Saturday, December 6, 2014

ROAM

In 2010 life got pretty much back to normal.  Whatever normal was now.  The kids were both busy with guitar and hockey and Mike too was playing hockey.  Soon I would have a turn too. 

Family Weekend-Sunday River, Maine, USA-2010
I started having incredible pain and stiffness again and it seems it was due to the Arimidex medication that I was taking.  I got pain in my bones and feet and hands.  My oncologist decided to try me on something else called Tamoxifen.  I had heard of this and the name scared me.  I had a bad feeling that this was not going to go well.  However, after taking the Tamoxifen for a while I actually started to feel better!  The pain started to go away and I could sleep better too.  My appointments with the oncologists were now happening every six months.

Since I was feeling better and could move my arms and legs without that stiffness that the Arimidex was causing, I started doing boot camp and running a bit.  Also, I decided to take some adult hockey lessons.  Wow.  What a horrible player I was.  I had never skated with hockey skates in my life so the move from figure skates was quite a challenge.  I really enjoyed it though and looked forward to my lessons each week.  My hope was to play in the league with the ladies eventually.  I wasn’t quite ready for that yet though.

At work I was offered an interchange position for two years at a new organization so I decided to try it.  I needed a change and this seemed like a good fit for me.  I figured it was good for me to try something different and enjoy a fresh start.


Mike in Europe-2010

It was a busy spring with this new job and with Mike and Alex travelling to Europe for the memorial service for my father-in-law.  They were returning his ashes to the family burial site in Poland and a memorial service was also planned.  Alex was going to carry the urn with the ashes into the church in the procession with the priest.  He had quite a year with this and being a pallbearer for his Great Grandma.


Alex in St.Andrews, NB-2010
We took advantage of the fact that everyone was healthy and really embraced getting away and enjoying life.  It was a summer of more travel and family adventures.  We had our usual Tarnowski family gathering in the early summer in Maine and then took a family road trip to the east coast of Canada.  It was fantastic to be all together and we did some memorable things like whale watching and Mike and the kids went kayaking.  I didn’t feel like my arms were ready for that yet so opted out of that adventure unfortunately.
Tasza & I in Punta Cana-2010


We capped off the year with a family trip to Punta Cana in the Dominican Republic.  This was the first time our kids had been to the Caribbean and Christmas was a good time since we were all off work and school.  Plus I sadly didn’t have my Grandma to visit anymore so we decided to say to heck with Christmas shopping and cooking and entertaining and being crazy busy and just made a decision to get some last minute tickets and away we went.  It was amazing!  The kids loved it and we really connected.  These times away with just the four of us are the most precious memories to me and I will cherish them forever.



Roam - The B-52's

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Monday, November 3, 2014

O SOLE MIO

At the International Cancer Control Congress.
In November of 2009, I was doing some work with the Canadian Cancer Action network and I was very fortunate to attend the International Cancer Control Congress.  This in itself was fantastic but the location of the conference was a dream come true!  It was being held in Cernobbio, Italy at Lake Como.  I was going to travel with my friend and colleague and since it was a once in a lifetime kind of trip for us we decided to stay an extra few days and do a bit of travel.
View from the ferry on Lake Como.
We arrived in Milan and travelled north to Cernobbio on Lake Como.  It was such a beautiful place!  Even in November.  We loved it right from the start.  There were fancy restaurants, charming hotels, beautiful shops with incredible clothes and extremely expensive shoes. And the scenery was spectacular!

Sights along the way to Bellagio.

The beauty of Bellagio.
The first day we got through the jet lag and explored the area.  Then we attended the conference for the duration and it was so interesting.  The workshops we participated in were so informative and I found it incredibly interesting to see that in so many cultures there was still a stigma attached to those living with cancer.  I sure took away a lot of information from this conference.

Evening ferry arrives.
After the conference ended  we decided to skip the city of Milan and take the ferry up Lake Como to Bellagio instead.   This was one of the most beautiful days with lots of sunshine, amazing scenery and Bellagio itself was just incredible.  When we left Cernobbio we took the train through the mountains to Zurich in Switzerland and stayed there for a couple of nights.  This was just an unbelievable trip and we saw so many beautiful places.  We were good travel companions and had lots of laughs.

There were so many things I loved about Italy and Switzerland.  Food portions were smaller, we ate later in the evening, we did not walk around with extra-large coffees instead we sat down and enjoyed a small cup and then moved on.  I discovered Limoncello.  And we stopped by the gelato place at least twice a day so that we could try all the flavours before we left.
Zurich, Switzerland.

