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 September, 2010

Signs from the Universe

There are no coincidences in life, I believe. Things happen because they are supposed to and the world is more orderly than one might think.

Consider Wednesday, when I connected with two old friends, and those connections ended up overwhelming me with hope.

First in the wee hours I read an article in the NY Times written by an old friend I hadn’t talked to in years. Someone whose company I used to enjoy very much. The article was awesome (I am loath to name him or the article out of fear of violating medical privacy laws), so I sent him an email congratulating him for the scoop. I closed by briefly mentioning my cancer.

He quickly wrote back. His charming wife, a doctor (who was a medical student when I knew and liked her very much), had breast cancer three and a half years ago. Like me, hers had progressed before being caught. I instantly felt like less of a chump. If a doctor can miss breast cancer, then I could too. As I will, she went through it all – the Grand Slam, he called it, of chemo, double mastectomy and radiation.

And she’s fine today. Life has returned to a new normal, but there is life and normalcy.

Then I spent the same day with an old friend from my Hollister days who has just gotten through chemo for Stage IV colon cancer. Talk about a life-changer.

It was the first time I’ve really talked with someone who is doing what I’m doing: enduring the treatment, then dramatically changing everything about life in order to remain cancer-free.

We talked about losing nails, skin cracking and all of the horrible side effects. Then diet and exercise, organics, vitamins, following our hearts and living life as stress free as possible.

We talked about truly believing that our bodies can heal themselves, if we supply them with the right nutrients and support for our immune systems. And we talked about our efforts seeking out and avoiding hidden carcinogens in health, food and beauty products.

It was like being reunited with a long-lost twin.

I’m happy to report she is tumor-free. I am hoping to achieve the same state Oct. 20 when I have my double mastectomy.

So two old friends materializing on the same day, the first day I started feeling good after chemo. Both on the other side of treatment with nothing but good news to report.

I will take that as a sign from the universe.

Every Day A Little Bit Better

I am officially out the other side of my long chemo hell! I will remember Sept. 29, 2010, as vividly as I remember May 3, my diagnosis day.

Today was the day I woke up, Michelle asked me how I felt, and I said, “OK, actually.”

For four months I have tempered everything I said about how I felt. Even on the days I felt OK, I knew it meant the next chemo was looming and I’d be knocked back to the curb again, so it was hard to enjoy a day when simply bending over to put on socks was a milestone I celebrated.

This eighth and (hopefully) final round of chemo was not kind. While Taxatere – aka Toxic-tere – is supposed to get easier with each passing round, the four I received made me progressively sicker. Well, that’s not entirely true since the first round sent me to the hospital on my chemo overdose. But the part where it was supposed to be easier, the side effects easily manageable, never materialized.

So this past weekend again I whimpered in bed, unable to walk on my own, feeling that overwhelming combination of near-death lethargy, ache and the resulting and temporary state of hopeless that makes the seconds drag.

It’s the last one, I kept telling myself. It’s the last one, my friends would encourage. Easier said than felt.

Monday I still was prone, Tuesday I had to summon my energy for a day of tests at Stanford. So today, after some hours of sleep actually put together in a block, I woke up and felt like getting dressed. I had my tea and newspaper on the patio – sitting up. Just like old times!

So this is the day, I have deduced, when each one will be better than the previous. Every day I will feel stronger as chemo attacks cancer cells and my body processes the chemo out of my system.

Today is the day I will count as the one about which they are talking when they say “six months after chemo your hair will start growing back.”

Despite the surgery and radiation ahead, the fact that I feel good today is my sign that my body is healing itself.

The body is a remarkable engine – if we treat it right.

Mine has gotten me to this point, despite the many obstacles encountered. Treating it right from this point on is the least I can do to return this favor, for which I am eternally grateful.

More Tests, No Mammogram

Today I’m heading to Stanford for my pre-surgery staging tests. My good old friend Michael has driven down from Sacramento for driving duties so that dear, tired Michelle can keep her office open.

So what tests are in store, and, most importantly, which one have I declined? Glad you asked.

The MRI is in. I’ve actually come to not mind being locked inside a metal tube while being bombarded with sound waves louder than a jet engine. For all of its WWII-era ambiance, at least it doesn’t radiate me.

The MRI is the most important test that will be performed today to show where the tumors are and how much healthy tissue (and possibly but hopefully not muscle mass) will have to be taken during the mastectomies.

My surgeon also prescribed a mammogram and ultrasound, which I’ve dutifully submitted myself to throughout this process. But now that I’ve read more about the mammogram, I’ll never have another (not that I will need one sans boobs, but that’s not the point).

The reading material to which I refer has not been about the studies showing that there’s pretty much a statistical survival dead heat between women who have and don’t have mammograms (those studies recently in the news were about diagnosis).

