Tracie Cone has always been a trailblazer. This award-winning journalist is the former California Newspaper Executive of the Year. She shares a Pulitzer Prize with fellow staff members at the Miami Herald for coverage of the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew and has twice been nominated individually. She has focused her writing on helping the underdog and empowering those without a strong voice of their own. Now she takes us on the fight of her life.
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Archive for May, 2010

Yay! A Good Day!

The first leg of this nauseating ride seems to be slowing down – for now. Don’t let chemo think you don’t respect it or it sneaks up and slaps you up side the head again.
But today is a good day for several reasons.

First, my old pals Michael and Sue came down from Sacramento, allowing Michelle some much needed time when she didn’t have to fetch my water: “No I don’t want ice, can you add some lemon, yuck I can’t stand lemon right now, I’m so hot would you please put some ice in this? Oh, club soda would really taste better, could you go to the store and get some?”

It must be exhausting thinking about life with a nauseated schizophrenic for the next six months. Michael and Sue didn’t mind just sitting and watching movies in the dark all day on the first official weekend of summer.

They are the friends I can cry with as I worry about the changes that will overtake my body in the coming weeks and the increasing burden I might become. Sue came armed with teas, and vegan soup from my favorite Thai restaurant in Sac. Good friends, indeed. Yet in my depths of chemo depression I think about the friends who haven’t yet checked to see how I am doing. How is it the world keeps turning when mine stands still? An hour later I get teary over the closer friendships I have made since my diagnosis. Damned evil chemo! A big mind f@#$.

One new friend is my veterinarian, who came by to check on my dog Abi’s horrible hips because I can’t make our bi-weekly visits for the time being. Rene, who also practices Chinese medicine, administered a session of acupuncture on Abi, as she does regularly at the pet hospital. Then she said she wanted to try something on me. Applying pressure to points inside my forearm, below my knee and on top of my head, she managed to relieve all of my nausea symptoms – at least for now. I’ll take it for as long as this beautiful feeling lasts. I’ve been able to eat and even sit upright for most of the day.

That makes today a good day.

No shit! This sucks

This falls into the category of TMI, as I’m guessing a few of my posts might, but I’m here to deliver the good, bad and the ugly. So my first bit of advice if you are starting down this road is to not believe what medical professionals tell you: there is no anti-nausea medicine that does not completely and totally impact you! I have taken my meds religiously, doubling up even on the stool softeners. I’ve added prune juice, fresh cherries, some sickeningly sweet prescription syrup. I even stopped the anti-nausea meds in a desperate attempt at relief. I feel like I’ve been in labor since Wednesday. Suppositories are not allowed because tender tissues can be torn – not good when there are no white blood cells to fight infection. So I am effing miserable praying that this chemo-tainted waste leaves my body.

Friday night, Day 3 after chemo, was the worst night of my life. Imagine that time you drank waaaay too much, that borderline alcohol poisoning feeling when you try with ever fiber of your being to maintain because you feel that if you puke you’ll never stop. Then multiply it by 1,000. That was my Friday and part of my Saturday. Today I have the shakes as I wrack my brain to think of anything that sounds palatable. I spent most of the night sucking on a plum-apricot cross. The tartness tasted good, but I could eat only a fiber at a time. It took me 12 hours to finish it. Even water tastes off so I’m sipping on club soda with a splash of organic mango juice. I’m craving frozen fruit, so Michelle just ran off to Trader Joe’s. Bless her and her crazy list of things I think I probably, maybe might be able to stomach.

Right now instead of alcohol poisoning it feels like a really bad flu. Can I really do this until November?

I am also experiencing heightened senses of smell and hearing, and they are driving me crazy. A skunk sprayed our dog two months ago, but it smells like yesterday. I cannot get the TV on a low enough sound setting. And please nobody touch me.

So that’s the bad. The good is I am hearing from people I haven’t seen in decades, and some I’ve never met at all. Your uplifting emails always seem to arrive at my darkest hour. Lori, who just completed my program, called last night and talked me through some of my anxiety. A stranger who also just completed her treatment emailed today to remind me that depression is a side-effect of chemo so don’t give into it.

The universe is an amazingly wonderful place.

It’s just hair, isn’t it?

Take that, chemo! You will not rob me of my hair clump by depressing clump. I was set to shave it off, but my dear neighbor Pam owns the Spectrum, Fresno’s hottest salon. She and David treated me to an “in between” cut, my shortest ever. All spikey and short. Everyone says it’s cute (what else could they say???), but it will take some getting used to. At least when it falls out in 17 more days it won’t clog the drain.

But it’s all part of the process. Part of taking charge. I feel good, but tired on this Day 3 after my first chemo.

