Tuesday, April 5, 2011

My Breast Cancer Journey

Since beginning my breast cancer journey, I have had many people ask me different things about my illness. Some have expressed concern about offending me with their questions; others have been curious but have admitted to me their apprehension in asking. Well, I don’t mind the questions a bit. In fact, I am glad people are interested and curious. My condition and experiences, though personal, are fact, not at all unlike any of the breast cancer facts that can be found on the internet or in any library. So I figured, why not share my own personal experiences? Maybe in doing so, I can help someone else who might be facing the same thing, to help them to know what to expect, and to show them that though the tunnel is a long one, it can be conquered! And maybe describing the details of my own journey can somehow help someone else, and give them the peace I have found in fighting this disease. And, if nothing else, it will be cathartic for me. So here’s my story.

Diagnosis. I had stage-3 lobular breast cancer of my right breast. Diagnosed in July '09, my first operation was a surgical biopsy to determine how advanced the cancer was. Unfortunately, it was quite advanced, so just a week later, I underwent a modified radical mastectomy on the right side, in Aug '09. Along with my breast, 19 lymph nodes were removed -- four with cancer. A month post-mastectomy, I developed a pulmonary embolism in my right lung, attributed to the mastectomy, which landed me back in the hospital for a week. Ugh. (I think I saw a tunnel drawing me toward a light that time!)

Tissue Expander/Chemo.
At the time of the mastectomy (done by a breast specialist), the plastic surgeon was also in the operating room and implanted a "tissue expander," to act as sort of a place holder for when an actual implant would eventually go in. Every two weeks post-mastectomy, I would go to the plastic surgeon's office for "fills." There was a port in the tissue expander in which they would insert a needle and pump in saline, to stretch the expander (as well as what little was left of my skin), larger and larger. Simultaneously, I went through 16 weeks of chemo (totally the pits).

Radiation. A couple of months after chemo ended, I underwent 26 rounds of radiation, five days a week. Unfortunately, radiation treatments left my skin hard and leathery (not to mention, burned the bee-jeebers out of me), and actually shrunk my skin, undoing everything the tissue expander had done. This meant I was unable to have a simpler implant reconstructive surgery (in which the tissue expander would be replaced with an implant). There just wasn't enough skin to work with. Instead, I had to have latissimus flap surgery (Aug ’10), in which skin was taken from my back, pulled to the front through a “tunnel” to my chest, and that patch of skin placed on my chest to house an implant and fashion a breast. After that (Dec ’10), the healthy, left breast had to be lifted and reduced, to better match my new, reconstructed breast. And finally, a nipple had to be put on, which was the latest surgery I had just last week. When that heals, in 3-4 months, the plastic surgeon will tattoo on color, to fashion an areola. What a process! All in all, by the time the tattoo is applied, it will have been a two-year journey – a journey to hell and back! But … I’m alive! THANK YOU, LORD JESUS!

                                                  ~ ~ ~

Women who go through all of this often don’t tell the whole story, for their own understandable reasons. It is such a personal journey, and every woman handles it in her own way. But as for me, I don’t mind at all sharing my experience. If it can help someone to understand another’s journey, or to prepare someone for their own impending journey as to what to expect, then it makes my own experience not in vein.

As they say, early diagnosis is key. I was not diagnosed early, and in fact, was at first misdiagnosed. Yet, I knew for a long, long time before even going to the doctor at all, that I was quite ill, and that I had breast cancer. But I never breathed a word of that to anyone, not even Larry. I held my secret for nearly a year. Why I didn’t pursue treatment earlier is a story for another time and place. What matters though, is that I finally did go to the doctor, and after a misdiagnosis, was ultimately diagnosed accurately. And here we are.

The New Normal. It is definitely a different life for me now. I will never have feeling in the right breast area again, nor on the right side of my back or my right armpit. And though numb, I still feel the pressure and foreignness of the implant in my chest. My right-hand fingertips permanently have little feeling either, due to the strong chemo treatments. I have lost strength and mobility in my right arm. And I have gained a whopping 50 pounds because of my treatments and the steroids in them. I will be on a drug called Arimidex for five years now (also a weight-inducer), to hopefully keep the cancer from returning (one year down; four to go!). It is a harsh drug that I liken to an oral chemo, because it makes me feel crummy all the time (joint pain, fatigue). But, it doesn’t cause hair loss, so that’s a plus! I am so enjoying having hair again, even though it’s now silver, and still in a shorter style than I had before! (It’s still trying to grow out.) And naps, well, they’re the order of the day now! I still tire pretty easily and pretty quickly.