It was an amazing time of learning and living and discovering.  I absolutely love to travel and experience new places.  Travel creates memories to reflect on whenever you might be having a bad day.  You can just close your eyes and transport yourself pretty much anywhere in the world.




O Sole Mio - The Three Tenors



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Thursday, October 2, 2014

FIX YOU

One day I decided to sit down and write a thank you letter to all of the doctors that had helped me along the way with this breast cancer experience.  This included my family doctor, the surgeon that did the bi-lateral mastectomy, the medical oncologist, the radiation oncologist, my ob-gyn that did the hysterectomy and the surgeon that did the breast reconstruction surgery.  I am thankful for each of them and grateful to have such good caregivers available to keep me alive.  I would like to share this letter with you. (I have not used their names.)  Please thank all of your health care providers every chance you get!

This letter is to thank all of you for taking such great care of me during my breast cancer experience.  Your expertise, together, has no doubt saved my life.  I wanted you all to know how much your contribution has made to my life throughout this process and now as I am finally able to consider it all in the past.

Dr. Family Doctor, in August 2006 when you delivered the news to Mike and I that the biopsy results confirmed the presence of cancer, our life changed forever.  I imagine that as a doctor it must be a difficult thing to do.  However, the manner in which you told us was very much appreciated and you always have such a caring way of speaking.  As our family doctor since we moved to Ottawa in 1990, it meant so much to us that you chose to deliver this news to us.  Also, when I was admitted to the hospital in December 2006 with neutropenia, I was touched to receive a phone call from you checking up on me.  I was grateful to have you in my corner.

Dr. Surgeon, we knew within the first few minutes of meeting you that we were in good hands.  Literally.  You made us feel very comfortable, you did a great job of alleviating our fears, you explained options to us very carefully and you always maintained a positive, but honest, outlook.  The original option, based on the mammogram and biopsy results, to perform a lumpectomy followed by radiation was not to be.  Your decision to order an MRI changed everything.  I will be forever grateful to you for that.  If not for the MRI results leading to the next step of chemotherapy, mastectomy and radiation, I might still have cancer.  I also appreciated your acceptance of my decision to have a bi-lateral mastectomy for my own piece of mind to be sure that I did everything in my power to prevent the cancer from returning.   The same goes for the hysterectomy suggestion after learning that the cancer I had was hormone positive.


 Dr. Oncologist, your conversation with Dr. Surgeon (while I was in his office) and recommendation to have chemotherapy immediately and surgery afterwards, was very comforting.  It made me feel that we were moving into attack mode and doing whatever was possible to prevent the spread of the cancer.  Since you agreed to see me that same week, without an appointment, it was both scary but comforting at the same time.  I felt like I was going to be looked after very well and that someone really cared about my situation.  After meeting you, I remember Mike saying that under different circumstances you would be a great guy to sit down and have a beer with!  Obviously you made us both feel comfortable.  You continued to do so at each and every visit.

Dr. Radiation Oncologist, the first time meeting with you made me smile.  I love your accent and appreciate the way you explained things to me so meticulously.  The radiation treatments that I received added to my piece of mind that I was doing everything possible to prevent this cancer from coming back.  I appreciated that you let me make this decision but that you explained the process and reasons for it so that I could make a well-informed choice.

Dr. Obstetrician-Gynecologist, you have been with me since my son was born in 1995 and my daughter in 1998.  I always felt well-cared for by you.  Having a hysterectomy was another decision that I felt was necessary on the path to prevention.  You accepted this with no problem at all and made me feel totally at ease with this choice.  My friends teased my about my “weight-loss plan” that involved removing body parts periodically.  I thank you for being there when my children were babies and for the hysterectomy so that I can be here when they have babies.

Dr. Reconstruction, when I attended your presentation on breast reconstruction I knew right away that I wanted to have this procedure and that I wanted you to do it.  You noted that no woman deserves to go through breast cancer and your commitment to help restore survivors to a feeling of “completion” really struck me.  I am grateful for your sense of humour and for putting me back together.  I finally feel, for the first time since August of 2006, like I am back from “cancer world”.

To all of you, although I have scars and side-effects, the biggest impression on me is the dedication, skill, commitment, kindness, compassion and remarkable team of doctors that contributed to my being here in good health to write this thank you letter.  Finally, after three years, I am feeling great and as much like my old self as I have ever felt.  This is because of all of you individually and collectively as part of an amazing team.  I am fortunate to have had you all on my side every step of the way.