My days are boosted by the emails I get from people I haven’t heard from in years: high school friends, college friends, old work colleagues, local friends with whom I’ve lost touch. I feel so lucky to have met so many great people in my years on Earth, and look forward to keeping in touch in the years ahead.

Before I wrap up this short post about hair, I want to tell you about something touching one of my two sweet nieces is doing. Paige will be married June 5 and, obviously, I cannot fly to NC to the wedding. So she ordered 250 pink breast cancer bracelets and will have them in a basket at the entrance to the reception for the guests to wear. On HER day. I tear up now just thinking about it again. After the wedding she will cut her hair for “Locks of Love,” something she has been doing since grade school.

I’m lucky to have so many wonderful people in my life! Life is good.

(Picture to follow when I can figure it out)

Happy Chemo Day, May 25:

This is the day I had awaited. The cells that kept multiplying during the three weeks since my breast cancer diagnosis—and for who knows how long before that — would be under siege, at last. My HER2 pos trial finally starts! We are at war.

First a meeting with Dr Fred Dirbas, the surgeon who will remove my breast and a great deal of my lymph system in my arm pit. He’s the best at Stanford, I’m told, and works only on breasts. No decisions will be made until the halfway point when we see how much chemo will have caused the tumors to shrink by then (think lots!). He also expects to remove lymphs up into my right arm, which could leave tingling and potential for long-term swelling. That seems better than cancer, but he encourages me to read Dr. Love’s Breast Book before deciding.

Bear with me through this post, now being written 16 hours after chemo. Despite anti-nausea drugs, I am feeling light headed and dizzy. Drunk without the up side. Ativan helped me pass out after Michelle and I ate takeout Vietnamese from Tamarine back at the Westin while watching the AI finals, but sleep was fitful because of the steroids that are supposed to help my body accept the poison without an allergic reaction. I tried to envision little Mr and Ms Pac Mans gobbling up rogue cells in my blood stream. Sometimes I’d pick up my iphone and find emails and facebook messages from my friends and family and feel their love and prayers. Sigh.

At 6 I was up pawing through my giant pill bag for my next round of anti-nausea drugs, plus the required “stool softener.” I know, TMI. But it’s my reality.

I feel car sick. I guess that’s the best way to put it. And I do know car sickness. I’ve never been able to ride carnival rides or even in the back seat of a car, so they say I’m hyper sensitive to the nausea side effects. I have 5 kinds of drugs for it.

Nausea until day 5, then on days 7-10 my white blood cells will fall dangerously low. If my temp reaches 100.5, I have 45 minutes to get to the Fresno ER and tell them I’m a chemo patient with a fever. You get right in. Then about the time I’m feeling better, it starts over again on Day 14. Whoo hoo.

By Day 20 I’ll be bald, put I’m planning to take care of that myself on Thursday. A short haircut will ease the transition. Oh, yes, there will be a video.

All in all, four hours of chemo went pretty fast. After hours spent with my dear nurse and trial coordinator Mary Chen talking intensively about every precaution I must take and the odious effects I will suffer (hair, fingernails, taste buds and stomach lining sloughing), in walked my wonderful colleague Brooke Donald, looking beautifully pregnant. It was much more fun for Michelle and I to talk about her pregnancy, and the last hour flew by.

The world is a toxic place. Read labels. Know what you’re putting in and on your body and realize there are just some things you can’t necessarily do anything about. My CT scan revealed three small nodes in my lungs that they believe to be Valley fever. I’ve only lived there 3 years. Maybe I’ll wear a mask….

And remember. I will kick this with the love and support of Michelle, my mother, my sister and nieces and ALL OF YOU!

Give when you can to cancer research! No one is immune.

Bringing you up to speed

Hello Everyone:

I don’t mean for this to be a way to avoid personal contact with all of you, or for you to stealthily check in on my well-being without saying hello. I hope that by doing the thing I love – writing – I can make sense of what’s happening to me. I also hope you’ll be able to read between the lines to ensure that, even if I’m feeling poorly as these next six months unfold, my “I’m going to kick cancer’s ass” attitude that I feel now remains intact.

I’m also writing as a warning. That question asked women at the beginning of every annual exam: “Do you have a history of breast cancer in your family?” gave me a false sense of security for all of these decades. I wish I had never been asked. As the radiologist who performed my biopsies said, “Family history has to start somewhere.” Yay me.

My family doctor in Fresno found a lump in my right breast on May 3, 2010, as we were chatting about the death that morning of Lynn Redgrave – from breast cancer. She froze, stopped the physical, and called to get me an appointment the next day at the imagining facility. “Make it today,” I demanded. She did.

After the mammogram they ordered an ultrasound and asked if I had a friend who could come sit with me. I knew then it was bad. A woman in the waiting room said she would pray.

