easy. The trauma and disbelief over my arm overwhelmed me. I wasn’t sure I would ever find a responsible and honorable doctor again.
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 My older son was away at boarding school when I was diagnosed with cancer. He was 14 years old. I could not fly to tell him in person about my diagnosis. My husband would tell him the following weekend which happened to be his schools parent weekend. I did call him right before going into surgery to tell him I could not be there. This would be the second parent weekend I had to miss. The spring before, I was having the PICC line placed in my chest and arm to kill the infection that was destroying my wrist. Now this. I called him after we landed in Arizona and I had to tell him something before I went into surgery. I tried to calmly tell him I would not be at his parent weekend, but that his dad would be there. He didn’t even ask why. There was silence. I told my son that I wanted desperately to be there. And as my tears were streaming down my face, I told him that I had to have another surgery. He said, ” what’s new mom?” ” You always have to have surgery”. He was referencing my arm. I told him that I couldn’t talk about it, but that daddy would tell him when he got there . I’ll never forget what he said next. He said in a defensive and yet brave tone “Mom, it’s fine. At least you don’t have cancer.” It stopped me dead in my tracks. You see, in his 14 year mind I can only surmise that he felt that his mom was letting him down with her arm problems, but that she was going to be ok. Now that it was cancer, he would have to go through the agony of not knowing if I was going to be ok. I wanted to hold my son and reassure him, but I couldn’t. I wanted to scream and yell and run and hide. Forget the lumpectomy, I’ll just end my life and my sons won’t have to suffer through any more of my health problems. I was their mother and I wanted to protect – not cause pain. I wanted to love not put fear in their tender souls. I wanted to be a mom, not a woman needing constant care and help from others.
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My younger son was not in boarding school.  We told him the night I was diagnosed. He was 11 years old. He too had been suffering because of my arm. The previous year he never knew who was driving him home from school. Between my arm surgeries and physical rehab appointments and then the discovery of the infection, the ramifications that bled through our family were exponential . There was never dinner on the table, I couldn’t cook. I couldn’t drive, I was in bed constantly recouping and coping with pain. My presence as their mom was sporadic and limited. My son would call me after school and ask, ” Mom who’s picking me up today? ”  A couple of times I had forgotten to have someone there to get him.  I was failing as a mother, the only job I ever really wanted to have. The fear I felt was hideous to me, but the thought of what my children were feeling was paralyzing.

My oncologist was witty and informal which was a relief seeing as though we were there for such a serious reason. I walked in with my husband and the doctor immediately looked over at my casted arm and said in a lighthearted way, “what’s going on over there?” We were off to a good start. He asked me why I had my lumpectomy in Arizona. He said he would have preferred to have done chemo first to shrink the tumor and then surgery. The doctors in Arizona had said the same, but all of the doctors pointed out that the bone grafts on my arm would be destroyed by chemotherapy. Therefore, the decision was made to do the lumpectomy first and buy us some time to allow the grafts to graft.

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The lumpectomy would be the first time of many that I had no use of either arm. I was unable to move my right arm from the fusion. It was casted from my fingers to almost my arm pit. The bone grafts on my arm had to stay exactly where they were placed in order to be properly fused. Cancer was on my left breast. After the lumpectomy I had limited movement on my left arm. I couldn’t open a door, bathe, get dressed or feed myself . Putting in my contacts was daunting. I had lymph nodes removed from my arm pit as well so lifting my arm up was not possible. I couldn’t hold a glass to drink. My mom had to hold a straw up to my mouth. Sleeping was almost impossible . I remember laying in my bed at night on my back feeling petrified, exhausted, in pain and confused while desperately wanting to curl up into a fetal position to give myself comfort. The “I couldn’t do’s ” replaced the ” I could do’s”. I couldn’t even wash the hair I was about to lose to chemo. I had gone from being a 41 year old thriving wife and mother with an incredible passion and talent for yoga and other sports to a woman with a fused dominant arm and breast cancer. I had not had a day without pain in almost 3 years. I was the healthiest unhealthy woman I knew.