I have developed a slight case of lymphedema in my right arm too, as a result of so many of my lymph nodes being removed on that side. This causes regular swelling in my hand. Rehab taught me how to do stretches, massages, and exercises to keep the swelling at bay, and I wear a compression glove on bad days. And now, I also wear a medical alert bracelet (like so many other senior citizens!) to warn against using any needles or blood pressure apparatus on my right arm. Doing so would worsen the lymphedema.

The Dreams. To this day, I have recurring dreams of my breast lying on a stainless steel table in a sterile operating room at Beaumont. The dream continues as my breast is transported in a cooler to a lab someplace, to be picked through and prodded on and examined through a microscope to clarify the diagnosis. Ugh. This vision appears even when awake, each time I pass -- or visit -- the hospital in my travels. A subconscious part of me wonders if my breast is still in there someplace.

Pink. Many have noticed that every day, I wear one of a variety of pink-ribbon jewelry I’ve acquired along the way. Whether these things have been gifts, or whether I’ve bought them myself, to wear them means that someone, somewhere has donated to breast cancer research in purchasing that item. If not for such research, I may not be here. So I wear my pink every single day. Thank God for such research, and to the thousands who give so much of themselves to promote such research.

Support. I will never underestimate or take for granted the overwhelming value of support! For loved ones to ask how I’m doing, to be concerned and cheer me on, has not gone without my deepest gratitude! A simple, “How are you feeling?” has gone MILES in my continuing recovery. A “like” on my Facebook posts goes such a long way when I have good news to report. The hugs of a grandchild (“I wuv you, gwama”), the loyalty of one of my dogs in particular, who never left my bedside (my pitbull, Paisley), the presence of family and friends as I struggled through this mess … I get emotional and misty-eyed each time I think about it. I am so humbled. My sister, my shadow through every major procedure, holding my hand as chemo pumped into my veins, researching, and looking for answers, gosh, how do you ever thank someone for that? My sons, scared though they were, somehow always mustering the courage to reverse the roles and reassure me I’d be okay. Such a burden for young shoulders to carry! And then there has been my devoted husband. Oh my gosh, Larry. My angel, my strength, my caregiver. He never once left my side. He has been at every doctor appointment (and there have been too many to count now). Larry has been at my side through every treatment, every procedure, every surgery, every tear, every nightmare. One time, when trying to come out of anesthesia, I saw him weeping in the shadows at my bedside. And if you know my Larry, you know tears are not regular fare for him. Managing the multiple weekly appointments for the last year-and-a-half has been a job in itself, as has been interfacing regularly with the insurance company. But Larry has done it all. From changing dressings, to emptying blood-filled bulbs, to setting alarms through the night to make sure he’d give me my meds at the right times, to insisting I’d be okay when I’d cry (often). From cooking and cleaning and laundry and shuttling, protecting and shielding, Larry’s been there. How blessed am I? SOOOOO BLESSED!!

Prognosis. Well, who knows. Each time I ask, the only answer is, “we’re doing all we can.” My cancer was pretty advanced, which makes the chances of it returning greater, of course. But the other side of the coin is that there are worse cases. I met one lady on my journey (she was on the same chemo and radiation schedule as me, so we saw each other often) whose breast cancer was inflammatory, the worst kind. My prognosis is better than hers, but not as good as many other women I met along the way. I have met so many brave women on my journey, as well as reconnected with a dear, old friend who also had a recent bout with this beast. She and I have really bonded again as a result of this experience, and have attended a support group together. I am so thankful for her friendship! She has been a constant source of inspiration and example of courage, and has also been at my bedside as well, God bless her. In our support group was a very young girl, probably in her mid- to late 20s; a beautiful girl. So often while sharing our experiences, she would refer to her mom, and how worried her mom was about her. And I couldn’t help but relate to her poor mother, who must be just beside herself with fear over her precious daughter. And it was with that observation that I decided that in the big, grand scheme of things, from the big golden book from which destinies are plotted, I would take my cancer again and again, if it would somehow keep someone’s young precious daughter from getting it instead. Sigh.

