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 July, 2010

People Are Inherently Nice

In my profession it’s easy to form the conclusion that people are inherently mean and that there is more hatred than love in the world. The stories about man-cased tragedies far outnumber the ones of kindness, and conflict overshadows contentment.

Now I see things much differently, hopefully as they really are. The random acts of kindness and courtesies bestowed upon my bald head have become too numerous to count.

I pick up my prescription for anti-nausea medications and the pharmacy clerk asks if it’s OK if she puts me on her prayer list. At Costco last night as I selected a long-sleeved swim shirt that blocks 100 percent of UV rays (remember chemo patients can have NO sun), I struck up a conversation with the woman in charge of the display. As I left she, too, asked if she could pray for me. “That would be nice,” I said, assuming she meant later, like the pharmacy clerk. Instead she put her hand on my shoulder and launched into a very moving prayer for my recovery right there in front of Fresno’s bulk shoppers! Sweet.

On Saturday in Carmel, a bistro owner comped my lunch after a long talk about cancer. (My mom said she had tears in her eyes as we spoke.) A woman in a gallery who survived Stage 4 ovarian cancer offered encouragement.

On our walks this past weekend along Monterey Bay, countless people approaching us in the other direction smiled broadly and gave me thumbs up.

I forgot to hold in my gut! This was on our Monterey walk...

It goes on and on.

I write this as my old friend Kim wings her way here from Florida, sacrificing two weeks of vacation to be our dog walker and to drive me where I need to be. NOBODY vacations in Fresno in the summer, or anytime for that matter.

I used to be surprised by the support all of you old and new friends are giving to help me through the toughest struggle of my life. Now I realize that’s what friends do.

But these strangers are still blowing me away. All of this amazing outpouring of kindness and compassion has made me look at how I’ve lived my life. Have I been nice enough, kind enough to strangers?

You can bet I will be in the future!

PS: It’s back to Stanford tomorrow for the new phase of chemo. Taxatere and Lapatinib. Chemo and pills designed to permeate my brain membranes, attack any rogue cells that might be hiding there, and prevent a recurrence. I should also get my test results. As bad as it sounds, I’m looking forward to some laughs. Kim and Carol, two of the funniest people I know, are driving me over. Nice!

A cool day in Monterey

I’m typing this on my phone to update you on the weekend. Michelle, my mom and I escaped the heat and foul air for the weekend. We walked briskly for a full hour this morning. I feel really good. Wish we could stay here for the rest of the summer!! it’s 65 degrees here, 105 in Fresno.

The ‘half-way-thru’ chemo tests are Friday

Hi Everyone:
As I’ve told you, we’re half way through the chemo portion of this ordeal. On Friday I spend the day at Stanford for tests that will determine for sure how well I am responding. Some tests will also determine whether the chemo is doing any permanent organ damage, which would delay my further treatment. So I need all of your positive thoughts in unison: the chemo is working as it is supposed to, the chemo is working as it is supposed to.

I’m not sure the tests will be read while I’m there, but if I learn anything Friday I will post it asap.

Then we’ll spend the weekend in Monterey, where it’s about 40 degrees cooler than Fresno, and I’ll be able to walk along the bay and breath clean ocean air!

What to eat, when I can?

When my dad was dying of prostate cancer, he once mentioned to me that he had seen something on TV that said cancer can’t grow in an alkaline body. What did that mean, we wondered? Did it mean those people don’t get cancer, but the others do?

It didn’t occur to us that you could help control the levels of alkalinity versus acidity in the body through diet.

This is the part of my program that has gotten the most pooh-poohs from the healthcare professionals I know, yet lately a few are coming around. Lovely nurse Lisa is reading a book “Eat Your Greens” (I think) and sent me over a copy of a chapter called “Greens Make the Body More Alkaline.” The chapter began with a discussion about cancer.

The page Lisa sent to me

An AP story appeared in the Fresno Bee recently about a 95-year-old man retiring from the Post Office in Riverside. His secret to a robust work life? He drinks alkaline water. After that story appeared a previous doubter asked to see the list of foods I eat.

My other doctor, Dr. Oz on afternoon TV, talks nearly every day about foods not to eat to avoid obesity and cancer. Without saying they are specifically “acid,” it’s like he’s reading from the list of foods I’m supposed to avoid: white processed breads, flours, etc.

Some friends have asked me to publish a list of foods I eat. You can find more comprehensive lists with a quick Google search on the Internet. Basically you want fresh and green, whole grains and seeds. Try to eat at least 75 percent of your foods from the alkaline category.

This is not a comprehensive list, and some lists don’t agree which foods are acidifying and alkaline, so it’s confusing. The effect often has no relation to the pH of the food itself. It’s how it reacts after digestion.