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From October 2012 to March 2013, I had 16 rounds of chemotherapy. I lost all my hair including facial hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. I am 5 feet 9 inches and my weight at the sickest part of my chemotherapy dropped to 98 pounds. In April 2013, I had a mastectomy and then in June that year my first reconstructive surgery. Just 2 months later I had another arm surgery where the metal and screws were removed from my wrist/ forearm . This part of my arm was now totally fused and the hardware was causing my frail arm a lot of additional pain. During these surgeries from April 2013 through December 2013, I continued to have treatments for breast cancer. Starting in April, one week after my mastectomy, I began 12 rounds of a drug called Herceptin that was administered every 3 weeks . I was scheduling chemotherapies around surgeries ! I couldn’t fully wrap my brain around the magnitude of what was going on. I was showing up physically to the surgeries, the appointments, the chemotherapies but emotionally I was dying inside. The days when I wanted to quit were too many. I felt desperate to live to raise my children, but the suffering was endless. My last arm surgery was in August 2013 which brought the grand total to 6. My last breast surgery was in January 2014 and I am not finished with the reconstruction. In total, 12 surgeries in 2 1/2 years and 28 chemotherapies.

My husband had his job and now he had to take over my role as mother, caretaker, carpooler, cook etc. It’s hard to describe the pressure it put on our whole family unit. We were all trying to stay afloat, but there were days where I wondered if people and households could just explode. The tension and pressure was so high. We were trying to function in this new environment and every single day was horribly hard. And as we at home were coping, my son at boarding school was suffering in ways we will never know. I often think about the ghosts of who I used to be and I loved that girl, I’m different now.

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My parents were my rocks, my sons out of fear pushed me away, my husband was busy and my friends saved my life.
To be continued………….

NOT ME by Guest Blogger Christine Handy

Christine_couchChristine, today.

I remember some of the details of the days leading up to my breast cancer diagnosis and of the moment the doctor called me with the results. The initial memories I do have are memories of disbelief and fear, not anger. The memories are of deep sadness, but not pity. They are of confusion and guttural pain. It’s a day nobody wants to experience and a day I will never soon forget.

I was diagnosed with breast cancer October 1st 2013, I was 43 years young with no family history of the disease. I was one of those ladies that never took the self exam seriously. But on that one, very random evening in late September for no apparent reason at all, I gave myself a breast exam and found a lump. It was a hard mass below my left nipple and it seemed to appear out of nowhere. That night my husband and I convinced ourselves that it was a cyst, it couldn’t be cancer. Not only did I not have any family history, but I worked out 6 days a week. I’m allergic to sugar so don’t eat any and I’m a vegetarian. Other than the major debacle with my right arm I was otherwise very heathy. This could not happen to me.

I was out of town the night I felt the lump and as chance would have it, it was on a Saturday. During my initial frenzy I contemplated going to the emergency room, but I had to come to grips with the reality that I had to wait. The compulsion for an answer that gripped my every breath was intense and yet I could do nothing about it. By Tuesday, I was back home and called my obstetrician who referred me to a breast specialist. Oh boy , I thought, here we go. I called the specialist and begged my way into an appointment the following morning. More waiting. I look back to the waiting during those days and I still shake my head. It was agonizing.

The following morning my husband and I headed to the “specialist”. Something unexpected happened when I checked into the reception area that morning. I started to feel humiliation. I had a lump. I was a marked woman (I thought) and I actually felt shame. I can’t explain why I felt humiliation, but I can only surmise it was because of the stigma attached to the word cancer . I remember growing up and adults whispering to each other, ” oh she’s the one with cancer,” like it was shameful. I had already felt fear and now I felt the black mark.

The specialist’s office was typical and systematic. We got to speak to the doctor fairly quickly, a brief hello and off with the shirt and bra. He did a physical exam and said that he believed the mass on my left breast was a cyst just from the touch and from the way it “moved.” I felt a surge of relief. I may have even smiled. The doctor then asked my husband to head to the waiting room and I was shuffled over to the line for the mammogram. I sat next to another lady who was older than me, I recall. She was very pleasant and started to talk to me. She said that she was there for her 6 month check up. She also said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer the year before, but that it was stage one and therefore she didn’t have to undergo any chemotherapy treatment. I felt sorry for her. She, although older than me, was still way too young to have had cancer- I thought.

Shortly after my mammogram , I was back in an exam room feeling pretty confident and a bit more at ease. The doctor came back into the exam room, sat next to me while placing his hand on my knee and said in a quiet , genteel voice that possibly it wasn’t a cyst, but that I should not be concerned. He also said that they needed to do a needle biopsy the next day. This was some kind of roller coaster and my brief feelings of relief were washed away by total panic. I remember I started to cry. All the emotional courage I had mustered up collapsed right before me. I asked for the nurse to go get my husband and she did. My husband walked in a few minutes later with a swagger and a smile but when he looked at me he immediately stopped and asked ” what’s wrong”. I explained to him what the doctor had said to me and then he lowered his head and in a solemn manner spoke out an, “awwwwww” sound . I knew from his tone and expression the he knew at this point that this was serious. As much as he recovered quickly and tried to convince me that it was going to be fine, I knew he felt differently.

