It’s a marathon, y’all

Hi friends, it’s me, Jessica. It’s been a while since we chatted, and that’s been mostly because things were going well (and busy) and a little because things got rough. This journey is a marathon, and frankly, I’ve never been much of a runner. And especially not long distances. If I were a runner, I suspect I’d be a sprinter. But the monotony of running a race that seems to go on forever and ever is not my thing. Yet, here I am, jogging along and winded because I’m in this marathon, whether I like it or not.

I haven’t given a health update since last August – and a lot has happened since then. Most importantly, I had a scan in September that showed “no evidence of disease” (NED) and confirmed that the chemo, mastectomy and radiation had done their job. Praise be to God for those glorious results! In October I received my last Herceptin infusion and I began to get back to the old me – cooking and parties and holidays, oh my! The fourth quarter of 2018 was amazing. I soaked up every precious moment with my family, went all-out on Halloween, and Thanksgiving, and Berkley’s birthday, and Christmas. We made so many sweet memories and those months were pure magic for me.

In January, however, I had to hop off cloud 9, put my big girl panties on and brace for another battle. I started a new drug (Nerlynx) aimed at preventing a cancer recurrence. I was warned by my doctor and a newfound Facebook support group to prepare for the worst. This med attacks the GI tract and its number one side effect is pretty awful “D”. So I did what I do best, I concocted a plan to do everything within my power to minimize the side effects and prevent any terribly embarrassing situations. I started my meds on January 1st, and my plan was as follows: drink at least 64 ozs of water each day, change my diet to remove virtually all fiber, start taking probiotics, work from home, try not to leave the house and say a lot of prayers that my body would tolerate this medicine well. I looked ahead at what had the makings to be a gloomy time. But gloomy isn’t for me, so I changed my perspective and reframed the situation. I would be stuck in the house for what I estimated would be a month as my body adjusted to this necessary toxin. But instead of focusing on being stuck, I focused on what things I would get to do while at home once undistracted by my typical busy, running-to-and-fro, and chaotic life. I made a list of the opportunities before me: more time for prayer and gratitude, more time to hang at home with my family, more time to cook and bake, more time to tackle all the “one day” organization projects (for the record, Marie Kondo would be proud!). I was able to keep a positive attitude, learned to manage most of my side effects, and after just shy of a month, felt confident that I could leave the house. My doctor, while thrilled at the measures I was taking and my overall tolerance to the meds, was less than thrilled at the litany of mouth sores I was coping with (10 at one point), and my sudden weight loss. A restrictive diet, a reduced appetite and canker sores that I swear came from the devil himself meant that little ole me lost over 12% of my body weight. At my lowest, I was 95 lbs soaking wet, and even now am only a few pounds over that. He reduced my dose from the recommended 6 pills down to 5, and while I had initial concern over a potential reduction in protection, he made me comfortable with the plan. I’m happy to say that on 5 pills, I’ve been able to stop losing weight, reduce the number of mouth sores, and slowly, return to a normal un-restricted diet. I don’t think I have ever been so stinking happy to eat a salad! But this drug wasn’t the only post-cancer challenge I had to clear this year – the next giant was reconstruction.