Asparagus, artichokes, cabbage, eggplant, lettuce, onions, cauliflower, radish, swede, lambs lettuc, peas, courgette, red cabbage, leeks, watercress, spinach, turnip, chives, carrot, green beans, beetroot, garlic, celery, grasses (wheat, straw, barley), cucumber, kale, Brussels sprouts, cilantro, fresh salsa, hummus, green tea.
Lemon (fresh), lime, avocado, tomato (vine ripened), grapefruit (which you can’t eat on chemo), watermelon, rhubarb.
Soy and almond milk (non sweetened)
Brown rice, almonds, pumpkin, sunflower, sesame, flax, buckwheat groats, spelt, lentils, cumin seeds, any sprouted seed, black and pinto beans.
Braggs apple cider vinegar and liquid aminos
Tahini, hemp. Figs are really high. Tofu. Sea salt.

Meats, poultry and fish, dairy products, especially milk, vinegar, white pasta, break, biscuits, soy sause, tamari, condiments (tomato sauce, mayo, mustard), artificial sweeteners, honey, oranges, coffee, tea (except green), beer, liquor, wine (boo hoo) fruit juice, dairy smoothies, sweets, chocolate, processed microwave meals, canned foods, powdered soups, fast fod, saturated fats, hydrogenated oils, margarine (worse than butter), corn oil, vegetable oil, sunflower oil, peanuts, cashews, pistachios. Aspirin, herbicides, pesticides, tobacco.

There’s a good chart here:

and here:

In closing, my runner friends Alejandro and Maria stepped up with advice regarding my dehydration. I had resorted to Gatorade, and who knows what the heck is in there besides waaaay too much sugar. Alex suggested bananas and Maria coconut juice. Both would restore my depleted electrolytes.

It just goes to show we know so very little about what makes our bodies run at optimum performance. We are more careful about the gas and oil we put in our cars than the fuel that keeps us healthy.

Just when you think you’re in control…

I just ordered a bunch of these from the Breast Cancer Action group

The most evil thing about chemo isn’t the illness it induces, I’ve decided. It’s that it’s some evil alter ego living inside one’s body that, just when you think you’ve mastered it, knocks you up side the head in some unexpected fashion. Take that, you smug cancer sufferer, it seems to say.

As you might have read a few days ago, I was all pleased with myself that I had managed to avoid the kind of “I want to die” gut-wrenching nausea that usually accompanies my rounds of chemo this go-round. I did it by getting dead cells out with a detox (chemo kills fast-growing cells, and dead cells cause toxicity in the body, my veterinarian told me as we were discussing things on Sunday. She compared it to distemper in a dog, in case you really want to know how I have felt).

Well, nausea is one thing, but other issues arose, namely dehydration. Of course it’s hot and dry here in freakin Fresno. And for some reason over the weekend water did not taste good to me. I thought I was drinking enough, but with chemo enough is never enough. I drink constantly, but on Sunday I drank less. Still it was more than you probably drink on any given day. Drinking water is a fulltime job.

Then on Sunday I fainted and couldn’t move off the sofa. Monday I felt even weaker, unable to lift my head. A neighbor sent over a blood pressure cuff. We couldn’t even get it to register. Who knew dehydration causes a dangerous drop in blood pressure? Damn you to hell chemo.

So IV fluids and water, water, water. Another detox, reflexology and a new energy bracelet courtesy of Lynn. By last night I could enjoy a wonderful dinner with friends Carol and Roseanne, my mom and wonderful Michelle, who whipped up something delicious with eggplant and tomatoes from the garden. It was my first real meal in days (30 pounds and not counting).

Today I awoke at 6, put on my running shoes and walked nearly 1½ miles. A miracle considering I couldn’t even hold my head up yesterday.

So evil chemo, I will never ever think again that I have gotten the best of you, figured you out, or found a way to take you lightly.

And today I sit here happy to be writing, sitting upright, hearing the birds chirp as I admire the laundry I have just hung out to dry. Life is good again.

Low BP scare

I’ve got some crazy strange low blood pressure issue going on right now that has zapped all of my energy — and it explains passing out yesterday. 89/59. I have no energy. Stanford medical team taking their time calling me back, but lovely nurse Lisa suggests fluids and protein. My mom and my friend Rani just made a protein drink for me. And they are forcing fluids.
I’ll let you know what’s up….

One of the bags of fluid dripped into MY HAND ouch!

THE DIAGNOSIS: Dehydration. I had two bags of IV fluids and had to promise to drink a liter more at home for dr to let me go. I feel better already. At least I have a little more energy so I can sit up and hold my head up. Tomorrow my goal is a short walk!