Of course I would be remiss if I didn’t mention a HUGE thank you to all of the wonderful nurses, technicians and other healthcare professionals that always provided quality care with a warm smile.  Whether it was the nurses in the chemo room, the porters moving stretchers around, the appointment schedulers, the radiation technicians, the receptionists, the nurses and interns in the operating rooms, I must say that everyone contributed to my well-being at some point along the way.   I am blessed to live so close to the Ottawa Hospital and Cancer Centre.

So, thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything you have all done for me and for my family.  If you ever have a bad day, think of people like me that are so very grateful to you.  Think of my husband, my children, my father, my family and friends.  What you do, every day, provides us all with hope, inspiration and a healthy future.


With heartfelt thanks.




Fix You - Coldplay


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Friday, September 5, 2014

FOREVER YOUNG

Clara E. Slomke (aka Grandma)
It’s been 5 years since I lost my beloved Grandma.  The summer of 2009 was a wonderful time and also a sad time.  After our grand adventure to western Canada and back through the US, my dear Grandma fell ill and asked to be taken to the hospital.  At the age of 99 she was still living on her own and had always been quite healthy however she had developed pneumonia and things did not look good.  So we took off immediately for the 8 hour drive back to Manitoulin Island to be with her.

Although the doctors said that the day and night before they thought they were going to lose her, when I got there she seemed like her old self.  She was talking and laughing and telling me she needed to get her hair done and wanting to know what Victor had been up to on the Young and the Restless.  The family had gathered and we all had some time alone with her.  I had already told my Grandma many times how much I loved her and how awesome she was and how lucky I was to have her for a Grandma.  We were always very close and after my Mom passed away we got even closer.  This day was so hard and I could see that she was fading.  She kept telling us all to go home to bed.  She was really insistent.  We all said our goodbyes.  I hugged her so tight and told her that I loved her and that she could stop fighting and go to see her daughter (my Mom) and her husband that she had missed so terribly for so many years.
Me, my brother and our Grandma

She passed during the night and I left the hospital feeling empty and sad.  On the drive from the hospital in the early morning hours during that time when it is not totally dark anymore but not quite light, I saw something up ahead on the side of the road.  I slowed down and looked right into the eyes of a wolf.  It was incredible.  I have never seen a wolf by the roadside like that.  It was not scared or angry.  It just looked peaceful and sad.  We made eye contact for what seemed like forever and then it slowly turned and walked back into the forest.  I felt an incredible peace wash over me. My Grandma had said a special goodbye.  We had always had a pact that whichever one of us died first we were going to give the other a sign that we were okay.  I got mine.  I cannot explain how this felt and you might think I am making this up but I’m totally not.  After what seemed like time standing still I started driving.  Moving forward into my life without my precious Grandma.
My daughter & her Great Grandma
We somehow got through the next few days and all of a sudden the funeral was about to begin.  My Grandma had asked me years before to do her eulogy when the time came.  I was honored.  However when I actually had to write something I wanted to be sure that I could do her justice and make her proud.  Funny that usually when old people die it is sad but expected.  It never seems quite as tragic as when a younger person dies.  However, she was 99 and had been in so many people’s lives for so long that to not have her around was going to be a huge adjustment.  She was still living on her own and smart as a whip and sharp as a tack!  So even at 3 months shy of her 100th birthday it was still a shock for everyone who loved her.


My son & his Great Grandma
My Grandma lived a long and wonderful life.   She was loved by many.  I, for one, admired her.  I think she was a truly amazing woman and I miss her terribly.  I feel so blessed to have had the good fortune to call her Grandma.  She gave me so many gifts, memories, stories and smiles.  I am thankful for this.  She taught me so very many things that she herself probably never intentionally planned to teach but did so more by example.  She taught me about independence, strength, relationships and balance.  These are things that have been inspirational to me and that have helped guide the choices in my own life and the way I handle each new challenge.

Me & my Grandma.  Best ever.
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Tuesday, August 12, 2014

LIFE IS A HIGHWAY

My Family - Lake Louise, Alberta - 2009

When our kids were born we had four trips that we wanted to experience with them including Disneyworld, the Canadian Rockies in the west, the east coast of Canada and Poland.  We did Disney the summer just after I found the lump.  The summer of 2009 was the big western adventure!

We had one month to do the trip.  We planned to drive through Canada and come home through the US.  I had been dreaming about this trip.  It brought back memories of when I was a kid and my family travelled with our camper.  I was hoping it would give our kids the same kind of good memories.  We borrowed a tent trailer, packed way more stuff then we needed, planned out a route, got a bunch of maps and we were off! 