Whether or not to have reconstructive surgery was not a hard decision to me. Early on in my diagnosis, it became little more than a bullet point on the to-do list of what I needed to do to get to the other side of cancer. I gave it no more thought than a routine task on a typical to-do list because it was a no-brainer to me… do chemo, have my breasts removed, do radiation, take recurrence prevention drugs and get new boobs. I’ve even looked at this step as the “prize” at the end of the journey. I wasn’t born well endowed and the thought of an insurance-covered, guilt-free boob job seemed like a decent ribbon for my efforts. And while I’m thankful to have not wasted any energy on worrying about this step, fearing the surgery (or subsequent recovery), holy crap I was ignorant. The procedure I had is called a latissimus dorsi flap reconstruction, where they removed muscle and skin from my back, reattached those muscles to my chest, constructed new “nipples” and placed tissue expanders aimed at stretching the new muscle and skin in preparation for a permanent implant. It resulted in a two-night hospital stay, two five-inch incisions on my back, two circular incisions on my front, muscles that were unnaturally cut and pulled and forcefully put into their new position. It left me with four drain tubes protruding from my sides, each hanging by a stitch, which was evident with practically every move. Those drains, for the record, are also straight from Satan. I had limited use of my arms and an extremely sore back due to the over-use of the remaining muscles that were left to carry the load. I would like to think I have a high pain tolerance, as I pretty well tolerated back labor, and three c-sections ,and multiple biopsies, and hundreds of needle sticks, and a mastectomy. But y’all, this one knocked me down. For the first time in my cancer journey I felt low and defeated and wanted to scream and cry “enough!” I had stayed positive and strong before because like, literally my life depended on it, but now, here I was suffering from an “elective” surgery and feeling more hopeless than I ever had before. I think it was partly the pain, partly the second home-confinement (but this time I couldn’t even be productive), partly the fatigue of an 18-month marathon, and partly the anger that this fight was my reality. It sucked. I mean, it seriously sucked. But guys, I made it through. I slowly recovered, I weaned myself off pain pills, got out of my recliner, went back to work, resumed normal activities and (with God’s help) lifted myself from that dark place, back to me. Out from the valley, I am glad I did it. I feel like a part of me has been restored, and for that I am thankful. Having a chest that is no longer concave has given me a shot of confidence that I hadn’t realized I was lacking. I still have one surgery left this summer (to get my permanent implants), but it is out-patient with no drain tubes, and so it should pale in comparison to this last one.

Y’all, cancer doesn’t end with NED. It just doesn’t. If you’ve been through it you understand, but if you haven’t, it can be easy to think a clear scan means it’s over. Even after the treatments and surgeries, cancer is there in the scars you see each morning, it’s there in the decade of daily pills to keep the beast at bay, and it’s the ever-present fear that it will return. And even though, through prayer, I have been able to keep that fear from over-powering my life, it’s still there. It’s like a wolf hiding, just beyond the trees. I can hear him howling. And while it doesn’t stop me from finishing my race, I always know he’s near.

I do not know how people conquer cancer without Jesus. I really don’t. Because without Him, I would have been devoured. But because of Him and His promises, I am not a slave to fear. Thank you, Jesus, that fear does not own me.

Perfect loves casts out fear – 1 John 4:18

At eight weeks post-surgery, I’m back to my old pace and being all “extra” again (a term I’ve come to love and embrace). I’m energized and as cliché as it may sound, I don’t feel like I’m simply surviving – I’m thriving. I’m able to dream again because when I look out at the future, I now see myself in it. I feel called to love big, live my best life and use my God-given talents. I feel the tug to start writing again, to stretch myself in all that I do, to go all-in, and to give Him all the glory. There’s great stuff ahead y’all.

What’s Next

It’s been months since I’ve “officially” updated you all on my cancer journey. Writing is weird like that – sometimes you feel inspired to write, and sometimes you just don’t.  And “just don’t” has just been my writing season recently.

But there’s a lot that’s been going on with me. To start, I finished radiation this summer.  Aside from having to refrain from swimming, sunbathing, shaving my armpit or wearing deodorant, radiation was pretty easy on me. My skin was red and tender, but did not break. I felt virtually no fatigue. It served more as an every day nuisance than anything. After 33 trips to the cancer center, I was able to close the door on that phase of treatment.

So what’s next? While it seems like with the completion of chemo, mastectomy and radiation, my cancer journey should be coming to an end, but it’s not. Have I been through the worst of it? I sure hope so. We met with my oncologist last week to discuss the next course of treatments. First on the schedule is Tamoxifen (an anti-estrogen therapy), which I just started. The side effects (hot flashes and night sweats, to name a few) typically take a few months to hit. So far I feel like my normal, always freezing, self. Theoretically I will take this for 10 years, however, my doctor is considering switching me to ovarian suppression in about 18 months. Recent studies have shown this to be a more effective way to keep estrogen-positive breast cancer recurrence at bay, but the side effects can be worse than with the Tamoxifen. He also wants me to begin a new targeted therapy drug (Nerlynx) for the Her-2 part of my cancer in January 2019, and because the side effects of that drug are pretty crappy (literally), he wants to get me through my year of Nerlynx before ovarian suppression begins.  That’s a lot of medical speak to say I’m just beginning all the drugs that are necessary to prevent my cancer from coming back. There is a chance I could have minimal to no side effects from all of this. And there’s a chance that the opposite will be true. I will be praying for the former.