Over the chemo hump!!!!!!

I can’t believe we’ve been on this chemo roller coaster for eight weeks now. With the last infusion we crossed the hump: halfway through with chemo! And I’m now officially all-the-way through with the double doses of the powerful Adriamycin and Cytoxan!

(On Tuesday Michelle heard my nurse mutter ‘boy, they really give you a lot. I’m glad I didn’t hear it)

Now we switch it up until October with Taxatere, which isn’t supposed to hit as hard. Then surgery. Then radiation. Then a year of Herceptin and reconstructive surgery. What are YOU doing for the next two years?

Just as we finish up with the big guns, I have found my rhythm with this most vicious portion of my chemotherapy.

This last go-round, which I expected to be my worst, wasn’t, and I’m eager to share that with you. I changed up my holistic treatment a bit and I think it contributed greatly, along with your prayers, visualizations and uplifting energy. As I balanced precariously on the chemo abyss, Lynn and I changed the timing of the detox and reflexology regimen. Instead of at the end of the cycle, she came to our house on nausea Friday (car travel would have sent me over the edge at that point) and worked for two hours to help me. The detox was like no other of the dozens I’ve had, producing a bath of dead, dull cells unlike what usually emerges. I didn’t know what to make of it until later that day when my NAUSEA BEGAN TO SUBSIDE!!! AND I HAD NONE THE NEXT DAY (or today) and was able to throw aside my constipation-inducing anti-nausea meds. If you were living in my world right now you would appreciate this for the miracle that it is. Usually I’m clutching my knees until Monday. So now I wonder if the overwhelming nausea cancer patients suffer is caused by the billions of cells being killed off by chemo, then left floating around in the body. Does getting at least some of them out ease the process? Will anyone but me believe this is real?

Oh, I had my side effects, but mostly related to extreme fatigue. I could hardly move off the sofa all day on Saturday, but I was able to eat, which normally I can’t manage until Monday. And I got up from bed too quickly this morning and passed out, hitting the floor with such a thud that all of the sleeping people (Michelle, Sue and Michael and my mom) thought in unison “I hope that wasn’t Tracie!” That scared me, and of course made me weepy that I’m so fragile, at least on these days. But I rallied a few hours later and shuffled around the shady spots on the front yard for a few minutes (for those of you keeping score, normally I can’t shuffle until Tuesday).

Now I’m actually able to sit here upright updating you on my encouraging progress.

This is an important week for us: on Friday I head back to Stanford for the MRI and echocardiogram that will officially diagnose my progress and measure whether the drugs are harming my heart. Then on Tuesday we start Taxatere and turn our attention to any rogue cells that might have slipped into my brain. This is the part of my treatment designed to prevent a recurrence.

At the time of my first round, it seemed like an impossibly long time that I would be sitting here, halfway done with chemo!

Then I focused on my path and started taking the days one at a time.

One day at a time! That’s all any of us can handle anyway.

Happy Re-Birthday to Me

Me and mom on the anniversary of the day I was born.

I had strep throat on my 18th birthday and thought it was the end of the world. Back then in North Carolina a person could buy a legal drink at 18, so it was a huge disappointment to delay that rite of passage.

I haven’t been sick on a birthday again until today, and today a bad sore throat seems pretty minor as I rest on the sofa, resisting the chemo nausea and darkness that is starting to grip me. It’s my birthday, I feel crappy – but happy (is that chappy?)– because cancer has given me a renewed appreciation of life and put problems that once loomed large and manifested as stress into perspective.

Before today I had dreaded birthdays. Who wants to celebrate getting another year older? Another year younger? Now that would be reason for a party.

Today I am happy to be here. Instead of marking off days and delaying my personal life goals until some distant ‘sometime,’ I will live each day of my re-birth with purpose.

Lance Armstrong talks about the “obligation of the cured” to share their stories of survival to inspire others. I don’t have his platform, but I have hoped since I began keeping this blog and this is a journey toward my cure and that these ramblings are my roadmap. Perhaps my suffering and recovery will inspire someone else.

Even in my little sphere you tell me you have scheduled doctor exams, made efforts to stop smoking and become more conscious about what you put in and on your bodies. Nobody wants to endure what I am going through, especially if there are lifestyle choices you can make to increase the odds that you won’t.

I look forward to being here next year and for many more, and I will forevermore happily celebrate adding years to my time here on Earth. I wonder where I will be, how will I feel, what will I be doing.

I have come to realize in my battle against breast cancer decisions I make can influence my path, but I have no power over the life uncertainties that I used to think I controlled.

That’s the daunting new reality into which I have been re-born.

My future is ????