The first night of the trip was not top promising.  When we finally got everything set up, we got attacked by mosquitos bigger than anything I have ever seen, it was rainy and cold, lightning and thunder added to the rain and then there was a bear or two wandering around the campground.  Mike was tempted to park the tent trailer for the month and pick it up on the way back in four weeks.  We trudged on though and the trip turned out to be amazing!  Except for several rainy days, the only thing that was negative was the extreme stiffness I was getting in my legs, feet and hands.  This was all due to the side effects of the medication I was taking called Arimidex.  After spending several hours sitting in the truck it was all I could do to stand and then walk whenever we would stop.  I lived with the pain and just tried to put it out of my mind and focused on the scenery and experiences we were having together.  I will never forget that summer.  It was incredible.
My Son - Top of Fairview Mountain
Lake Louise, Alberta-2014

One of the highlights was visiting the Chateau Lake Louise in Alberta where Mike and I first met.  That is where our life together started that brought us to present day with our two beautiful children and our solid friendship, mutual respect and love.  The love of my life.  To share this beautiful place with our children was amazing.  If you have never heard of Lake Louise you should Google it.  You will be in awe of the gorgeous scenery.  The mountains and the color of the lake and the natural surroundings are fantastic.  As it turns out, our son Alex is following in our footsteps and working there this summer of 2014 which is 28 years after Mike and worked there.  He is having some pretty great experiences and adventures and creating his own memories for when he is old like his parents!

My Family - Mount Rushmore, South Dakota-2009
We finished our travels back to Ontario and to Manitoulin Island so we could visit with my Dad and Sheila and of course my beloved Grandma who was 99 years young!  She and I spent every day together and I loved her company.  I am the oldest of the grandchildren and we have always had a special bond.  It got even stronger after my Mom passed away.  This visit I felt something was a bit different.  Grandma seemed a bit tired and she said she was getting a flu or a cold or something.  Anyway, we talked and laughed and visited as we always did.  I could sit with her for hours.  As usual, I cried like a baby when we had to say goodbye before the drive back home.


One month of travelling and we finally made it back home with many miles on our vehicle, lots of laundry, tons of new memories and a bunch of great stories to share.  My heart was full and I was very, very happy.

Life Is A Highway - Tom Cochrane

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Tuesday, July 15, 2014

I CAN HELP

Tasza & I - Ottawa, Ontario - Winter 2014
I had thought that once I got through this whole cancer thing I would have some sort of epiphany.  You know like there would be some big major change in my life or shift in focus due to the whole cancer experience.  I kept waiting for this to happen.  I had read how it had made other people change their lives for the better.  But then I started to realize that my life was pretty darn good before this all happened.  It’s not like I had some kind of addiction that I needed to get over, or that I was in a bad relationship that I was going to leave, or that I had some really bad habits that I needed to change.  I was already living my life in a healthy positive way and I had an awesome husband and family that I loved very much.  I had good friends and a good job and a nice home and was generally quite fit and healthy.  Maybe my epiphany was that I went through this cancer trip for a reason and the reason is to be able to help others.  To be an example.  To give back.  I don’t know but it seemed to me like there were things happening all around me that were signs that I should be listening to and acting on.

Alex & I - Ottawa Airport - Spring 2014
Many women in my community told me that they had seen me around town pre-cancer and knew that I was active and running and that it scared them to find out that I still ended up with cancer.  They then saw me around town looking puffy and bald and that because of me they went for a mammogram.  Wow that is pretty amazing when you think about it.  I guess they thought that if it happened to me it could happen to them.  Now they were seeing me again and now I was looking close to being back to normal.  One woman that lives just up the street from me was diagnosed around this time and although I did not know her well I was asked by a mutual friend to call her.  So I did and we had several talks over the coming months.  At one point she had told me her young children did not like that she was bald and it kind of scared them.  So one day as I was driving past and I saw them outside I told the kids that I too was bald like their Mom was but that my hair grew back and that hers would too.  Maybe that helped.  I sure hope so.

I had several opportunities to share my story with others and I was given another chance to share in June of 2009.  Someone from the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer had my name and passed it on to the producer of a video series that they were working on.  The series, called “The Truth of It”, is an unscripted video series about cancer.  It is an online collection of patient stories that offer peer support with a diverse group of people speaking very personally about their cancer experiences.  The interviews were going to be part of a website to provide newly diagnosed patients with peer to peer advice about the discovery, treatment and experience of cancer.  Kind of a virtual support.  I decided to do it.