Lessons. I would never want this disease to recur; although with my prognosis, recurrence is likely. However, I do feel blessed in a way, that this happened to me. I have learned so much. I have learned the value of family and friendship. And of laughter and tears, too. I know that sounds corny, but it’s true. I learned it’s okay to be afraid. And to cry. And I’ve learned that laughter throughout this process is not only okay, when you can muster it, but actually fortifies one’s physical strength, in letting this beast know you’re laughing in its face. Old friendships have been revived, and new ones made. My faith has been strengthened, renewed and enriched. And because of that unshakable faith, I know that, no matter how this comes out, in the end, I’ll be okay. I’ll be just fine.

My love, gratitude, and most humble thanks to all of you who have cared.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Recovering Nicely!

Hello there,

Larry's pacemaker surgery went very well yesterday and he is recovering nicely! He did GREAT, and today, you'd never know he went through anything, other than the bandage on his chest! I am so proud of him! And we are both very grateful for all your prayers!

Love to all,

Monday, September 20, 2010

And here's the latest!

Hi all,

Once again, I'd like to ask for your prayers and thoughts for us. Tomorrow, my Larry goes into the hospital for a brand-new pacemaker. The heart doctor anticipates no problems and expects that all will go very routinely. It is an out-patient procedure, and should take only about an hour. But your prayers are still so appreciated, so thank you in advance! Larry means everything to me, and I just want him to be, and remain, WELL!

Meanwhile, I got a good report from my plastic surgeon today. He thinks I will need only one more reconstructive surgery instead of two. I am healing nicely, and all restrictions for my activities have been lifted -- that is, except for the limitations place on me by my fractured foot!

So thank you everyone, for everything! For continuing to pray, to think of us, and to always be supporting us! This last year-and-a-half has been a bit rocky, but things are looking up for us now!

Love to all,
Deb 33333333

Friday, September 17, 2010

Uh oh ... more prayers, please!

Well hello, it's me again, asking for more prayers, but at least it's not life or death this time.

Last week, I found that the pain I'd been experiencing in my left shoulder was the result of some torn tendons. Ugh. Then today, I found out that the pain I've been experiencing in my left foot is because the darn thing is broken in two places! Who knows how I did it, but somehow, I did. Geeze.

Also, my Larry is having a new pacemaker implanted on Tuesday, Sept 21. Big-time prayers for us that day!

I'll keep you all posted as to our progress around here! I'll bet you're not surprised to learn that our medical deductible was met in full last APRIL!

Love and thanks to all,

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Reconstructive Surgery Done!

I'm Baaaack!

I am pretty hacked up, but I am here! Whew, that "latissimus flap" surgery was NO picnic! I feel like a stabbing victim; I have pretty large incisions all over the place, I think there are 5 or 6 in all. But my surgery seems to have been a success and the transferred skin seems to be "taking." THANK GOD! I am still very sore, and I still have a drain in (two weeks post surgery now) to drain blood and other fluids. I am soooo eager to get this drain OUT!

Overall though, I seem to be recovering pretty well. I still can't do a whole lot and still have to take it easy, espeically because the output in my drain is still very high. So, I rest a lot, as I have for pretty much the last year.

Larry remains my angel and has the patience of a saint. He takes excellent care of me, and I am sooooo blessed. The Lord knew what He was doing when He put Larry in my path! A heartfelt, loving thank you goes out to Larry, the best husband in the world!

I want to thank all of you for the cards and messages. After all this time, I still get them from you guys, and trust me when I say that I just can't express what those well-wishes mean to me. Thank you ever so much, from my heart.

Getting tired now, so I'll sign off. I just wanted to thank you all for keeping me going throughout this challenging journey! My road would have been a LOT tougher without all this support!

Love to all,
Deb 333333333333

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Winding Down

Well hello everyone,

You may or may not have noticed I am winding down on my blog entries. As I said before, one reason is because I have kind of moved over to Facebook and put small entries regarding my condition on there every now and then, as well as other bits of info. But, you all have been with me for an entire year now, do you believe it? Yes, my mastectomy was Aug 6, 2009; and here we are an entire YEAR later! It's gone slow, but fast too, if that makes any sense.

I am scheduled for my reconstructive surgery this Thursday, Aug 12. It is not going to be an easy surgery. The doctor tells me it will be very much like another mastectomy in terms of pain and recovery (4-6 weeks). But I will get through it, and that is largely due to your thoughts, prayers, encouragement and love, all of which have given me more strength than I can express.

