Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Reflections on 2008

2008 began and ended with travel and health challenges. I spent last New Year ’s Eve in a hotel in Calgary with the stomach flu, on my way home from spending Christmas in Palm Desert, California. I was given someone else’s boarding pass and ended up on the wrong flight (long story…). The airline, concerned about the breach of security, put me up in a hotel where I was able to nurse my flu before flying home on New Year’s day.

Travelling to spend Christmas with family was challenging once again this year because of bad weather. I returned home on the 26th to prepare to end the year with a bang – my 6th chemo treatment was today, New Year’s Eve. Jill took me to my appointment and insisted on staying with me. She fed me, entertained me, and even rubbed my feet, so it was a good deal!

It has been a year of major events, some good, some bad, and some devastating. In January I celebrated my Mom’s 70th birthday in Halifax with her. During February and March, I snow shoed and skied several times, and went on an overnight ski trip to an unheated cabin in the Gatineau (complete with outhouse). My sister Nadine visited in May and on the 28th I left for the Netherlands. My friend Jennifer & I spent the first part of June visiting Adam and Tara in Holland, with a side-trip to Spain. I enjoyed several lovely weekends at friends’ cottages in July and August, and participated in the 150 km MS Bike Tour.

In follow-up to a surgery to remove a tumor from my lung last year, I continued to have regular oncology visits at the cancer clinic. Despite knowing that the breast cancer had spread, I had convinced myself that I would be in the 2-3% of people whose metastatic cancer was removed and never returned. Life was good – my son was living the life I wished for him, I had a job I enjoyed, I had a great community of wonderful friends.

When, in August, I found out that the cancer was back in both lungs, I spent some time doing my best to deal with the panic, shock and fear. Adam joined me for a week in Halifax just before my first chemo. It was good to just hang out together and transition between work and the start of my treatments.

I had my first treatment in early September, but still managed to spend time outdoors and do things that I enjoyed. I participated in the Run for a Cure but had to leave soon after for an emotional trip back to Halifax when my Dad died unexpectedly. I continued treatments through October, November and December and spent Christmas with family.

One thing I can say is that I truly lived this past year – the good, the bad and the ugly. I read somewhere that you never live your days as intensely as you do once you’ve look death in the face. Despite the challenges and emotions of dealing with a cancer recurrence, I can truly say that I’m grateful for so many things this past year.

The most important thing that I’m grateful for are the people in my life. My Mom dropped everything to be here for my first chemo treatment and is the one person I know I can turn to come and do anything – from cleaning my house to just holding my hand. Adam has kept connected by phone and email, and travelled twice from Holland to spend time with me since my diagnosis. Friends cooked meals for me in my own kitchen, filled my freezer with soup, listened to the boring details of my medical appointments, read my rambling blog postings, and filled my year with laughter.

My work colleagues formed a Run for the Cure team called Chris’ Jocks, taxied me to chemo appointments, and shouldered the burden when I had to leave work suddenly to start treatments. I’ve enjoyed the company of other breast cancer ‘thrivers’ at our yoga class, group hikes and Saturday walk/runs. I’ve received numerous cards, emails, thoughtful gifts and phone messages (sorry if I didn’t always return phone calls). One of my favorite Christmas gifts was a luxurious fleece nightdress from Mary embroidered with “Our D team”, in reference to a comment I made after my recurrence that I really didn’t want to join her “damn team”. (Who says cancer patients don’t have a sense of humor?)

The list goes on. I considered writing a list of everyone I wanted to thank, but I know I would forget someone, because I’ve had such an army of people show their support and love. I wouldn’t have thought that at the end of a year when I experienced a recurrence of cancer that I could say that I am blessed, but I can’t deny that I am. We all have our challenges and battles to fight, but I continue to be amazed everyday at how fortunate I am to have people in my life willing to walk this journey with me. Thank you to each and every one of you. I wish you a healthy and happy new year.

Stay tuned. I’m putting on my stilettos and plan to kick cancer in the ass in 2009!

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Trains, Planes & Automobiles

I’m still recovering from 10 days away for Christmas – but it was totally worth it! Despite some bone pain and a fatigue-inspired crying jag on my last day (side-effects from the chemo drug, Taxotere) I had a great Christmas, complete with traditional dinner and the company of an assortment of dear, and sometimes quirky/entertaining family members. Christmas this year was in Black Creek, my Mom’s retirement community, half-way between Niagara Falls and Fort Erie.