One day in June the film crew showed up at my house and took over the main floor with the set up and lighting and other equipment.  I sat down with the director and she just started talking to me and asking me questions.  I just answered her as if we were two friends talking and not so much like an interview.  It felt perfectly natural and not staged or anything so I liked that.

A few weeks later we received a rough cut of the video.  I watched it and I cried.  Then Mike
Mike & I - Summer 2014
watched it and he cried.  Then the kids watched and they cried and I cried again.  Then I had a huge meltdown.  It is a very strange experience to see yourself on TV and hear yourself talking.  Especially about something so personal.  At one point it hit me that this woman on the screen was ME!  That all of that stuff actually happened to me.  To us.  Of course I know that it did but many days I simply just put it out of my head as much as I possibly could, like it never happened and here it was spewing out of my own mouth.  I was trying so hard to look forward because it was very hard to look backward.  It was overwhelming.  
I was looking forward to the final cut.  When it finally went online I was pretty excited. Here it is if you have a few minutes to spare:

I ended up posting the link on Facebook and got so many comments from people.  One friend that I have known since elementary school wrote me a beautiful message about how this video inspired her to make some changes in her own life as she was struggling with her own issues.  She wrote:
“I had NO idea you were a cancer survivor. I have just finished watching your video and cannot even begin to express how inspired I am by your strength, your attitude, your insight and perspective.

I have been struggling with health this year too.  At times I have felt frustrated and hopeless when I was left with only a fraction of daily functioning compared to my normal standard. I lost my way for a while and let negativity get the best of me. That has been overcome now, and I dare say having been exposed to your journey by that video, it will not likely return.

Whatever my struggles have been this year, I feel like I have gathered so much fortitude from your experience. Thank you so much for sharing it openly here, you cannot possibly imagine how deeply and positively it has impacted me.

What better time to offer my sincere thanks than at Thanksgiving. May it be joyful, healthy, abundant and peaceful for us all.”

I had really hoped in my heart that my story might help someone else in some small way so it really makes me happy that it did.  It all happened for a reason and more and more it seems that reason might be to help others.

I Can Help - Billy Swan




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Sunday, June 22, 2014

GIVE A LITTLE BIT


Throughout all of the surgeries and treatments, I always had the gifts of family and friends to get me through.  Mike, as always, was my strength, my rock.  My beautiful children were my inspiration.  My Dad and Sheila were my comfort.  My friends were my hope.  All of them gave me so many gifts with their time and their love and their caring.  They also gave me actual gifts!  I can’t believe the things I got and each and every one was special.  I kept a list of all of these gifts so that I could send out a thank you card to each person.

During my treatments I received angel ornaments, pjs, blankets, books, tons of flowers, magazines, candies, muffins, a huge assortment from my work colleagues with movies, bath bubbles, games, magazines and gift cards; bagels, jewellery, bathrobe, scrapbooking stuff, plants and of course my victory bell and my Victoria’s quilt that I still drag around with me everywhere.

When I was in the hospital for my isolation stay I received many books, flowers, scrapbooking stuff and lots of folks brought food to Mike and the kids.  That was so very much appreciated.  After the mastectomy, there were so many plants and flowers the house was starting to look like either a funeral home or a flower shop!  Also much food and more angels.  After the hysterectomy and the reconstruction surgery there were more flowers and plants, creams, lotions, bubble bath, magazines, books and nail stuff.  There were also several times where our friends gave rides to our kids to hockey or school events when we could not do it.

And the cards!  Wow there are over 100 cards that I received in the mail.  There is nothing like getting an old fashioned snail mail card with a hand written message in it.  I saved them all and read them from time to time.  Some are encouraging, some are funny, some give advice, some are to let me know someone is thinking about me or praying for me, many offer some kind of alcoholic beverage when I am up to it, many wish me to get better, some send hugs and others have such incredible words that I can’t believe are directed at me.  I mean how often do you really sit down and think about yourself in the way others might see you?  I mean really see you.  So many times we might compare ourselves to others in the way that we look, or act or the type of car we drive, or the home we live in or the job we have.  We might often wonder what others think about us more in these superficial ways but to think in more meaningful terms is probably not something we do very often.  However, I do think our perspective changes as we get older and our priorities start to shift.

Friends - Summer 2013
When I look at the words that my friends, family and colleagues have written to me it makes me feel like I am not worthy.  I am no hero.  I just did what I had to do like I have always done.  Mike told me that although anyone would do what they had to do, it was the way I did it that touched people.  Then it makes me feel proud of myself and that maybe I am all of those things that people said.  Then I think of my parents and feel so thankful that they raised me the way they did and I hope that I have passed these things on to my own children.  I would like to share some of these words that are comforting but at the same time make me feel uncomfortable in that I can’t believe it is me they are talking about.

