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 March, 2011

My Fear of Work

One of these days I’ll wake up and physically feel like returning to my job. Psychologically, however, it’s going to be tough.

I left work on the day of my diagnosis — May 3, 2010 — and never went back. My editors were great. “Your only job should be getting well,” they said time and again. So I threw myself at it, focusing on ridding my body of cancer in every conceivable way.

Diet changes, exercise, obsessive ingredient label reading to avoid the carcinogens that fill so many health and beauty products, detoxes, reflexology, alkaline foods, meditation, visualization, the list goes on and on. Plus the clinical trial at Stanford that gave me pills and three kinds of chemo. Plus radiation. Plus a double mastectomy.

Getting well has been my fulltime job. I get up in the morning and start working on getting healthier and go to bed early so I’ll get enough sleep.

Sometimes I believe that I had such a good response to my treatment because I willed the cancer away.

So going back to work, or doing anything that makes staying healthy less than a fulltime mission is frightening to me. I don’t want to take my focus off of my health, my fulltime job for the past 11 months and the most important job I’ve ever had.

I’m afraid, truth be told, that if I let up my vigilance, if my focus turns to something else even for just eight hours a day, I’ll be letting down my guard and the cancer can sneak back in.

The thought of that scares the heck out of me.

I talked about that fear last week with a psychiatrist at Stanford. Well, I told her that it was something that keeps me awake at night. She thought about it for a long while before responding.

“But aren’t you far more in-tune with your body now? Don’t you think you’ll notice if something changes?”

The thought that I could tell if cancer reappeared made me feel better, though I’m not sure it’s true. And now that I’m writing this I realize that my fear is that a reduced focus would allow that to happen. If it comes back I have to do this all again.

So that’s my dilemma. I’m still too tired and weak to go back to work, but when the day comes – and I hope I am closing in on it – I hope I can devote the required amount of attention to both my health and my career.

I’d like to think I will succeed at both.

For Emily:
I’m sad today over the passing of a woman with HER2 positive breast cancer, the same cancer I battle. I didn’t even know Emily – she’s the sister of a friend of my good friend and supporter Bryan. But her battle was my battle. She was diagnosed many months after me, read my blog and was heartened by my success. One person’s success means someone else can do it too. Likewise, someone’s death frightens us all. She didn’t respond to the treatment like I did and this insidious, aggressive form of breast cancer spread even while she was on chemotherapy. I don’t know all of the details, but from diagnosis until her death today was about six months.

I hate cancer. I hate the sickness and sorrow and grief it causes. I hate that wonderful people with friends and family who love them have to suffer.

And I’m scared.

My Constant Reminders

Just when I start worrying that my recovery is too slow, the universe reminds me how far I have come.

Twice this past week I saw myself in my rear-view mirror and rejoiced.

First was at the office of my radiologist, where I returned triumphant from the day they had seen me last now with a fuzzy head of hair, a sparkle in my eyes and a robust color in my cheeks. My healthcare team truly seemed happy to see me looking so much different than the day of my last radiation treatment on Christmas Eve.

As I sat awaiting Dr. P, a familiar figure came through the door. It was me months ago: a woman recovering from chemo and a mastectomy. She was walking slightly hunched over, most likely from the pain of burns on her chest, and looked wan and frail. A pink scarf covered her bald head.

She sat across from me and I offered a smile. She weakly smiled back. I tried not to stare at this person who was creating such a flashback moment.

Finally I spoke: “You know, you are me three months ago. I have hair; I go to the gym. Before you know it you’ll be your old self, only better. You can do this!”

She smiled and took off her scarf to show me her head. “Thank you,” she said, “I know I can.”

The next day I was back at Stanford in the Infusion Treatment Area hooked to the drip bag delivering the chemical therapy I’m on until October – Herceptin. I actually love going there every three weeks because my healthcare team always seems excited to see the progress I’ve made.

But being hooked to a chemical anti-body through a port in my chest always gives me pause. At least it’s not the toxic chemotherapies that nearly killed me last summer, I reminded myself as I stared at an older woman in the recliner across from me rubbing her shiny bald head. That was me six months ago, constantly weak and nauseous from Adriamycin, Cytoxan and Taxotere, but willed to fight by my friends and family.

With my bag of chemicals half done, hers dripped to an end. Her husband pulled out a camera as the nurse removed her IV. She started sobbing, but they were tears of happiness. I heard her say that it was her last round of chemotherapy.

I was flooded with emotions as I remembered my own last round and the nurses and doctor who gathered to sing as we celebrated the end of a life-altering ordeal. I wanted to speak to her, but am mindful that some people don’t want to be bothered. So I did what came naturally – I started clapping. Slowly at first. Then others around us joined in when they realized what was happening. We all either know what it means to finish, or we imagine the joy we will feel on the day we no longer submit our bodies to poison in an effort to save them.

The woman slowly stood up, dried her eyes, and gave me a thumbs up sign.

I could barely see it. My eyes were brimming with tears.

I Earned Them

I love my hair!

My posts are becoming more infrequent because, frankly, they would bore me, and you even more. Wake up slowly. Drink green tea. Go to the gym. Come home and collapse for the next 3-4 hours. Repeat.

I’m not getting my stamina back as quickly as I thought (hoped) I might. Everyone told me it takes six months for chemo to leave the system and that mark doesn’t come until the end of the month. So I make the absolute most of the brief spurts of energy that I have.

I’m diligent about the gym as I try o make my heart stronger to fight all of the drugs I have to take that can make it weaker. Who wants to go through all of this cancer treatment just for congestive heart failure??!!

I skipped the gym yesterday, though, when I began experiencing weird pain in the area where I had radiation. I’m not sure what caused it, but after weeks of no pain I felt the sharp stabs of burned flesh on my chest and back – the spots where I had been most badly burned. My guess is it’s nerve endings regenerating, but I’ll know more next week after another visit with my radiologist.

Other than that the only reason to post this is so that I can show you my hair again. I’m so excited that it’s growing, and for some reason I really like the color. Love it even. After all of these decades of dying my hair, I now know what I really look like. I’m not sure I even look older than I used to, especially as I stare at the photo of me on this blog.

She seems like a stranger to me. Vaguely familiar, but someone who hasn’t gone through the life- and attitude-altering fears and experiences that I’ve gone through. I feel sorry for her, in a sense. She didn’t know about true love and friendship. She waited and longed for something good to happen, rather than finding good in the moment.

In short: not the me of today.

So today I’m proud of my gray hair. I earned every one of them!

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