If there’s one thing I’ve learned reading about cancer, it’s that the people who make and sell the machinery get themselves on the boards of the cancer societies who recommend treatment protocol. So equipment makers help decide what’s good for us. Yes, money is the source of all evil.

I declined the mammogram for another reason I had read about, something more insidious and potentially dangerous.

As my female friends know, breasts are squeezed into pancakes on the mammogram machines. It’s painful. But that’s still not the point.

For months I have endured chemo and test drugs designed to track down rogue cells that might have escaped my tumors, entered my blood stream, and taken up residence in my brain, liver, lungs or lymphatic system. Or anyplace else they might be hiding. I don’t want this shit to come back.

So “why,” I asked my surgeon, “after going through all of that would I allow what’s left of my tumors to be flatted and compressed, potentially squeezing cancer cells from them and back into my blood stream?”

There was a long silence in the exam room. Then he said I didn’t have to have the mammogram if I didn’t want it. He could operate just fine using the MRI.

I’ve been thinking about this for weeks. I also had earlier run the theory by another of my medical team. Nobody could tell me for sure that it was an impossibility. It’s simply not studied.

With equipment industry people on the board of the American Cancer Society, it very likely won’t be in the future.

Please take time to Google and read about this on your own!

Chemo Goes Out Like a Lion

My damned nemesis chemotherapy just won’t cut me a break. One would think that for old-times’ sake it would have eased up in this the eighth and (I hope) final round. We have been hanging out, after all, since May.

Instead, it’s beating up my insides like it’s alive in there. All night long my stomach and esophagus burned and pounded as if football linebackers had taken up residence. I whimpered and prayed for ice to cool my insdes, too weak to actually get up and walk downstairs to get it myself.

My hands and fingers ache from neuropathy so badly just typing this causes me to wince, when I can control my fingers at all. Too many typos to count. It’s nerve-related and feels like a painful electrical charge is running through my hands. It’s supposed to be a temporary side effect of chemo, but “temporary” can last longer than a year. We’ll see.

So I got up around 4 a.m. and tried to find answers. How long does it take to recover from chemotherapy? When will I feel strong? When will the pain leave? When will my organs, suffering from the poison infused to kill my cancer cells, start to repair themselves? No one knows for sure.

My sincere hope is that none of you ever have to know what it feels like to be poisoned to the brink of death. That’s why I write here when I can and read incessantly so I can try to figure out my best path for complete remission in the future.

I have nothing profound to say today, I just wanted to give you an update on how I’m doing.

Making sense of it is for a day when I actually can think straight.

Beware of “Organic” Lettuce

As my energy fades during this last round of chemo, I wanted to take time to post this warning about a potential carcinogen danger with pre-washed organic lettuce that recently was pounded home.

I had heard of this before, but after a recent visit from a dear friend who worked in the organics industry (and shall remain anonymous, but trust me on this!), I was reminded to mark it off my shopping list.

Sure it’s easy to use and probably prompts us to eat more greens. But did you know that pre-washed “organic” lettuce (and all pre-washed lettuces) are soaked in water loaded with the carcinogen chlorine? And everyone knows lettuce absorbs water through the leaves and stems, so you are eating it, my friends.

Adding heavy amounts of chlorine is the result of the e-coli spinach debacle that nearly ruined California’s greens industry a few years back. The irony is that chlorine doesn’t kill e-coli, I’m told. Yet the government lets lettuce packagers use it, ironically to make us feel better about the safety of the pre-packaged greens.

Even worse than eating chlorine-tainted lettuce is the impact on workers on the wash lines, most of them immigrant women who work long shifts breathing chlorine fumes, which my friend says is overpowering in the warehouses.

So what can you do? Buy fresh, organic bunch lettuce and wash it yourself. Soak it many times, spin it dry and store in the refrigerator.

And read labels on everything you buy. The FDA allows carcinogens in too many food and beauty products to list. Remember, in the USA a chemical is good until proven bad. In the European Union a chemical has to be proven safe to be used.

What’s wrong with us? Oh, yes, Congress answers to the rich, generous and active chemical lobby.

One Thing, Then Another

The infusion nurses singing my sendoff, with help from Dr. Mollick aka Dr. Nice on the far right.

Yesterday was quite a day at Stanford. As soon as I had relished receiving my last dose of chemo I was whisked away to meet with a surgeon and anesthesiologist about my next phase: double mastectomy. Sigh.

But first the good part. The nurses in the infusion center were genuinely happy to see me go. (Technically speaking. Go from chemo. I’ll still be there every 3 weeks for the next year for Herceptin, the biological agent that works to turn off the gene that produces my type of cancer, HER2pos.) They wrote and performed a pretty funny song, and even Dr. Mollick (aka Dr. Nice) joined in. Everyone knows how hard chemo is and everyone rejoices when another patient gets through it.