  • Thank you for being such an example of courage and optimism for us to emulate.
  • I am so proud of you; your gratitude, spirit, and confidence inspire me every day.
  • You are our constant hero.
  • You remain an inspirational mentor.
  • Your strength, courage and tenacity have been awe-inspiring.  Thanks for being such a great role model.
  • Your optimistic and cheerful spirit will see you through.
  • You are an inspiration in strength and spirit.
  • Your positive attitude, your determination to get your healthy life back and your wonderful ability to put things in perspective are amazing.
  • I am always amazed at your courage and strength.
  • Your serenity, courage and wisdom are an inspiration.
  • Your great attitude inspires me.
  • I honestly believe that your positive outlook has actually given us all much hope, joy and peace and to take time to reflect on all of our lives and attitudes.  Thank you for this.
  • Your inner strength, positive attitude, compassionate nature and constant drive to enrich the lives of others around you make you one of the most caring people I know.
  • You have such an endless well of strength, good cheer and confidence that this cancer thing doesn’t have a chance.

These words are gifts in themselves.  The best gifts.  On the days when I felt alone or at rock-bottom I could always draw on these words and they would lift me up.  They always will.


Give a Little Bit - Roger Hodgson (Supertramp)


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Wednesday, May 28, 2014

THE MONSTER

As I was settling in to life post-cancer I was starting to accumulate many instances when people asked to talk to me about my experience.  This was usually because they knew someone close to them that had just been diagnosed like a friend, sister, cousin or whatever and they wanted to help them.  They wanted to do something and didn’t know what to do or where to start.  They often asked me because they knew I had just been through it.  I did my best to answer their questions and offer suggestions and advice based on my own experience.

It is so much better to talk to someone that has first-hand information rather than just reading about it in a book or online.  When I was first diagnosed I had called my friend Jenn because she had just been through the cancer ordeal.  It was probably the best info I got.  She is my college friend that was diagnosed at age 35.  By the way she has since gotten married and they have a beautiful young son!  At one time it was thought that might never be possible.

Jenn, Julie and me - Fall 2003 (before cancer)
One day in February 2009, on Family Day of all days, I got a call from our mutual friend Julie.  I just about fell over when she told me that she too had just been diagnosed with breast cancer!  Julie had just had their second child and was still breast feeding for goodness sakes!  How could all three of us at such young ages who were all healthy and active women just all of a sudden end up with breast cancer???  This was just so wrong.  She was breastfeeding and found a lump.  Can you believe that?  Wow.  I was in shock but did my best to answer her questions and told her I was just a phone call or email away for anything at any time.

I could not get over how often how this cancer monster was rearing its ugly head.  Maybe because I had gone through it myself I was more aware now than ever about it. Not a day went by that I didn’t hear the name of this monster.

Even now there are friends and family of mine that are dealing with recent diagnoses and it breaks my heart and makes me so angry.  I am sending prayers and positive vibes to everyone out there reading this that has been personally touched by cancer.  Especially to my cousin Eddie and his family and to my friend Erin and her husband Peter who is starting out on his cancer journey.  And to two other women that I just heard about in the past 24 hours! They are all on a journey that nobody wants to take with a monster that nobody wants around.

Stupid effing cancer.

The Monster - Eminem and Rhianna



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Wednesday, May 14, 2014

HOW BIZARRE

Brockville, ON - Summer 2013
Once things were healed I knew that it was all worth it.  I would do the surgery again in a second even though the pain afterwards was so excruciating.  It was a 6.5 hour surgery.  That is a long time.  Now that I had these new breasts that were definitely different than what I originally had, it was going to take some getting used to.  And some adjustments!  I know this is kind of bizarre but picture two new breasts just built.  Kind of like a sundae without the cherry on top if you know what I mean.  So I made arrangements with Dr. Surgeon to have the finishing touches done.

This next part is the most bizarre and awkward experience ever!  It is actually kind of unnerving to be writing this and know that people will be reading it.  It makes me feel somewhat awkward but at the same time it is not an everyday subject and something that others can learn from.  Women and men.  So here goes….


