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 December, 2010

Goodbye and Good Riddance

Here’s to being able to say “I had cancer LAST year!” Happy New Year everyone. My wish for 2011 is that we all are healthy!

Merry Christmas

The gift of good health is the best gift of all. Appreciate it!

I’m Done!!

Stick a fork in me, because I’m done. Literally. Cooked.

I cried through my last radiation treatment, and not because it hurt, though it did a bit. But after eight months to have arrived at the end of the treatments that cause so much pain and discomfort — I’m overwhelmed and grateful.

On May 3 I wondered how I’d ever reach this day. It seemed like such a far-off date. And it was. Now 224 days of torture later—after four months of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and six weeks of radiation — the hurtful part of my breast cancer treatment is over. Finally.

I got hugs today from the staff at Fresno Cancer Center, and an 80-year-old woman I met whose radiation schedule was the same as mine knitted me a beautiful scarf!

For two more weeks my skin and flesh will burn even more as the radiation inside me keeps cooking, then the burns will start to heal.

Until October 2011, I’ll be infused with Herceptin every three weeks. And I’ll take Tamoxifen every day for 5 years.

But those things don’t hurt or make me sick, and they don’t destroy tissue or cells.

So today I’m celebrating the end of the hardest part of my “breast cancer experience.”

Tomorrow is the first day of the rest of my fight – restoring my strength and staying healthy!

Merry Christmas to me. And a Happy New Year!

The Hard Part Is Ending

On Wednesday I get my last blast of radiation. I’m burned, tired and it feels like my flesh is cooked under my skin.

But the horrible, painful part of my cancer treatment is coming to an end.

This is what I just put up for my Facebook status:

“I’ve either been frightened, nauseated or in pain every single day since May 3, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Tomorrow (Wednesday) at 8 a.m. California time, I get my last dose of radiation. Then my body starts to heal. At last. It has been a long road and I couldn’t have done it without you, my friends!”

My doctor told my skin will continue to burn for about two weeks, even after the treatment ends.

But starting Wednesday, when my radiation ends, my new beginning begins.

The tumors that depended on me to live are gone.

On Wednesday I begin rebuilding a new, healthy body.

The Surge Nears Its End

The surge is winding down and I’m both excited and nervous.

Since war metaphors are used to describe the battle against cancer, I’m rapidly coming to The Stand Down.

Since May we’ve been throwing the big guns at the terrorists invading my body: three types of chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation. We’ve thrown in diet changes, attitude changes and detoxifications to support me in the battle.

I have felt confident that we put the terrorist cells on the run and made them feel like the body they invaded was not a hospitable place.

Now what? With the big guns that have been protecting me now holstered, how am I to feel?

Will the peacekeepers – the antibody Herceptin and the hormone-suppressor Tamoxifen – be enough to keep the invaders away?

As much as I’ve hated what my body has had to endure for the past eight months, I knew it was killing cancer (while stopping short of killing me).

Now I feel as if I’m handing over the battle to the United Nations and hoping a peace accord has been struck. I’ve got to have faith they’ll do the job.

Just last night Michelle and I were marveling that we’ve just about made it. From May 3 until now has seemed impossibly long. Now just three more short blasts of radiation and I’m done. Literally.

Already cancer is fading into 2010. The fuzzy baby hair on my head is starting to fill in and I have a few hairs emerging where my eyebrows used to be.

One day soon I’ll look like my old self with only my missing breasts and my new attitude of gratitude to remind me where I’ve been.

Betting on Me

A couple of Facebook friends have statuses today that I’ve seen variations of before. It starts out “Most people have a 1,000 Christmas wishes, a cancer patient has only one – to get better.”

And it’s so true. We could not endure the ravages of chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and the side effects of multiple targeted drugs if we didn’t want to get better – to eradicate the disease that takes over our lives.

But how does one ever know for sure if all of those wretched treatments are working? Cancer, for all of the studies being done and articles that are written, is still an enigma.

So it all comes down to educated guesses, both in terms of what is most likely to work and what are the chances that, when treatment is over, it did work and hidden cancer cells won’t join up to form tumors elsewhere.

So it is with all of this in mind that I sought to press Dr. Carlson, my world-renown oncologist at Stanford, to offer me hope yesterday. Hope that as my Year of C draws to an end, all of my fighting, suffering and near-death experiences have not been for naught.

Dr. Carlson is a genius, meticulous in his care and conservative in his remarks. I get the feeling oncologists don’t want patients coming back in two years saying “But you told me I’d be fine!”

So I prepared for my discussion with him during my appointment by first running it by his Fellow, Dr. Hong.

“This is the last time I will see Dr. Carlson before the New Year and I need for him to be hopeful today. I’d like for him to assess my response to the treatment, think about all of the others he has treated before whose cancers are like mine, and try to deduce by their experiences whether he thinks my cancer will come back again.”