Sometime early next year I’ll also begin the reconstruction process. I know that it will at least involve a surgery to give me tissue expanders, a number of fills to expand those expanders, and then an exchange surgery to my “permanent” implants.  Based on my mastectomy experience and recovery, I’m hopeful that these surgeries will be similarly non-eventful.

More important than all the status updates of my treatment plan, my biggest report is that I am feeling like my old self again. Maybe better than my old self. It’s like all the energy of my old self, but with the perspective to make my experiences that much sweeter. I find more joy in the mundane, I celebrate the small victories, I am seeking out new opportunities, I’m praying more and I’m worrying less. I am so grateful for all that God has given me, done IN me… and especially what He has done through me.  I am more confident than ever that God is still in the business of making miracles, and that the power of prayer is real.  You want to know what miracles through prayer look like? A large aggressive tumor shrinking to nearly nothing within days. Facing down stage 3 cancer without fear. Family and friends stepping in the gap to keep my kids’ lives normal. Getting through chemo with no real issues. Getting through surgery with no real issues. Getting through radiation with no real issues. Keeping a positive attitude. Keeping my energy. Growing my faith. Those, my friends, are miracles – the product of so much prayer. So much prayer.

On October 16th I will have a CT scan to make sure all my cancer is gone. While the cancer that was in my breast and my lymph node is gone, we are unsure about what was spotted on my internal mammary glands. Since the location of those spots is on the other side of my sternum, they were unable to be biopsied (to know for sure if they were cancer) or removed. If they were in fact cancer, I feel confident that the treatments have taken care of them. We just want to know for sure. I want to hear 3 little letters: NED (no evidence of disease).

October 16th will also be exactly one year since the day I went to the doctor because I felt a lump.

And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.  1 Peter 5:10

A few prayer requests:

  • That my upcoming CT scan comes back clear (NED!!)
  • That my side effects from the Tamoxifen are minimal
  • That my cancer never returns

Thank you all for praying for me and checking up on me. I am blessed beyond measure.

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Pathology Update

First, thank you all for the many prayers, positive thoughts, texts, messages and phone calls. I have felt so supported and loved on over the last week, and I truly appreciate it! A special thank you to my husband. He has been such a rock through this diagnosis. He’s in the midst of the busiest time of a new, demanding job, but has taken this news with poise and compassion and strength. Gosh I love him.

Earlier today I received the rest of my pathology report. While it wasn’t the specific report that my doctor suggested we hope for, after speaking with a breast cancer nurse about it (it’s nice to have family connections!), I’m feeling very happy with these results.

I will re-hash some of the details for those just tuning in: I have stage 1 invasive ductal carcinoma (IDC), and my tumor is 2 cm and considered grade 3. I also have non-invasive ductal carcinoma (DCIS) that is 9 cm (this is the calcification the surrounds the tumor, is considered stage 0 and is not worrisome to the doctors). The IDC is the main focus of this fight.

The new piece of information that I got today has to do with the receptors of my IDC (what feeds the cancer). My cancer is estrogen positive, progesterone negative and HER2/neu positive. This means that it’s being fed by hormones and the protein HER2/neu. The good news here is that there are targeted treatments for both of these receptors that are not chemotherapy. The estrogen component can be treated with a hormone therapy pill (typically taken for 5 years) and the HER2/neu can be treated with an IV medication (typically taken for 1 year). While my doctor cannot say yet what my specific treatment plan will be until all of my remaining results are in, it is encouraging to know that there are viable medical options for my scenario that are not chemo.