Let’s start with the plain old sundae which is basically the two new breasts.  Now you can choose to just leave things as is or you can choose to add some toppings.  After living with them for a while I decided to add the toppings.  The areola area was the first thing to add.  How do they do it?  Tattoos.  Yep Tattoos.  Who knew?  I certainly didn’t.  Let me tell you that it was the most bizarre experience of this entire journey I think.  There is a tattoo artist that goes to my surgeon’s office at the hospital on a regular basis to do the areola tattoo procedure for his patients.  Mike came with me for the procedure and when we saw the tattoo artist he looked just like any of the guys working in the tattoo shops downtown.  Except this was the hospital and it just seemed so out of place.  He was a super nice guy and we were made to feel very comfortable.

The first thing we had to do was choose a size.  By that I mean the size of the circle.  Was it the size of a quarter or a small plate?  He had templates with various circle sizes that he held up to my plain vanilla sundaes so that we could get a better idea.   Eventually my husband helped me choose one that was close to the size we both thought I was before.  The entire time I was trying not to break into fits of laughter.  I mean really can you imagine doing this?  Then the next thing was to pick the colour.  Was it more pink or more brown?  That took some time to determine as well.  Worse than picking out tile colour for your floor or which shade of white to put on your walls.  Finally when we had made all of our picks, the work began.
Mike & I - Paris, France - Summer 2012

As I was lying flat on my back on the examination table in the room, looking up at my husband and the tattoo guy chit-chatting about gas prices over me while he was freezing my skin and getting the colour prepped, I could not believe how bizarre this was.  I could never have imagined anything like this ever happening to me in my life!  So strange!  Although I did not really have much feeling in my new breasts, they froze me anyway just to be sure.  After the outline of the areola was done, the tattoo pigment was applied and before I knew it I was done and ready to head home.  It was quite extraordinary to have had this experience that was both incredibly weird and fascinating all at the same time.  Another artist had made his mark on my body in the process of putting Humpty Dumpty back together again.

A few weeks later I had one more trip back to have the nipple reconstruction done.  Dr. Surgeon just froze me again and used a needle and thread basically to pull some skin together to make a “nipple”.  Again, weird but now I was done.  The cherry was on top of the sundae.



How Bizarre - Otara Millionaires Club (OMC)



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Sunday, April 13, 2014

WRECKING BALL

Flowers from my garden

Back to the hospital I went for what I hoped was going to be the last surgery for me for many years.  You would think I would have become used to this but I still felt kind of nervous on the way there.  As I noted before, you sometimes hear these stories about people that go in for some kind of routine surgery and then some weird thing happens and they die on the operating table.  That is always in the back of my mind I guess.  Plus the anesthesia always freaks me out.

After I said the painful goodbye to Mike and was wheeled off on my own I started to get a little bit more nervous.  I had no idea what to expect but I was confident I was in good hands.  Literally.  Once I got into the operating room and had the shot of stuff that knocks you right out, I had one last glimpse of my surgeon setting his iPod into a dock.  I remember wondering what music he might be listening to while sculpting my body into something new and improved.  Then I was out.

I woke up feeling worse than I had ever felt in my life.  I was pretty sure I was nearly dead and had no doubt been hit by a wrecking ball then run over by a huge truck hauling something very heavy and then dragged around for several hundred miles.  I was pretty drugged up and not quite sure what was going on.  My surgeon came to see me and started calling me “dopey”.  That stuck for the remainder of my stay at the hospital which was several days.  You have to remember that there are two recovery spots on my body with this type of surgery.  One is in the abdominal area where the tissue was removed and then the site on my chest where this was transplanted.  In order to keep the blood circulating properly with the reattachment of the blood vessels, I had to stay warm.

My beautiful family at home - Fall 2008
There was a blanket on me that felt like parchment paper and had tubes in it and was hooked up to a machine that was pumping heat into the blanket.  I would get to the point sometimes where I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t stand the heat and wanted to just rip off the blanket and all of the other machines I was hooked up to and run screaming out of the hospital.  I never did that though.  I kept asking myself, “What the hell was I thinking?  Why did I do this?”  Those first 48 hours were just awful.

When I was finally able to sit up I was so dopey that I could not hold my head up.  However, after a few days things started to get a little bit better each day.  I still had not actually seen what I looked like.  Nor did I seem to care at first since all I wanted was to sleep so that I couldn’t feel anything.  Soon I was eating and starting to feel a bit more human except that I was afraid that if I moved too much I would bust open everywhere and my guts would come pouring out.  Eventually I could get out of bed and finally I was able to go home.  I was to see the doctor once a week for the next month or so.