It was at this very moment when the anger began. We left the breast specialist’s office and as I walked to the car I started to sob. You see, in the 14 months prior to this very day, I had had surgery on my right arm that led to an infection which went misdiagnosed for 5 months. The infection- during those 5 months- literally ate away all of my cartilage in my right wrist and broke every single bone while decaying the bones that were left. The misdiagnosis led to 6 additional arm surgeries, somewhere around 14 different arm casts and months of ridiculously painful physical rehab. It also led to my having a PICC line that was inserted into my upper right tricep and threaded to my heart. This allowed my “new” infectious disease doctor (I didn’t even know this type of doctor existed) to pump me with what was described as ” World War 2 ” intensity antibiotics to stop the infection. Even after all this, I ended up with a permanently disabled right arm.

So, on this very sad solemn day in late September 2013 while walking to my car fearing the worst , I was still in a cast . You see the reason I was out of town when I found the lump was not because I was on some kind of vacation after the arm debacle. It was because I was in NYC seeing the surgeon that had just fused and bone grafted my wrist. It was my 6 week post surgery check up. I hadn’t even gotten a chance to realize the magnitude of my permanently fused arm and I was worrying about having breast cancer. By the time I got to the car that day in Dallas Texas, in the parking lot outside of the breast specialists office, I started to scream. Literally scream in broad daylight. I couldn’t wrap my brain around having any more pain, any more suffering and I especially couldn’t imagine having cancer. Was all that I had gone through with my arm not enough? Was I being punished? I screamed and screamed and screamed some more. Not me. Not me I cried. 

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photo-262The week before chemo starts.

photo-264Chopping hair off before losing it to chemo. 

Christine_PeterChristine & her husband, Peter. 

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Christine resides between Dallas and Miami. She is a wife and mom to two great teenage sons. She’s a former model and power athlete. Stay tuned for Christine’s next inspiring post! She is also writing a book about her dual journey with her battle with breast cancer and the fusion of her arm. 

 

HOLDING HANDS {Women Supporting Women}

Christine_Handay_Headscarf copy{Heidi + Christine- Shortly after Christine finished her final round of chemo}

I posted this photo on Facebook and it made such an impact on the community that I wanted to share it with you all on the blog as well.  Since the very beginning of SOS, I have received SEVERAL private messages and emails from women all over the world asking for prayer because they either just found a lump in their breast and were getting the first biopsy or from women who were deep into chemo and starting to lose their hair.  I know we are all profoundly effected by this disease either directly or indirectly.  When my bestie Heidi sent me this photo of her and our friend Christine- I just stared at it for a few minutes and then teared up.  Christine has spent the past year going through triple the amount of chemo rounds.  As you can imagine this photo spoke to me.  There is so much love, grace, strength and courage all over this photo.  The radiant smile on Christine’s face says it all.  She looks so happy, vibrant and beautiful! 

Chemo takes such a toll on the body, mind, spirit and confidence level.  Thank God– hair always grows back, but if you have ever cut your hair too short (my hand raised), you know what a grueling process it can be.  With a  few fake lashes, a great wig, hat or headscarf, women recovering after chemo should be able to get out there and enjoy life again instead of suffering behind closed doors because of the toll chemo has taken on her appearance. 

Heidi, being the creative fashionista that she is, showed Christine my webisode on Hats and Headscarves then helped her create this fabulous headband with hair extensions attached which can be worn under hats, caps and scarves.  How hot does she look?!  ROCK ON SISTA!

Do you know someone in the midst of a battle of some kind?  Financial hardship?  Chemo?  Divorce?  Infertility?  Abuse?  Help a sista out!  Reach out.  Hold a hand.  Lend an ear.  When women support each other, it not only changes us and those closest to us…. it changes the world!  When we pour love, support and positivity into others and hold a woman’s hand when she needs it….it can literally save her life.  I am SO grateful for my nearest and dearest girlfriends for always being there for me during hard times.  I don’t even want to think where I would be without them!  I’m imagining myself having not bathed for days, curled up in a ball, hugging a pillow in a corner and sucking my thumb or something.  Ahhhhhh– SCARY!

Here’s a repost of the webisode! I encourage you to share it with any girlfriends who are needing creative ways to stay fashionable and confident while they are going through chemo.

 

I want to thank all of you for being part of this community of empowered, spiritually conscious + encouraging women.  Women supporting women is a POWERFUL thing! 

LESS catty competitive crap…MORE love, admiration, honoring, support, respect + hand holding!  That’s what SOS is all about.

Love, Tiff