So here’s what’s next: I have an MRI scheduled next Wednesday and a consult with the plastic surgeon next Thursday. The following week I will receive my genetic testing results on the 8th and meet with my doctor to review the results from my MRI on the 9th. At that appointment I will learn if there is any indication that the cancer has spread to my lymph nodes and whether or not I will need chemo. If no chemo, my mastectomy will be scheduled in the weeks afterwards.

Waiting almost two weeks to really know how we’ll be treating this thing stinks. But I am encouraged by the options out there and am still finding peace through my faith. I continue to see God work through this ordeal – women scheduling mammograms; people reaching out to me about strengthening their own walk in faith. It has been truly humbling.  I believe that more good will come of this than bad, so I am excited to see how I will be used in His plan.

And perhaps God thought I needed a little distraction, because on Tuesday we had a water leak that flooded our kitchen and parts of the basement below. After emergency water remediation (AKA large airplane sounding fans throughout my kitchen and basement – which are STILL here, by the way), and a long visit by our insurance adjuster, we have been informed that in addition to new walls, ceiling and floors in parts of our basement, our main level hardwood floors have to be replaced, and our kitchen will be gutted (new cabinets, backsplash, possibly countertops). Which initially sounded awesome… until we were told that we will have to move out of our house for at least a week (but probably longer). We’re not quite sure the timing of the work, where we will go, or the timing of my surgery, but trusting that it will all work out okay.

I like to end things on a positive note, so here are my silver linings from this week: new boobs (going to make the highlight reel every time), new kitchen and a new excuse to get off the phone with telemarketers… today I was contacted by a man trying to sell me a timeshare. I told him I was not interested, and unfazed he started in on the whole “you’re not interested in vacationing every year in Hilton Head??” and without much thought I answered, “no, sorry, I’m battling cancer right now.” I have never shut up a telemarketer so fast. He answered with, “I’m so sorry, God bless you” and hung up the phone. Score. Wait, is this wrong??

For my praying friends, here are my specific prayer requests for the weeks ahead:

  • Pray for my complete healing
  • Pray for my MRI results to show that the cancer has not spread to my lymph nodes
  • Pray for continued peace and positivity for me and my family

Again, I thank you all so much for the prayers and well-wishes! I will keep you all updated as we go!

Love,
Jess

A family on the move!

So this is a post where I’ll attempt to squeeze in the content of about five posts into one. It’s been a busy spring and summer. We’ve had a lot of life change – some pretty big things – and I’m finally getting the chance to share them beyond a quick Facebook/Insta post. Yay for the moment to take a breather, give you all an update and share how God’s plan is always greater than ours.

For the past few years, my husband has had a wonderful job as a food service director at a private school. Great people, great hours and the awesome opportunity to send Brogan to that school. It was a wonderful time as Blake was able to be home more than ever before and we grew in our faith, in our marriage and as a family. We were just humming along, enjoying our life, happy with the status quo.

And then this spring, Blake was contacted about another career opportunity. One that would pay more, but mean more time away. Not as bad as his work schedule had once been, but more than what we had grown accustomed to. Our initial answer was no. No, no, no. No, no, no, no, no. We were content, the money would be nice, but we knew money was not everything. And so the first few inquiries about this new opportunity were met with a hard no. Because a change in job would not just impact Blake’s time/our family time, but also Brogan’s school. But the opportunity persisted. And so one day Blake and I decided rather than completely dismiss it, we should pray about it. And so we did.  Relentlessly. Our specific prayer was for God to open doors and close them. To help us see His will. To make it so obvious that we couldn’t deny that we were on the right path. And can I tell you that we both prayed over this more than anything we had ever prayed about before. My heart began to soften slightly to the idea, and so I tried to take an objective look at what his time away could mean to our family time – so I analyzed week night dinners, weekends together, holidays, small group, church, and at that time, baseball with the boys. I plotted what this new role could mean to Blake’s participation in these family activities… and I was surprised to realize it was not as bad as I thought. Yes, he’d be gone more, but what I had originally assumed would be “he’ll never be here” turned into “he’ll miss some.” So my approval rating of the new job went from 0% to 20%. Progress.