My Dad and I - Manitoulin Island - Summer 2013
When I got home I was finally able to see how things looked.  I went into the bathroom and surveyed myself in the mirror.  I looked like a train wreck again.  I had staples on the incision from one hip bone to the other.  My new breasts were also stapled on the top and bottom of each breast kind of in the shape of an eye and then up into my armpits.  There was still swelling, etc…so it was hard to judge but I could already tell that it was going to look good.  It struck me that maybe it was hard for my family to imagine what I looked like and it is hard to explain so perhaps they might want to actually see it for themselves.  Some of them did and they were absolutely amazed.  Although it was a bit unsettling to see so much metal I think.    

Just being home makes you feel better.  The next day a couple of my friends came over and I was trying to describe things to them until I finally said do you just wanna see?  They both immediately said “YES” and pretty much jumped on me.  They too were amazed.  Dr. Reconstruction is an artist and because this is his craft he wants to do the best possible job for every one of his patients.  He is very talented.

Wrecking Ball - Miley Cyrus


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Saturday, March 29, 2014

CUTS LIKE A KNIFE


Summer 2013 - Quebec City, Quebec
During the summer of 2008 I made the decision to explore the options for breast reconstruction.  I researched some names of surgeons in the Ottawa area and booked some consultation appointments. 

These surgeons are very busy and there are not very many of them in my area.  I knew that I would have to find someone that I felt very comfortable with since this was such a personal thing and a major surgery.  It was important to me that I was in the hands of someone that I could trust. One of these surgeons periodically gave a general presentation for a large audience to explain the various procedures and options available for women considering reconstruction surgery.  He provided photos and diagrams and it was extremely informative.  I was able to make my first appointment with him for the fall of 2008.

From the very first meeting I liked this surgeon (who I will refer to as Dr. Reconstruction).  Dr. Reconstruction was awesome.  He seemed to have so much passion for what he did and I really considered him an artist of sorts.  He said that “no woman should have to go through this breast cancer crap” and I honestly felt that he was committed to helping as many of us as possible to feel “normal” again.  I jumped on another learning curve to find out everything about breast reconstruction.

Friends - Bridal Veil Falls - Summer 2013
There are several options for women post-mastectomy.  The first option is to do nothing.  The second is to use prosthesis but that did not work out for me as I have already explained in a previous post.  The next two options include implant reconstruction or natural tissue reconstruction.  I was not a candidate for the implant surgery due to the radiation treatments that I had.  So that just left me with the natural tissue reconstruction option.

This is further broken down into either a TRAM Flap or Latissimus Flap procedure.  For either of these the patient needs to be a non-smoker, have no significant other pre-existing health problems or certain previous abdominal incisions.  Some women have this type of procedure done at the time of the mastectomy.  The surgeon that did my mastectomy did not recommend this.  He felt that it was better to heal properly and live with the results of the mastectomy for at least a year and then you would better appreciate the reconstruction.  I could not agree more.  I think if I had of gone into an operation room with my breasts intact and then come out with something completely rebuilt with the scarring and bruising then it would have been quite a shocker.  I mean it was a shocker to come out with no breasts at all but then I kind of got used to it and healed and then was able to have a greater appreciation for the art of reconstruction.

There are several advantages to the TRAM Flap surgery including the fact that the breasts are made of natural tissue.  The thought of implants and exposure to synthetic materials was not for me.  Just like the prostheses and wigs I guess.  Since the TRAM surgery uses your abdominal tissue to rebuild the breast, a tummy tuck in the process was a major bonus to consider.  Hell ya!  Women pay big bucks for that.  There are disadvantages of course and it is a very long procedure with decreased abdominal strength, much scarring and unpredictability of what the new breasts will look like.  The recovery time is also quite lengthy.

Me - Summer 2008
The way it works is that the surgeon transfers a section of skin, muscle, fat and blood vessels from one part of your body to your chest and creates a new breast mound.  The tissue for rebuilding could come from your abdomen, back or buttocks.  For me it was going to come from my abdomen and Dr. Reconstruction said he was going to spare as much muscle as possible so that I would retain as much strength as possible in my abdomen.  Due to the intricate nature of the reattachment of blood vessels which is critical to the survival of the transplanted tissue, my surgeon made sure that I was not a smoker or diabetic.

I also had to think about expected outcomes.  I knew that this surgery was not going to make me look like I was before and that it would not bring back any sensations that you feel in a normal breast.  However, I knew that it would make me feel better in my clothes, in swimsuits, help to diminish the reminders of the cancer, and generally just make me feel better in many ways.  I knew that this was an amazing opportunity with some risks but I made my decision to do it.  The surgery was scheduled for October 6, 2008.

Cuts Like a Knife - Bryan Adams


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