My son Adam and daughter-in-law Tara flew from the Netherlands, with a stop off for a few days in Boston on the way. This is a photo-email they sent me from Niketown, before the storm hit.

The message reads: We are strolling in the snow on Newbury Street in Boston. It's actually nice to have a bit of winter. Well, within a few hours, they experienced more than “a bit of winter”. As did so many other travelers this holiday season, they got stranded for 2 extra nights and finally rented a car and drove from Boston to Buffalo.

My Mom (aka the Ever-Ready Christmas Bunny) decorated, cleaned, cooked Christmas dinner for 11 people, and made a gazillion trips to the train station and four different airports. I don’t know where she gets the energy! The weather made for something out of a bad made-for-TV Christmas movie. Just because I can’t believe she did this, here was my Mom's taxi-shuttle schedule:

Dec 17 – Picked me up at Pearson airport in Toronto. Because of bad Ottawa weather and the transit strike, I arrived 10 minutes before departure time, yet managed to maintain my record of never missing a flight (although I’ve come close too many times to mention). My flight was delayed for over an hour, which was a sign of things to come.

Dec 18 – Picked my sister Nadine & brother-in-law Doug up at the Hamilton airport, 1 hour away. We went directly from the airport to the train station to pick up my niece Erin, arriving from Halifax via Montreal.

Dec 20 – Drove Nadine & Doug across the border to the Buffalo airport, where they caught a 7:30 am flight to Florida. Drove back to Buffalo for a second time that evening to meet Adam & Tara’s flight from Boston, which was eventually cancelled. We spent the time waiting in a Tim Hortons (yes, they have them in the U.S. now) and in the Galleria mall.

Dec 22 – Back to Buffalo to meet Adam & Tara at the airport where they dropped their rental car off. We were relieved that they had made the 10 hour trip safely. They made good time, considering that they stopped along the way to visit the Basketball Hall of fame. (Who else besides my sports-obsessed son would do that in a snow storm??)

Dec 26 – Back to Toronto so Adam & Tara could catch a flight to Vegas, where they are spending a few nights before driving to Palm Dessert to visit with Tara’s Mom & stepfather.

Major screw-up: I thought I was leaving from Pearson within a ½ hour of Adam & Tara’s flight, but I realized at the last minute that my flight was from the Toronto Island airport, so Mom had to drive me downtown to get my flight. (Am I the only person in Canada that didn't know that Porter doesn't fly out of Pearson?)

Dec 27 – Back to Hamilton to see Erin off.

Dec 29 – Back to Buffalo to pick Nadine & Doug up for a 1-night stop-over.

Dec 30 – Back to Hamilton for Nadine & Doug’s flight home to Alberta.

Whew! Did I mention that Mom also had overnight company from Sweden in there somewhere? All of her driving, bedding changes and hard work was much appreciated. She did a great job of making sure this was a wonderful Christmas for all of us.

Now it’s back to reality. I had blood work today and have my 6th chemo treatment tomorrow – on Dec 31st. Happy New Year to me!!

Sunday, December 28, 2008


" not distress yourself with dark imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness. Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and the stars. You have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should. ~ Max Ehrmann, "Desiderata"~

I took this from a newsletter that was forwarded to me by a friend from the Cancer Crusade. I can't find a link to the newsletter on their site, but I'm hoping that it's OK to copy it, because it's worth sharing.

Roger and Kathy CawthonThe Cancer Crusadee

One of our recent weekly messages told of the day I was asked to read and sign a 13-page consent form required for my participation in a particular clinical trial. The form listed all of the possible side effects of the standard and experimental drugs and other treatments that would be combined for the trial, and none of them were pleasant. In fact, they were all pretty awful, involving sudden death and other experiences I would just as soon...well, not experience.

As I have moved through the 13 years since that terrifying day, I have learned from various sources of other potential risks of the drugs I took (and, in one case, am still taking) and other treatments I received.Once I learned from Brian Williams on NBC's "Nightly News" that I may not have even needed one or two of the drugs I took, drugs that may lead one of these days to other serious diseases and conditions. On another occasion, I learned that I probably should have had more of a specific type of treatment than I did in fact have.