There've been some unexpected bumps along my journey. A year ago, when doctors implanted a "tissue expander" at the time of my mastectomy, its purpose was to stretch the skin I'd lost, so that there would be enough skin to cover an eventual implant when reconstruction took place. However, at the time of my mastectomy, they did not know that I would need radiation. Radiation shrinks the skin, and sure enough, that's what happened to me. So although I went through weeks and months of "fills" in my expander to stretch the skin, radiation virtually undid any progress made in stretching. Therefore, my reconstructive surgery will be the "latissimus flap" procedure. Yikes! The plastic surgeon will make an incision in my back at the bra line. He'll leave the skin connected because it needs a blood supply. He will then "tunnel" through, and pull that skin out another incision in the front, and stretch that skin over an implant. OUCH! And of course, the doctor will remove this God-awful tissue expander that's been in there for a whole year, replacing it with the implant. The expander is hard to the touch, and even harder now, since my skin has shrunk around it. That has made it even more painful and uncomfortable, so as frightened as I am of my upcoming surgery, I am just as happy that the expander will be HISTORY!

I am so blessed to have a spouse, my Larry, who has been by my side and never faltered in my care this entire time. He remains my angel. And he is prepared to continue to care for me throughout the journey of this next surgery too. I thank God for him. I also thank God for all of my family and friends, who have cheered me on along this difficult road! How will I ever be able to thank all of you??? Please know that I remember all of you in my prayers every night, and I don't take for granted the blessings you all have bestowed upon me in being there for me. THANK YOU A MILLION TIMES!

I don't know when I'll be back on here again. As I said, if this upcoming surgery is like the mastectomy, as I have been told, it will be hard to use my right hand again (and just when I was getting used to the "new normal" of its limited mobility and its numbness!). But as soon as I am able, I will inform all of you of my progress and recovery. In the meantime, I thank all of you in advance for your prayers and well-wishes, and for your loyalty in guiding me down this road. I love you all.

Love, Deb 33333333

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Hangin' in There

Hello to all!

I am feeling rather guilty for not posting as much here on my blog of late. As I mentioned before, I am posting more these days on Facebook than here. So if any of you are still keeping up with my blog here, and haven't seen anything from me in awhile, you might check my Facebook page when you do a search for Debbie Brady Brueckman.

Now to Larry. PRAISE GOD, he is fine after having had 8 inches of his colon removed a couple of weeks ago! There was no cancer, and since they did the surgery lapriscopically, his recovery was much quicker! He is doing great! Thank you one and all for your prayers and your concern!

As for me, I am gearing up for my next surgery, and it will be the "big" one I had hoped to avoid. I will be having the latisimus flap surgery on Aug 12, performed by my plastic surgeon as my reconstruction. It has been a year now since my diagnosis -- can you believe that?? And since my radical mastectomy of Aug 6, 2009, I have had a tissue expander implanted in the void in my chest. For the first many months after my mastectomy, I would receive saline "fills" in the tissue expander, in the hope of stretching my skin enough to eventually cover an implant. Unfortunately, radiation un-did everything the tissue expander did, and shrunk my skin. Now the tissue expander is still in there, but all the more uncomfortable, since my skin is so very tight and taut over it. It is quite painful. Since my skin shrunk, I am now going to have to have the surgery I had so dreaded: the latisumus flap surgery, where skin will be taken from my back and moved to the front to cover the implant. My plastic surgeon explained it this way: He will make an incision in my back at the bra line, then "tunnel through" to the front, and pull the skin from my back through an incision in the front, then stretch it over an implant. Ugh. He says it is on par with another mastectomy, pain-wise and recovery-wise, so I am bracing myself. And I will need some more prayers, please. My recovery time will be 4 to 6 weeks, but I will be sooooo very glad to get this tissue expander OUT of here! It is like a rock in my chest, it does not move as a natural breast does, and it is very hard to the touch.

So that's the update for now. As I said, please check out my updates over on Facebook if there aren't as many updates here on my blog. I so appreciate those of you still hanging with me on here, still caring and still praying! Thank you from the bottom of my heart. As I said, I can't believe it's been a whole year now, and I can't believe even yet that this happened to me. But I have come a long way in this year, and that has been in large part from the support of all of you! Thank you!

Love, Deb 333333333