She smiled.

A while later Dr. Carlson appeared, answered my questions about soy (moderation – and I eat only Non-genetically modified organic) the dentist (yes!) why Hercepetin for a year (because studies of two years showed no difference in shutting down the cancer-causing gene) and the hormone suppressor I will be on for five years.

Then I stopped, waiting for him to launch into his message of hope. Nothing.

“Did you tell him?” I asked the Fellow. Yes.

Still nothing. Then I launched back into my spiel as he smiled.

“You’re going to be fine,” he began.

“But if you were a betting man, would you bet it will return or not return?” I asked.

Then he opened up. He told me he really believes that breast cancer will not be what ends my time on this earth.

“I would bet that it does not return,” he finally said, answering my question. “I would bet on you.”

All I wanted for Christmas was hope.

After all of these long, agonizing months, my wish has come true.

Tired and Hopeful

If radiation had been my first experience with cancer treatment, I might be looking at it differently. But because it came after chemotherapy, which about killed me, and my double mastectomy, which hurt physically and emotionally, complaining about being tired seems trivial.

So I won’t complain; I’ll just state the facts. I am tired. Not sleepy tired or I’d just go take a nap. But weary, bone tired. I just don’t want to move. So I won’t. Except for my fingertips while I write this.

The burns on my chest are tolerable as I enter the second-to-the-last week of my eight-month cancer treatment marathon. I tried organic aloe to help with the burns and subsequent rash. When Lynn Arthur suggested Vitamin E, I switched. Now I cut up the little capsules after my bath and squeeze the oil across the affected parts of my chest. It takes about 5 of them to cover my burned area and my mastectomy scars.

Overnight I felt better. So there’s my tip of the day.

I kind of like the routine of radiation. I get up, have my tea and read the paper, then go to Fresno Cancer Center and talk to the friends I’ve made who are on the same schedule as I. Joanne and I are back-to-back, so I get to talk to her the most. Cool lady. It’s almost like going to work, but it fills only a fraction of my day. I’m usually home by 9:30, unless it’s X-ray day. Once a week the doctor checks to make sure the places the radiation is going are the places he wants treated. Usually they make minor adjustments. We’re talking millimeters.

Tomorrow I had back to Stanford bright and early. I’ll be there every three weeks for a year for Herceptin, and every nine weeks I’ll see my oncologist, Dr. Carlson.

Tomorrow is Dr. Carlson day. I have lots of questions: Can I go to the dentist now? One can’t with depleted white blood cells because of the risk of infection. I can’t even floss. My mouth is a mess. I want to see my hygienist.

Since my cancer is slightly hormonal receptive, should I cut back on soy?

Why am I getting Herceptin for a year? Why not 2 years. Or 1 ½ years? What’s magical about one year? How do you know that’s long enough to turn off the gene that makes my kind of cancer grow?

And though I’ve heard encouragement from Dr. Nice, my substitute oncologist, I really want to hear it from Dr. Carlson, the world’s best breast cancer oncologist (at least that’s my opinion, and it must be the opinion of many others judging by his speaking schedule). Can’t he look at me, look at my response to chemotherapy, my double mastectomy, and everything else I’ve done to stay healthy and give me hope as my body-wracking treatment phase winds down?

Can he tell me that if he were a betting man — because we’re all playing the odds in this cancer battle — he’d bet mine would not come back?

That’s all I want for Christmas.

Not promises, not guarantees, because one thing this has taught me is that there are none in life.

All I want is hope — hope that I’ll never experience another year like 2010.

Now, Why I’m Not Like E. Edwards

It took a good long talk yesterday with my friend and life coach Lynn Arthur for me to believe that my situation is not like Elizabeth Edwards’ after all.

We have three similarities that I last wrote about: Chapel Hill, stress and mourning over cheating cads and lost loved ones, and breast cancer. But they end there, and therefore our fates will not be the same.

But first Lynn’s thoughts about mourning and breast cancer. Who knows why anyone gets any type of cancer? And breast cancer in someone without a family history of it is even more mysterious. Unless, Lynn says, one considers what the breast represents – love and nurturing.

Edwards grieved mightily over the death of her son, and then her philandering husband. Her mutating cancer cells gathered in her breast.

I, too, experienced multiple tragic losses in the years leading up to my diagnosis.

Elizabeth Edwards made a treatment decisions that are understandable, but dubious, in hindsight. Despite a tumor she described in an article as being the size of a plum, she opted for a lumpectomy to save her breast. Why? Who knows, but I’ll guess it was because her husband had an eye for the ladies and she didn’t want to be made to feel less of one.

I had a double mastectomy in part because I wanted to live with less fear and, in part, because my partner lovingly and convincingly insisted it would make no difference.