And once I received a registered letter from my oncologist informing me that a drug I was taking could cause cataracts. (Note to oncology professionals: Receiving a registered letter from you may cause heart palpitations, profuse sweating, nausea and dizziness. Since cataracts aren't a life-threatening condition, could information like this possibly wait until your patient's next checkup? And if you must send a registered letter, could you please mail it early in the week so that your patient doesn't find a pink slip in her mailbox saying there is a registered letter from you waiting at the post office that she can't retrieve for two days because it is now 6 PM on Friday evening which means she is facing an entire weekend of the aforementioned heart palpitations, profuse sweating and...well, I was just wondering.)

And on still another occasion, I learned that there were things I could have done and should have done 20 or 30 years before my diagnosis that might have prevented that diagnosis. Just exactly what was I supposed to do with that information?

What indeed. It's a fact that - for as long as any of us lives - whether we are cancer survivors or the fortunate ones who've never had cancer - we are going to learn about things we did that we shouldn't have done, things we should have done that we didn't do, things that were done to us or happened to us that couldn't have been helped and even some that were done to us with what were believed to be our best interests at heart. Unless we want to live in a cave, we are going to find out things we perhaps would rather not know because we live in an age of instant information (registered letters notwithstanding).

So what are we to do with this information? If it is troubling or frightening, we can discuss it with someone who can calm our fears. The oncologist may be able to explain that we have interpreted some news item incorrectly or that something we thought applied to us really does not. A professional counselor or spiritual advisor can often help us find our way through the scary stuff that does apply to us.I have often relied on both of the above, but the years have taught me to turn more and more often to a third option.I stop everything, breathe deeply, and remind myself to trust.

Come on. Do it with me. Right now. Here's how: Trust that you are, right this minute, right where you are supposed to be. Trust that your life is unfolding exactly as it should. Trust that you and the life you are living are vital pieces - essential parts - of a much bigger plan that is also unfolding exactly as it should. Trust that you have been given exactly the knowledge and experiences you need in order to grow the spirit you were meant to have.

Instead of a prayer, I will close this affirmation with a link to Max Ehrmann's "Desiderata" (excerpted above) which I have always found to be profoundly comforting and helpful when struggling to trust. May it bring you peace and healing today.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Merry Christmas

Have a very Merry Christmas with family and friends this holiday season. I'm wishing you a healthy and happy new year -- after all, 2009 will be a year to kick cancer's ass!!!

Love, light and laughter,

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

They're here!

After 2 nights waiting to get on a flight in Boston and 10 hours in a rental car, Adam & Tara have finally arrived in Niagara Falls. They decided it was best to rent a car and drive. I think that was a good choice because I see on the news that flights are so backed up that lots of people might not make it to their destinations for Christmas.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Snowed in

This is the view from my mom's front door. Adam & Tara were supposed to arrive last night but are stuck in Boston. They are scheduled on a 7 pm flight, but it is very unlikely that they will arrive tonight. There is such a backup of flights flying from Boston to Buffalo that there's no telling when they will finally get out. How frustrating!

Saturday, December 20, 2008

Family 'stuff'

It's December 20th and, as we used to say when I was a kid, only 5 more sleeps until Christmas. I have an extra week between treatments over the holidays and I'm taking this opportunity to take a break from all of the 'cancer crap'. It's nice to be visiting my mother and spending time with family.

We went to my aunt's for dinner the other night and my cousin his family were there. It's been great to reconnect with him, because there were a lot of years between childhood and adulthood when we lost touch for one reason or another. My sister & her husband were here for a few days but have now left to spend Christmas in Florida. My niece is here and Adam & Tara arrive this afternoon.

In the picture: Me, my mom Janice, my sister Nadine, my brother-in-law Doug, and my niece Erin (in the back).

In the picture: my cousin Michael & his wife Sheri and their daughters Kayla & Chelsea.
In the picture: My aunt Diane & uncle Jim and their 2 grand-daughters (and 2 grand-dogs).

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

More "interesting" Taxotere side-effects

No, this is not the latest in pedicures. With the chemo drug I’m on, your nails can turn black and possibly fall off. Mine haven’t discolored, but have developed weird ridges and the toenails are definitely painful and feel like they are lifting from the nail bed. The surgical tape helps to make them feel more secure and less vulnerable.

