Monday, September 24, 2012

Cancer Check-Up, September 2012

Two years ago today, I was in Augusta, GA racking my bike in the transition area for Augusta 70.3.  The incision from my breast biopsy had healed and I was in probably the best shape of my life.  I was working my way through the stages of grief over my diagnosis.  I wasn’t quite at acceptance, but I was getting there.  The next day, I would be racing Augusta 70.3, my second half-Ironman.  Joe and a bunch of my training buddies were there with me.  Joe was there to be our tri-sherpa (carry our gear, take pix, encourage, etc) and the friends were there to race with. 

Lynn and Al had graciously offered to watch the kids so that Joe and I could have one last “fling” before my surgeries and treatments started.  We didn’t know what I’d be able to do once everything got going, but we knew it was going to take many many months.  Most people would consider racing a half-Ironman an odd choice of “flings”, but that’s just how we Crazy Joes roll. 

The weekend was full of friendship, laughs, hard work and rain.  Lots and lots of rain!  It literally rained throughout my entire race.  It started with a steady downpour at the start of the swim.  Sometimes it slowed to just a sprinkle, like during the run, but there were plenty of times when it was raining so hard on the bike that I could barely see.  Through it all, I was laughing, asking Mother Nature if that was all she had for me.  I had CANCER for God’s sake.  A little rain wasn’t gonna stop me!  It really didn’t; I went on to post my fastest half-Ironman time to date.  

Part of me wishes that I was gearing up for Augusta again as I type this, but I’m not.  I did consider it; believe me.  Mob/Crazy Joe mentality almost got the better of me.  Thankfully, Coach Joe was, yet again, the voice of reason.  I have had a very busy triathlon and running schedule this year.  I have one more half-marathon in November and possibly a few more 5Ks before the year is over.  A second half-Ironman was just not in the cards for me.

I really would like to meet my goal of running a sub-2hr half-marathon before the year is out.  I only have one more shot – the Lady Speed Stick Half-Marathon in Phoenix this November.  I will be running with two of Joe’s sisters.  Coach Joe stressed that, as much as I wanted to race Augusta with my training buddies, I really needed to focus on my running to meet my half-marathon goal.  I came sooooo close at Albany; I know I can do it. 

To those zippy-fast “I’m trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon” types, a sub-2hr half-marathon probably seems like a laughable goal.  To me, it’s a great “Screw you, Cancer, I’m still alive and kicking” kind of goal.  As I’ve mentioned, my body is not genetically engineered to go fast zippy-fast; it’s more suited to puttering around a kitchen baking goodies to hand out to those genetically blessed zippy-fast runners with the uber fast metabolism to boot after the race.  Still, a girl can dream.

You are probably wondering what the heck all my ramblings have to do with the title of this blog. 

As part of my follow-up care, I go in every three months to see my oncologist, Dr. B, and my surgeon, Dr. C.  They check the frankenboobs and my blood values to make sure that my tricky little cancer cells are still indeed dead and gone, and that, somehow, they haven’t been resurrected to take up residence in another part of my body (usually the lungs, bone or liver).  I just had my third check-up of the year, but only with Dr. B as Dr. C is deployed to the Middle East with his reserve unit.

The general rule of thumb with post-treatment cancer patients is if you have a new pain or symptom for more than two weeks, you need to go in and have it checked out.  Okay, that’s great for most “normal” people.  You all know that I am not “normal”.  I am Gen and I am an athlete.  I always have aches and pains.  If I followed the doctors’ advice (like I always do – nudge, nudge, wink, wink), I would forever be going in for them to check on some ache or pain. 

That is why I’d been seeing the massage terrorist for my back/shoulder pain.  Alas, it wasn’t getting better and I actually started to get a bit concerned.  Perhaps there really was something going on…  Then, I started having shortness of breath, even after using both of my inhalers.  I chalked that up to all the allergens floating around Middle GA and that I was really ramping up my running.  A few days before my appointment with Dr. B, I started having some chest pain and “discomfort” at the bottom of my ribcage.  “It’s nothing,” I kept telling myself, “It’ll be like when you take your car in with a rattle and it’ll be nothing.”

I dutifully went to my appointment and mentioned my symptoms, ignoring the accusatory glare from Joe when I admitted to how long I’d been having symptoms.  I’ll admit it - I purposely try to keep him in the dark so that I don’t worry him needlessly.  The nurse practitioner didn’t think it was anything either (she knows me all too well), but she wanted me to get checked out just to be on the safe side.  Twenty minutes later, after donating three vials of blood to the cause, I was getting a chest x-ray.  The next day, I got an echocardiogram. 

