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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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.

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.

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Copyright 2010 by Tracie Cone. All rights reserved.