While this was going on, the enrollment process at the private school was in full swing. We reapplied Brogan and applied Beckett. We figured until we were certain about our plan, we’d continue on with the current trajectory. But then Beckett did not get accepted. In a decision that shocked us and shocked the teachers and administrators we had developed relationships with over the last few years, Beckett was denied due to his inability to focus and stay on task during his observation. We are talking about a four year old – applying for Kindergarten. But when Blake called me to tell me the news, our emotion was not anger, or sadness – it was awe. Pure awe. We asked for doors to be shut, and this one was slammed. Blake and I knew we did not want our children in different schools and so Beckett’s denial meant the school component was removed from our career decision.

And so we continued to pray and decided to move forward with the opportunity. We knew the official application process would be months of interviews, tastings and red tape. So we moved forward with the same prayer – God please shut doors and open them. Make our path obvious.  Blake entered the candidacy process giving out the disclaimer that he would move forward, but that if God closed a door along the way (either on our end or theirs), that we’d stop the process and there’d be no hard feelings. And so we proceeded.

But because life is never easy, and having a family means our big decisions always impact more than our own lives, we had to start thinking about the other implications of a change. First was school. We knew long term if we didn’t go the private school route that we wanted to be zoned for a different high school, and we did not want to keep moving Brogan to different schools.  We knew that summer was approaching. We knew that if we were going to sell, we needed to do something in the next few months – which also meant that we had A LOT of work to get our house ready for market. Not coincidentally, the money we had saved for the next year’s private school tuition (which was no longer needed), was exactly what we needed to complete the projects on our home. And so Blake got to work. And he worked every night and every weekend. The man who once napped every Saturday and Sunday went two mouths with no naps – and some say miracles don’t happen! 🙂 He painted our entire house, remodeled our master bath, installed new floors, fixed all the random issues that a house develops after 11 years. He was a beast. And he got it all done.

So we also had to find a new house. But we couldn’t pull the trigger until we knew the new job was 100%. Not only were we looking to move school districts, but we needed a bigger house. Like we seriously needed a bigger house. Because it was not only us and our three children, but also our nanny and her one year old son who had been living with us since January. And so the manic Zillow stalking ensued. We knew exactly what we wanted – 5 beds, 4 baths with a basement – but as always seems to be the case, everything we liked was just outside of our budget. But then one day, a house – that met all of our wish list items and then some, within our budget, zoned for the schools we wanted – went on the market. Despite the fact that we did not yet have Blake’s offer in hand (at that point we had been given the verbal “you’re hired” but hadn’t received the piece of paper), I convinced my skeptical husband that we should at least go see the house.  Then that way if we liked it, once we got the job offer, we would be ready to make an offer. So we contacted our agent and made an appointment to see the house that afternoon. As we toured the house, taking in all it had to offer – the amount of space, the openness, the kitchen, the yard – I asked Blake, “is there anything you don’t like about this house?” And his response – “Nope.”

So with intel that there were two other very interested buyers, we took another leap of faith and made an offer. And they accepted. And a week later we had our job offer (which we accepted). And two weeks later Blake finished the work on our old house and it was listed. And a week later he started his new job. And two weeks after that we moved in to our new house. And in two days the boys will start at their new school. And two weeks from now, we will close on the selling of our old house (prayers please that nothing falls through!), just in time to not have two mortgage payments. And if you’d have asked me back in Feb/Mar how all of this life change would go down, and I would have tried toexplain how it would all have to happen so perfectly and intricately, you would have thought I was crazy to even attempt. But here we stand, on the other side, saying wow! God sure does show up with you ask. In our prayers of closing doors and opening them, we were met with just that. I get emotional just thinking about God’s plan for us. And we know that this is not it. God did not lead us here just to relish in the material things of a bigger house and a better job. No – we are looking for ways that from our blessings we can bless others. That we can take the new job, the new house, the new school, the new neighborhood and somehow use it all for His glory.

Oh and because I seemed to have written this entire post without mentioning what Blake is doing – he is now the Executive Sous Chef for the Atlanta Hawks at Phillips Arena. He’s working with an awesome team of a former colleague and a very talented new Executive Chef. We are so excited about this new opportunity! Stay tuned for more great things to come!

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