Just like the mechanic, the docs could find nothing wrong with me.  The chest x-ray came back normal.  My echo was normal.  My tumor marker was normal – a nice normal 11 (0-40 is WNLs).  I did have some abnormal blood values (particularly, my liver function values), but essentially everything was “normal” for me.

Aches and pains are just my “normal”.  I am an athlete and a cancer survivor.  Perhaps they are more prevalent and take longer to go away since my cancer diagnosis two years ago, but they are my normal.  This is why I don’t tell Joe or rush to the doctor.  More times than not, my aches and pains are absolutely nothing, nada, zilch.  They are just my body’s way of retaliating for all of the work I make it do. 

And so, I’ll continue to log more miles until it’s time to see Dr. B and Dr. C again in December.  By that time, I’m sure some new ache or pain will manifest itself.  This weekend though, I will ignore my own aches and pains and I will root for my friends as they race Augusta 70.3 nursing their own aches and pains.  

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

KT Tape Junkie

Hi.  My name is Gen, and I am a KT Tape Junkie.  I wasn’t always this way.  It came on gradually, but now I’m at the point that whenever I have any kind of ache or pain, I reach for a roll.  The rolls I use these days are the professional strength ones and are usually pink and purple in color, but I have also used black, blue and red.

One of my fabulous wrap
jobs on an ankle sprain
My addiction probably started in middle school.  Gymnastics is hard on growing bodies, and I was already one of those kids that had not only growing pains, but was prone to overdoing it.  If the coach said to do it ten times, I did it twenty.  Needless to say, I put my body through the wringer.  (Sound familiar?)  I suffered several sprains and one fracture during my middle school years.  I was a pro at wrapping ACE bandages around ankles or wrists.  The ACE bandage became my gateway drug.

In high school, I moved on to cheerleading and soccer.  I continued to push my body and had the injuries to prove it, spraining my ankles or hurting my knees more times than I can remember.  I had graduated to taping by that point in addition to using my old standby, the ACE bandage.  By my junior year, my soccer coach was using almost a whole roll of athletic tape to tape both of my ankles before each game.  I spent one whole football season cheering with my knee wrapped and taped up.  Back then; physical therapy and strengthening were for pro athletes or for rich kids who went to private schools that could afford to hire a real trainer.  I was neither, just a public school kid with an addiction to sport and taping.

During my young adult years, my addiction waned.  I was more focused on school and starting a career than pushing my body to the limits.  After that, came babies and tending to their needs.  So, despite being active, I was relatively injury-free. 

And then came triathlon and marathon training…

Knee taped before the
Nashville Marathon
I got my first taste of KT Tape in a goody bag from some race several years ago.  I’d been getting by with just taping and wrapping my injuries with my old standbys, an ACE bandage and white athletic tape.  KT Tape was different.  It was stretchy and came in cool colors.  It was less bulky than my ACE bandages.  It didn’t leave a sticky white residue like the athletic tape.  It was more versatile than both.

I don’t remember when I tried the KT Tape for the first time, but I know once I tried it, I was hooked.  I started out slowly, using it here and there for minor muscle pulls or strains.  And then came cancer.  The barrage of injuries brought on by training through chemo caused a huge ramping up in my KT Tape use.  Now, I’m to the point where I’ve used it on my legs, back, arms, even my butt to ease muscle pain and strain. 

My latest taping
Some people have scoffed at my use of KT Tape.  Perhaps it is just a placebo effect, but I really do think it helps ease the pain and helps my muscles heal.  I don’t use it alone though.  I compliment my use of KT Tape with physical and massage therapy as well as icing, stretching and strengthening.  I’ve also had to make some adjustments in how I work out.  Case in point: I run a lot more on the treadmill now instead of on the pavement to reduce the wear and tear on my knees.

Most people, when faced with chronic injuries would just bag the whole thing - quit cold turkey or switch sports.  I am not “most people”.  I love to run.  I really really like the sport of triathlon.  So, I continue to train and to get injured and to use my KT Tape Pro. 

Like Vanilla Ice said, “Will it ever stop?  I don’t know.” 

My favorite color of KT Tape
Perhaps I should just stick with “Ice, Ice, Baby.” 

Want to try out KT Tape for yourself?  Here's the link:  You can also buy KT Tape at most major sporting goods store or on Amazon.  