Now I’m bracing for the lethargy, itchy rash and mouth sores that are my symptoms of Taxatere (aka Toxictere) and Lapatinib, my trial drug. This time I’ll be armed with a rinse that should make the mouth sores more bearable. Ah, it really takes four months of chemotherapy to figure out what’s right for the patient’s individual maladies. Trial and error. Now I’m done, providing the cancer has cooperated, which by all accounts it has. And I’ve finally figured it out.

I’m about to lose my fingernails and am wondering whether it will hurt. They are soft and flaking and are yet another symptom of chemo at work. Fast-growing cells are attacked, and cancer and hair are the first to go. Now the nails, which is ok because they have been slowly dying and look pretty bad anyway.

After my big sendoff, I met with Dr. Frederick Dirbas, Stanford breast surgeon extraordinaire for yet another follow-up visit. He wants to make sure patients haven’t changed their minds about the surgery, and I have. The last time I wrote about this I was opting to have my diseased breast removed now, then having my good left breast removed at the time of reconstruction to save the skin and reduce the number of skin grafts I would need.

Upon giving it more thought, I’m going to have both removed at the same time on October 20. Michelle and I need a break, and delaying reconstruction is something over which we have control so that we can get back to living our lives. It will mean that after radiation, which will take up most of December, I’ll be able to return to work after the first of the year. I can wait as long as I want for reconstruction – and I may even decide I don’t want it. Having the double now will give me options I otherwise would not have.

Not to say a double won’t be hard. It will. It takes 6 weeks to recover. I’ll wake up with scars where a part of me used to be. I’ll suffer pain. But that is for another post at another time. And it’s a worry I will not contemplate until the moment it is necessary.

Because for now, I have something behind me, which is something I could not imagine four months ago when this all started. By all accounts it is the worst part.

Today I feel fine, and that’s what life is about. I can’t control tomorrow, I can’t change yesterday.

At this moment in time all is right with my world, and that’s all that matters.

The Last Chemo

The last dose of taxatere is now officially coursing through my system. Bracing for one last round of side effects. The light at the end of the tunnel is blinding me. I’m crying tears of relief and happiness.

OK, Let’s Go!

We’re heading to Stanford Tuesday morning and for once I’m excited. If all goes well, and if the cancer really is responding as well as it seems, this will be my LAST ROUND of chemotherapy.

Of course I learned long ago not to taunt cancer or chemo, and not to ever let it think I have the upper hand. Chemo is an evil devil that will take any and every opportunity to show you who’s boss, hence the qualifiers.

But I go with a great attitude, despite a malfunctioning port that means I have to take it through a vein in my arm. This attitude is because of all of you who loved me up this week to send me into Round 8 feeling strong and confident.

Michelle and I returned home Sunday after four days with two friends for a soul-satisfying getaway to San Diego. Despite my weak condition, I wanted to see friends Michelle and I had made on our tour of tequila country last April, our last carefree outing before my stunning diagnosis. Michelle thought a fun weekend would be just the thing to get me in the right frame of mind.

I have a special place in my heart for the friends I made on our weeklong bus trip through Jalisco, mostly because they are great people and a lot of fun, but also because they were the folks with whom I experienced my last hurrah bonding over Mexico’s national beverage (my fave) before my life’s new reality: moderation (after this period of abstinence ends).

They came for the Spirits of Mexico, the U.S.’s largest tequila tasting. I went for the hugs from friends who traveled in from Chicago, North Carolina, Portland, Texas, Mexico and California. (I admit I did taste a few new tequilas, but consumed just the tiniest of sips. My liver is busy processing other things these days.)

I even got hugs at the event from people I’ve never met, including people who guessed from discussions on their tequila forums that the only bald woman among hundreds of tasters was the friend with cancer. Two strangers said they’ve been reading my blog, and that my struggles put their own into perspective. How great that I could perform that service! Another man told me about his daughter’s success over liver cancer, and it was only toward the end of the conversation I learned she was only 14! Talk about not fair.

I’m glad the light at the end of my dark tunnel is bright after four long months because I’m not sure how much more poison my poor battered body can take. Besides the usual sickness and weakness I now have another symptom associated with my trial drug: bloating and a horrible rash over my face, arms and legs. It’s red and itchy, maybe like hives, which I’ve never had. It looks horrible, so I wear long pants and long sleeves, even when it’s really hot so people don’t think I have something contagious. Nothing has given me even temporary relief until I took a bath last night in apple cider vinegar.

The bloating is something else entirely. I now have what some people call “cankles,” calves and ankles that are seemingly one. If you know me, you know that even at my heaviest my legs are ridiculously skinny, so it’s a strange development indeed. Lynn Arthur says my kidneys are struggling. I did a detox and reflexology with her this morning and I seem to be eliminating fluids pretty rapidly, so maybe this, too, shall pass.