Meanwhile our collective consciousness projected breast cancer onto Elizabeth Edwards 24/7. We thought of her as a victim of both cancer and the world’s worst spousal betrayal. The stress of a presidential campaign, the stress of a husband cheating, the stress of a public life all worked so that her immune system could not prevent the metastasis to her ribs.

In hindsight, she was doomed.

By contrast, you all believe in and have been focusing on my healthy body. And it has been restored though conventional treatment, alternative treatments and the power of your prayers and visualizations, I believe. You have been so positive and supportive, and you believe as strongly as I do that my cancer will not return. (I admit I have passing fears magnified by events such as Edwards’ passing, but I quickly try to get them out of my mind).

Lynn told me yesterday about a client of hers who had a severely premature baby. As the baby laid in ICU she kept the birth secret from all but a few close supportive friends.

“I only want people to know who believe my baby is going to LIVE,” she told Lynn. She didn’t want anyone projecting doubt in such a critical situation. Born 15 ounces, she survived.

The mind is a powerful thing, and the collection of billions of thoughts from millions of minds is even more powerful.

It’s why from the beginning of this I have asked you to pray for the return of my healthy body, and nothing more. I specifically asked you not to mention the C word.

I have surrounded myself with love, positive thoughts and affirmations from the beginning.

That’s why we feel good about my future. Though today I did ask at my radiation appointment if the treatment is hitting my ribs – just to be sure.

Elizabeth Edwards. Sigh.

I'm losing my hero.

Dear Elizabeth Edwards:

We don’t know each other but I have felt a kindred connection to you even before my breast cancer diagnosis.

You live in Chapel Hill, N.C., and I spent four wonderful years there. We both were betrayed by cheating cads when we most needed support from someone to whom we had given so much of ourselves.

Then when I was diagnosed with breast cancer (on the day Lynn Redgrave died from it, no less), you were my inspiration. Someone who it seemed had managed to contain it with the best care your money could buy.

After all you went through, I thought you were invincible. I guess maybe I hoped you were because that offered hope to the rest of us, too.

The news yesterday that doctors said you no longer would benefit from further treatment settled over me like a dark cloud. I’m sorry for you and I’m sorry for those of us who want everyone, especially you public figures who become a part of our societal reality, to beat this disease.

When rich and famous people succumb, I sometimes wonder what chance the rest of us have.

I think my breast cancer was caught earlier than yours, though I have googled unable to find an answer to that worry.

Most people only care that you have breast cancer. For those of us fighting it, we want to know what kind — is it hormonal receptive, is it HER2 positive, in what stage was it caught?

In other words, are we in the same boat as you?

I know deep down that not everyone dies from this disease when one considers the many forms in which it comes. In fact, most people don’t. However today I just don’t feel it.

I’m sorry it’s you, who has given hope to so many of us.

Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to. Though, like you, I’ve found that the new path can lead to even more exciting places.

I find some solace that you are leaving this Earth beloved by so many.

But mostly I’m sad and angry. Sad that breast cancer will claim you. And angry that cancer continues to kill while our country pours its’ resources into fighting the wrong enemies.

Your admirer,

Ouch, Ouch, Itch

I’m about halfway through with radiation, and while this should be cause to celebrate, I’m really worrying about how my skin will hold out.

I’m suffering with a horrible burn rash across the half of the radiation area closest to my breastbone, and all of it looks sunburned. To top it off, the fifth and final dose they give me – a long, shallow dose across my breastbone – has started to create a smell as if something’s burning.

I think it’s me.

Radiation is still a strange experience, made better by the really nice folks at Fresno Cancer Center. One wonders what might be the long-term effect of something for which everyone else leaves the room and shuts a big metal door for good measure. I had some trouble breathing deeply over the weekend, and there is now some concern that my lungs might have been – what’s the word, not “burned,” but that’s what it feels like. I don’t know what the word is for radiation exposure. But the right lung might have gotten too much exposure, so Dr. P altered some things today in an effort to help both my burns and my lung, just in case there is a problem. We shall see.

Radiation is making me tired, according to schedule. Not sleepy tired, but melt-in-your-chair tired. Yesterday I was sitting in a chair next to my glass of water. I was thirsty, but didn’t feel like lifting my arm to reach the glass. That kind of tired.

But it’s better than chemo sick. And it’s better than the pain of having both breasts lopped off. It’s just weird to feel well and mentally alert for the first time since May – but yet it’s so danged difficult to get my leaden arms and legs to move.

I’m not complaining – just stating the facts. I’m happy that after enduring so much for so long, the end is within my grasp. (If I could only reach out my arm)

It will take a while for me to recover my strength from radiation. But now I have a date – Feb. 1, 2011. That’s the date Dr. P wrote on my disability form today as the time I will probably be able to return to work at the Associated Press.

It will have been exactly nine months from the time of my diagnosis to my return to work.

Exactly the length of time it takes to create a new life. My new life.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.