I had a long talk with Dr. Carlson yesterday about my future. With the tumors essentially undetectable to the human touch, I finally asked him about my likely future.

Of course he had explained my potential prognosis in our first meeting: 10 percent survival rate after 5 years with radiation alone, up to 80 percent with the course we chose – this kick-my-ass trial I was lucky to qualify for.

But I want to live longer than 5 years! And I have wondered what the 20 percent have in common who don’t make it that long.

Since the very beginning my intuition has told me I will beat this completely and up the statistical survival rates. Or, as my friend Nants often reminds me, I’m writing my own reality. But in the depths of chemo hell, depression and doubt set in. What if it doesn’t work, what if it comes back – could I do this again? Sometimes when I’m really down I feel like I’d just like to go to sleep and not wake up. That’s how my dad passed from prostate cancer.

I talked to my medical team about the depression yesterday. I have all of you to pull me through it, but what about the patients who don’t? I wanted the researchers involved in the trial to know that this is an extremely serious issue. Dr. Carlson, the compassionate man that he is, kindly explained that my sad states are very real, and most likely a combination of chemo and my overwhelming reality of being suddenly stricken with the Big C. Nothing like going from fat and sassy to frail and dependent overnight.

So as I enter Round 4, the last of the double-doses, I needed a hopeful thought to get me through it. (did I tell you we read the calendar wrong and this is my LAST double dose!!!!! Then it gets slightly easier for the second half. We are at the hump. A great birthweek present!)

In my search for hope I asked Dr. Carlson about the C word – the other C word. Not Cancer. CURE. I offered him an out.

“I know oncologists don’t like to use the word ‘cure,”’ I began.

“Yes we do,” he said.

“Well, then, can I be cured?”

“That’s the plan!”

“So there’s a chance that at the end of all of this my cancer will NEVER come back again?”

“Yes there is.”

That chance of never recurring is all I needed to hear as I enter this final round of the worst half of my treatment.

As a precaution my medical team wrote a prescription for anti-depressants.

I honestly don’t think I’ll need to fill it. When I’m at my worst I will focus on Dr. Carlson’s optimistic words, I’ll tune out with my meditation CDs and I’ll read your encouraging notes of support.

I will write my own happy ending.

PS: Dr. Carlson and my team read the blog. They commented about the ion foot baths and were a tad grossed at the photos of what detoxed out of my feet!
And just in time, my mom arrives today at noon. Too bad she’ll see me so sick, but maybe with mom love in da house it won’t be so bad!!

Love (and some chemo)

I’m racing to write this, trying to organize my thoughts on infusion day before chemo brain takes over. Yet I’m so stoked by today’s good news I don’t want to give in to the immediate lethargy that my double dose of chemo induces before I can tell you all about it.

“Your tumors are gone!” Dr. Robert Carlson, oncologist extraordinaire, doesn’t make proclamations lightly. This one came after long minutes spent palpitating my breast where my relatively large tumors once resided.

“What?!” “Really?” “Are you sure??” (Note to self, Dr. Carlson, who chaired the esteemed panel that wrote the U.S. breast cancer treatment protocols, knows when tumors are present and when they are not. He would not say they are gone if he were not sure.)

We knew this trial I’m in for women with HER2pos cancer was working when he had trouble finding the tumors two weeks ago. But that could have been a fluke, right? One wants to be hopeful in the fight against breast cancer without getting one’s hopes up. So much is unknown about all of this. I never even imagined it would be possible for my tumors to disappear entirely before I was even finished with the portion of the trial designed to kill them!

So what’s going on? For one thing, I have a great medical team and I’m in a trial that obviously is the right one for me.

My work with Lynn Arthur, who coaches me on diet and nutrition (eat alkaline foods!), performs my detoxes and reflexology and keeps me mentally focused on positive imagery is a big part of my success.

Why are some people successful in fighting cancer while others struggle fighting this disease with an 80 percent success rate? I’ve come to believe that the intangible is LOVE. Receiving love and giving love and you, my friends, are filling me with love. In turn, I love you all back like you cannot imagine. I’m convinced now that demon cancer cells cannot survive it. I’m overwhelmed with love for life, Michelle, me, my family, you friends, my doggies, my good days, the universe and the way it works like it’s supposed to. (If I had been diagnosed three years ago there was no cure, I didn’t have Michelle, and I didn’t have a great job with good benefits that allows me to have this cutting-edge treatment. How’s that for order?)

My brain is getting foggy. I’d like to be able to think of something profound to make of it as I’ve reached the halfway point in my chemotherapy treatment. I just can’t, and that’s a side effect of today’s infusion.

So I will just close by wishing you all LOVE. Pass it on.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.