I didn’t know the extent until the ultrasound technician focused on a lump under my armpit. Oh. My. God. There were two. I shook uncontrollably. Rigors, it’s called. Michelle, who had been holding my hand, began to panic. I had a biopsy before I left the building. “Your life is about to change dramatically,” the radiologist said.

I’ve lived in fear of cancer my entire life, which some say might have caused it. I can’t remember not knowing what the word meant. My mom was diagnosed with cervical cancer when I was five. Later, when I learned it was my birth sign, I felt I was doomed. Finding it was almost a relief.

As I sit here two days before chemo starts, it still doesn’t feel real. I’m healthy and active. No tiredness, no pain. Then the indignity of a sleepless nights and dazed days, with my breast that never gave me a hint of trouble now throbbing in pain from eight core samples extracted with a needle. Mocking me. “You idiot. That’s what you get for being 5 months late for your exam.”

The first night I could not sleep. At 3 a.m., the hour when everything seems gloomiest, I emailed my old friend Fawn Germer, an author and speaker who knows everyone. Fuck, fuck, fuck, she wrote back 30 minutes later. Sometimes it’s nice to have friends in distant time zones. She knows someone who can help, she emails later, and hooked me up with a friend of hers at the National Cancer Centers Network. She got me to Dr. Robert Carlson at Stanford, who chaired the esteemed panel that wrote the breast cancer treatment protocols. He had an available appointment in two weeks. Not soon enough for me! He ended up seeing me the following Monday, one week after my diagnosis, on a day he doesn’t keep clinic hours. A good sign! Because of my otherwise good health, he recommended a clinical trial that is brutal, but potentially very effective. He said if I were his sister, he’d recommend the same thing. I felt relieved.

I already had stopped drinking, eradicated sugar, flour, yeasts and fungi from my diet, and began cleansing my body so that all systems can focus on surviving chemotherapy. There is a theory that cancer cells can’t grow in an alkaline environment, so I eliminated acid foods, too (you can find them on line). I found Lynn, a life coach, who keeps my attitude positive. It felt good to be in control of something.

My type of cancer is HER2 pos, which affects only one-quarter of women and is the most difficult to eradicate. It’s not hormone receptive, so it takes a lot of chemo to kill the cells. The trial throws in another drug that currently is used down the road, if the cancer metasticizes to the brain. The thought is if they give it up front, it will stop those rouge cells, too, and prevent a recurrence. Then I’ll get a year of Herceptin, a drug that turns off the receptor that makes my kind of cancer grow.

My boss at AP wanted me to go out on disability to focus on getting well, so I did. Sadly. I love my job and my colleagues and was just beginning to find my place there.

I had surgery at Stanford the following Tuesday to install a power port in my chest (it delivers chemo through my jugular to my heart), plus an MRI, CT scan, and echocardiogram. Chemo starts May 25, four years and one day after my dad’s death from prostate cancer. They will monitor me throughout the next 20 weeks to make sure the tumors are shrinking and my heart stays strong. I am scared, but eager to start.

From diagnosis to chemo took three weeks, a remarkably short time. If a doctor offered an appointment two weeks out, I asked for a cancellation the next day. If a radiologist asked me to come back the next day for a biopsy, I said “let’s do it now.” It’s aggressive, so I have to be more aggressive than it is.

So that, my friends, brings you up to speed. Sort of. I’ve left out my periods of fear and doubt, and my worry that I’ll be a burden on Michelle. I should not have left out the part about being able to really and truly feel the love that Michelle, my family and friends have for me. And I’ve omitted all of the signs from God and the Universe that I ultimately will be OK.

I will share this one: I was depressed one day when Fawn called, as she does nearly every day. “Go look out the window,” she said, “and find one sign that says you are going to be fine.” So I walked my pitiful self to the kitchen and looked out. There, long after California’s rainy season should have ended, was the biggest, brightest, most complete rainbow I have ever seen.

That, my friends, is my sign. The journey will be tough, but I will survive. The trial I will endure might some day save the lives of others. And my success will give hope.

These things I truly believe. And you should, too.

Love, Tracie

Why me, why now?

Because I have triumphed over the many challenges life has thrown at me and come out better in the end.

Because I am strong and can handle this, too.

Because I have Michelle, my family, my doggies and many friends to lift my spirits, the key to success.

Because three years ago there wasn’t a drug to turn off the receptor that makes this rare strain of disease grow.

Because I have always wondered what I’d look like without hair.

Because I learned to be an advocate for one’s own health care while helping my mom and dad and knew not to settle for anything less than cutting-edge treatment.

Because my mom is a 48-year cancer survivor and I come from tough stock.

Because others who face this challenge will be heartened by the higher survival rate I will help to create.

Because one in eight women will face breast cancer, so if it wasn’t me it could have been you.

Meet Tracie
Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.