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 January, 2011

Making My Comeback

With the pain and horror behind me, I’ve been working on getting “me” back. Whatever that means now.

It won’t be the old me. The stressed, lazy me. The hair-dying, non-label reading me.

The new me is a work in progress.

For one, the new me is happy. I no longer wait for the day that something great is going to happen, but find something great in every day. Even if it simply means I feel good.

When a person has been sick or in excruciating pain for nine months, getting up in the morning without it is a joyous occasion. Every day is a reason to celebrate.

Research shows that exercise reduces the risk of cancer, so I do it every day. I walk the dogs. Sometimes I feel really good and go to the gym, where I either walk on the treadmill or (on a really good day) go to spin class.

I try to lift weights afterward. My chest has suffered severe trauma, so restoring flexibility and strength is a challenge.

My gut, which used to hide from my view under my boobs, sticks out more than I would like, so I’m trying to lose it. My body shape is still strange to me, but I’m not longing yet for reconstructive surgery. I might just get used to not having to wear a bra!

Progress is slow, but it is coming – I learned that yesterday at Stanford when I got Herceptin.

Herceptin is one of the many drugs I’ve been on that can cause a loss in heart function. Lapatinib is another. And of course chemo.

Because of the danger, the FDA requires that patients on the drugs submit to echocardiograms every three months. They measure how much blood one’s heart pumps out of the muscle with each beat. (It’s never 100 percent, btw, or you’d have an empty heart, but 60 percent is ideal, I’m told. My baseline before treatment ranged between 55 and 57. It if had dropped below 50, treatment would have stopped.)

The fear of losing heart function and being forced off my lifesaving drugs is what inspired me to get up and walk when I was on chemo, even if it was just to the mailbox and back. It’s what motivates me to get up in the morning and walk my four miles. It gets me on the bike at spin class.

Keeping my heart healthy keeps me on the drugs that keep my cancer at bay.

So I got results yesterday from my last echocardiogram. My heart function actually GOT BETTER!!!! I’m now at 60 percent.

It’s an incredible development. My heart is getting stronger on drugs with the potential to make it weaker.

It’s why I know I’m going to kick this. And why the new me is going to be healthier than the old me.

The Michael Douglas Effect

I half-watched the Golden Globes Sunday night and not because I had seen any of the shows that were being honored – or if I did chemo has robbed me of any memory of it.

We had friends over so I don’t remember much of what was done or said on the show, but I remember vividly the end of the program when Michael Douglas walked on stage to present an award.

Suddenly there was thunderous applause. The jaded, self-absorbed Hollywood celebrities stood and cheered for what seemed like a very long time.

Long enough for random thoughts to run through my mind: Wow. Everyone is afraid of cancer. When someone seems to have beaten it, there is a collective outpouring of relief. Is it because genuine affection for the person, or because if that person can beat it, we think we can too? It’s human nature to find peace of mind in other peoples’ victories against disease. Written off for dead by the tabloids, there Douglas was looking strong and with a full head of hair (What kind of special chemo did he get, I wondered?).

For a moment I felt as if they were cheering for me, too, since we fought cancer at the same time. Tears welled in my eyes. Everybody who fights cancer, everyone who participates in a trial, is helping not only themselves but those not yet diagnosed. Surviving cancer gives hope to countless others.

“There’s got to be an easier way to get a standing ovation,” Douglas said as the applause died down.

That’s so true. But no other way would be as deserving.

I'm very proud of my hair, even though it's coming in black and gray (??hahaha) instead of brown.


I hate to dwell on the pain, but if this is to be a truthful account of my breast cancer experience, then I have to say something about these burns.

My last radiation session was two weeks ago today! But the end of radiation, I’ve learned, is NOT the end of radiation.

My radiologist warned me that I would feel the effects of radiation for 14 days after my last treatment. I just didn’t think he really meant me.

When that last dose was administered I wanted to be done, for the pain to end, for the burns to heal. But just like clockwork, weird bumps and blisters started appearing on my chest as the post-radiation days passed.

Then they appeared, mysteriously, on my back, like exit wounds, I thought. Then, as I continued to cook, my skin turned dark and crispy. When I applied ointment, my skin felt like bacon. Then it started to look like bacon.

The photo below was taken this morning as my wounds started to open up. I’m not sure if it’s good or bad. The pain is so bad I resorted to Percocet two nights ago. It’s not like a sunburn, it’s worse. More like if something scalding had been poured on me. Or maybe acid. Or maybe I’ve been nuked in a microwave. I really have no point of comparison.

Pain shoots from my chest to my armpit, which is also burned and discolored.

I was hesitant to post a photo of this, but I think it’s important. I also thought I’d never post a photo of my scars, though this one includes the part of my scar that extends under my armpit.

So there you have it.

There is good news, as there always is. I now believe Dr. P, who said I would continue to burn for 14 days. That means tomorrow the pain will start to diminish.

From now on out, the pain I have endured for the past nine months will get a little easier. Every day I’ll get a little stronger.

Maybe one day my brain will start to recall things a little better. I’ll write what that’s like another time – if I can remember….

My skin continues to cook -- and it hurts!

The Cancer Club

The Cancer Club is one that nobody wants to join. Never mind the saying “I wouldn’t join a club that would have me as a member.” You have no choice.

Membership, of course, is anyone who has had cancer. But there are ancillary memberships given to anyone who loves someone who has or has had cancer.

You, too, are all members by virtue of your unwavering support in my recovery.

Membership has its rewards, as the other saying goes. There are the intangibles: insights into life and love and what’s important, learning the value of good health and appreciation for the human body, and learning not to sweat the small stuff (hint, if it’s not cancer, it’s small stuff). The list goes on.

But the other rewards are measurable. We live in a world, I am happy to report, of infinite compassion. People genuinely want to make life easier for those of us who are sick.

This list is equally long, and it goes far beyond the close friends who have given their time and gifts to inspire my journey.

I’m reminded of this because last night, in 30-something weather and pitch dark, the AT&T guy who has spent three days in our neighborhood fixing a bad Internet line (in pouring rain) returned to our house. We thought he had dropped a tool in the dark, but he had thought of something he could do to improve our Internet service (which is so slow, despite DSL, that I often can go boil water for tea while my email loads). This wasn’t a part of his repair ticket, but after warming up in my kitchen earlier in the day, I had been on his mind. He climbed the pole in our backyard in the dark and spent nearly two hours installing some sort of new wire. It’s now blazing fast.

When he came down he told Michelle that his mother had died of cancer. “I know you’re not supposed to say that to someone,” he told Michelle. “Don’t tell Tracie.”

She did anyway.

Of the 5 PG&E guys who had to remove a tree in our yard a few months ago, two had sisters with breast cancer. Despite regulations that say they just hack it into logs and leave it where it falls, they cut the pieces small enough to carry and stacked them out of the way. Our yard guys, equally compassionate, carried them to our woodpile.

Even Disneyland, where we spent Christmas, gives a special assistance pass to people who are sick so they can avoid the lines.

The list of people who have helped me is long, and the acts of kindness too many to list.

I hope that they inspire me to pay it forward, as they say.

And I’m hopeful that all of the people who have helped me have also helped their karma. I hope the result is that they never, ever become full-fledged members of the Cancer Club.

Membership does have its rewards. Maybe it took cancer for cynical me to see all of the good in the world.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.