I’m late posting this today, so perhaps when you read this it will be Tuesday and I’ll already be at Stanford conferring with my doctors, or hooked to the IV bag that will be delivering the last batch of poison to attack whatever cancer cells might be left inside of me by this point.

So what can you do? I go back to when this started four months ago and the first thing I asked you all to do for me. Whether you pray, meditate or chant to get in touch with your higher power, my request is always the same, always in the affirmative, and never mention’s the C-word.

Please ask for the “return of Tracie’s healthy body.” Then visualize the chemo, like little Pac Men, gobbling up any cancer cells that might have traveled beyond my breast and nearby lymph nodes. Send those cancer gobblers through my blood stream to the deepest, furthest parts of my body on their seek-and-destroy mission.

With your love and support my response so far has been miraculous. I want others who are suffering to realize what’s possible. Failure has never been an option.

We can do this, my friends, one more time!

OMG! Cars Cause Cancer!

I leased a Prius last night, which I mention for just one reason: it’s a 3-year lease, which means both I and Toyota Credit are banking on my being here for at least a little while longer! (Shout out to Bruce and Brandon at Michael Toyota. Love the car!).

But when I got the car home I peeled that ubiquitous sticker off the driver’s side window, the one that says WARNING in large font at the top. But I wasn’t wearing my glasses so I didn’t know what it said. I assumed it was warning me not to stick my head out the window while rolling it up, or something like that.

Once I was appropriately bespectacled I read the first sentence: “Motor vehicles contain chemicals known to the State of California to cause cancer….” Ayeee.

I bought a hybrid to help reduce carcinogens in the air and it’s going to kill me. Cancer-causing chemicals are everywhere. What’s wrong with us? How did this happen?

Now that I’m an obsessive label reader, I see that carcinogens are everywhere. Food, food containers, shampoo, air, water, body products, milk, you name it. Even tea tree oil, which I thought was a natural and benign product, can cause changes in the body that lead to cancer. I read too much.

So all you can do is try to do your very best. Eat very little meat, eat lots of colorful vegetables, drink less alcohol and exercise at least 30 minutes a day. I read that exercising and reducing one’s alcohol consumption to just one adult beverage a day reduces cancer risk by 1/3.

I’m not sure if having 7 cocktails on one day is the same, but I doubt it. But we can hope.

PS: I’m taking a break from blogging to enjoy a few days before my last chemo on Tuesday. Some of you worry when I don’t post something that I’m sick – or worse. So don’t worry, I’ll return Monday.

Until then, take care of your health!

Sisterhood of the Traveling Hats

Michelle and I proudly wear our SOTS hats (Sisterhood of Tracie Supporters)

Every day you uplift me and help me get through my treatments. Sometimes it’s in ways that are so clever, I feel the need to share.

And so arrived these hats yesterday from a group of my buddies during my years at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. UNC is what one would call a “frat school,” and it was especially preppy during our time there. One would have thought that pink and khaki were the school colors instead of Carolina blue and white.

My friends and I never understood why people would want to walk lock-step, and so over much alcohol and other substances the SOT house was born. (If I had Greek on my Mac I would have written that as Sigma Omicron Tau.)

It was, I think, the brainchild of Ann, Cindy, Vicky and Margaret, who shared a house in Carborro that was known as the Sot House for the amount of alcohol consumed there. But Judy and I were made members by virtue of the pranks we all played while studying in the Department of Radio, Television and Motion Pictures (aka ‘Talkies’ back then).

Yesterday my mail carrier knocked on the door with a package addressed to “Sister Tracie” and “Sister Michelle” with a beautiful fall photo of the campus pasted on it. The letter carrier knows I sometimes struggle to get to the mailbox and helps me out, especially if it looks interesting!

I opened the box and cracked up, then naturally became weepy (because that’s what I do these days).

Inside were two Carolina blue hats stitched across the front with the large block letters SOTS. Underneath was stitched what those letters now mean to my friends: Sisterhood of Tracie Supporters. On the back the greek letters Sigma Omicron Tau and the word sorority. Michelle was invited to join “the prestigious SOT Sorority (and these are her peeps; she’s tired of drinking alone!!)

But it was the hand-made card that had me really going: The SOT Sisterhood Sends Love & Support, with a group photo on front and another inside of us right after our college days. Their personal messages of support touched my heart, along with this: “Sisters are angels who lift us to our feet when our wings have trouble remembering how to fly.”

I haven’t been flying since my May 3 diagnosis, when my life, as the radiologist predicted, changed completely and in ways I could never imagine.

But because of all of you, including these “sisters,” I am nearing the end of what is supposed to be the hardest part of this endeavor.

I’ll have my last chemo on Tuesday. After that, little by little, I’ll be able to stretch my wings again.

Then one day I will fly because you all kept me believing that I could.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.