Need help figuring out just how to use KT Tape?  You can find great instructional videos on YouTube -  

Monday, September 3, 2012

Biopsy Day, Two Years Later…

Two years ago today, I went to sleep on an operating room table.  I woke up a short time later, sore and bandaged.  The only definitive information that I got from my soon to be favorite surgeon, Dr. C., was that I had tolerated the procedure well and that he had just removed a mass from my left breast.  He wouldn’t tell Joe and Joe’s best friend, Keehn, an Ob-Gyn who drove from Birmingham after being on-call the night before to sit with Joe while I went under the knife, anything other than he was “concerned.”  In medical-speak, that’s never good.  He may not have been positive, but I think he suspected that he had just removed a cancerous tumor from my breast. 

Less than two weeks earlier, I had seen the color ultra-sound pictures.  I had seen the tumor and the blood flow that snaked out from it on the ultra-sound screen.  I sensed the urgency in the radiologist’s voice telling me that, “This needs to come out,” when he brought me into the reading room less than two months after he’d first showed me something he wanted to “keep an eye on”.  I’m not stupid or naive; I suspected what I was facing. 

Dr. C removed the tumor that day, but, unfortunately, the damage was already done.  We didn’t know it at the time, but cancer cells were already in my lymph nodes.  It was only when he did the sentinel node biopsy and axillary lymph node dissection seven weeks later that we found that out.  I went from Stage I to Stage III in the blink of an eye.

Dr. C gave me my diagnosis of breast cancer on September 9th, my best friend from growing up, Alissa’s, fortieth birthday.  She hates that I got my diagnosis on her birthday, but I reminded her that if I hadn’t gotten it, I might not have been around long enough to wish her a happy birthday again. 

September 9th is my official “cancerversary”, but I always remember September 3rd as well – my biopsy day.  This year is especially poignant to me because a friend will not see her next biopsy day or her next cancerversary. 

Our friend Melody died this last week after a hard battle with ovarian cancer. Melody was an old friend of Joe and Becky’s.  Mel used to babysit Becky when she was little and was a fellow speech pathologist.  She was so creative and kind and caring and upbeat, despite all the treatments and pain she endured.  Melody always tried to put a positive spin on things.  She would have turned forty-seven this coming week.  Mel leaves behind her husband, Jay, and two beautiful little girls – Maddy and Bella.

I remember walking around Disney World after running the WDW Marathon in January 2010.  It was freezing cold, literally, and we were walking across the bridge that leads toward Liberty Square from Cinderella’s Castle.  I chuckled to myself as we passed a woman talking animatedly to her daughter while wearing a large pair of pink earmuffs in the shape of poodle heads.  Shortly after that, we were standing in line to get on Big Thunder Mountain Railroad with Carolyn and her crew and Lynn and her crew when I heard a woman joyfully yell, “JOE MATCHETTE!” at the top of her lungs.  It was the crazy lady wearing the dog earmuffs.  It was Melody. 

Melody and her husband had taken Maddy to Disney World to celebrate a year of finishing treatment.  Bella was too young and stayed at home with the grandparents.  I’m so glad that Melody got to go on that trip with Jay and Maddy.  I hope Maddy always treasures the memories of that trip.  I hope Bella too has some memories of her precious mama to hold on to in her little three-year old brain. 

When I got my diagnosis, Melody was one of the first people to reach out to me.  Despite being back in treatment herself at that point, she sent me a HUGE box of breast cancer goodies – shirts, sox, hat, robe, etc.  She called to check up on me.  She laughed with me about chemo and its’ side effects.  We made plans to go skiing when we were both recovered.  I recovered.  She did not. 

Joe was lucky enough to see Melody occasionally when he was in Texas to fly with his squadron.  Joe said that the last treatment the doctors tried to get rid of the stubborn cancer that had taken over Melody’s body made even her hands hurt.  I’m glad she’s not hurting anymore, but I still wish she was here.  I wish Jay had his wife and the girls had their mom.

Mel’s death has been hard for me to digest.  I have been fortunate enough to not have many people in my life die yet.  I think Melody’s death has affected me so much because she is the first person I know to have died of cancer since my own diagnosis.  Her death reminds me of my mortality.  My cancer was Stage III.  I have a twenty-five to thirty percent chance of recurrence within the next eight years.  I, like Melody, want to see my kids grow up, to get married and have babies of their own.  Her death reminds me that I may not get that chance.  I like to think that I will though.  As Dad says, “Think positive and you’ll get positive results.”

So, as I celebrate the second anniversary of the biopsy that removed the source of my cancer, I can’t help but smile through the tears as I remember my friend Melody walking around Disney World wearing pink doggie earmuffs, living life to the fullest!  I like to think she’s in Heaven laughing along with me. :-)

Thinking of those earmuffs always make me smile.