Yesterday was the last of my medical appointments until after Christmas. Yahoo! I went to a physiotherapist to see if she could help with the neuropathy in my hands and then had a CT scan of my lungs last evening. It will be nice to take a good long break from all of this over the holidays. My next treatment is on December 31st, New Year ’s eve.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Making a commitment

In my last post I wrote about forgiving myself for not being productive. On the other hand, I really do want to make sure I spend my sometimes limited energy on what’s truly important.

If my current job is taking care of myself and getting stronger, then maybe I need to manage that job with more focus than I have been. When I was working, my most productive days were scheduled around my priorities. So, starting tomorrow, I’m going to dedicate ½ of my day to taking care of my health. Here is the schedule I plan to follow:

9:00-9:30 yoga stretches
9:30-10:00 meditation
10:00-11:00 plan food for the day, cook, juice
11:00-12:00 walk (or some other form of exercise)

I obviously need to be flexible and forgiving with this schedule. There will be days when I won’t be able to follow it; some days I have trouble dragging my aching body down the stairs! But if I don’t have a plan, I’m so much less likely to accomplish a few simple things I want to do to take care of myself.

My actual schedule may not be of great interest to anyone reading this blog, but it’s important that I create a commitment and visual reminder by putting it in writing. I’m more likely to do what I intend to do if I know that someone might ask me how I’m doing at sticking to my schedule.

I sure hope I don’t have to post something tomorrow to say that I blew it, but I’ll let you know how it goes…

Thursday, December 11, 2008


With so many things to do and not enough steam to do them, I really needed to go to my yoga class today to de-stress. I get up each morning with loads of plans (use my juicer, wrap Christmas gifts, go for a walk each day, try a recipe from my raw food cookbooks). I seem to move in slow motion some days, with the odd burst of energy here and there. I’m SURE no one has noticed(!) but it tends to make me a tad cranky.

By the end of the yoga class I had forgotten about my to-do list and felt much more relaxed. We did some gentle stretching and breathing exercises. I wish I could motivate myself to do it every day, but its one more thing to add to my to-do list, which is part of the problem.

I want to concentrate on 2 things in my yoga practice: forgiveness and acceptance. Forgiveness for not getting things done and acceptance that I'm just not all that productive right now. Wasting time isn't just wasting time - it's regenerating my body and mind.

Ra ma da sa Sa say so hung (prayer for self healing and protection from all disease).

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Neighbourly Kindness

I looked out my back window this morning and wondered how I was going to shovel my way out. The next time I looked out there was one of my neighbours, almost unrecognizable because of the layers of winter gear, shoveling my back walkway. She said her boyfriend was doing my front walk.

I have snow angels!!!

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Meat and Dairy

Back to recommendations from Susan Manion MacDonald’s book, Balance

The Balance book recommends not eating red meat or dairy products (other than organic quark) because of the possibility that they contact hormones or antibiotics, which may cause the cancer cells to divide and grow more quickly. The author references the book Life in Your Hands by Dr. Jane Plant, who states that 1 in 10,000 in China develops cancer compared to 3 in North America. One of the biggest differences in the Chinese diet is the absence of dairy products.

Her recommendations include having protein at all 3 meals, with the least amount of protein in the last meal of the day. To allow the liver the opportunity to process food properly and regenerate itself, it’s best to reduce protein after 2 in the afternoon. Sources of high protein: peas, beans, lentils, walnuts, almonds, hazelnuts, cashews, sesame and sunflower seeds.

I made a trip to Rainbow foods and bought a few things that were recommended in the book. I got strips to test my pH balance and was happy to see that my alkaline level was 7.4, which is optimum. I am experimenting with using Stevia instead of sugar (although my sugar addiction is an ongoing battle). I also picked up almond milk, which is relaxing warmed up before bed.

My latest concern is numbness in my right hand and foot, which is a side-effect of the Taxotere. I saw my naturopath yesterday and she gave me a B-12 shot to see if that might help. It’s getting progressively worse and the worry is that it can be permanent. I’m already have a hard time picking up small things like pills. I’m hoping that the longer break at Christmas, combined with the B-12 shots, will slow things down.

Thursday, December 4, 2008


I have a fantasy about having a dog. I haven’t had a one since I was a child, and then it wasn’t MY dog, it was a family dog, a cocker spaniel named Goldie. I don’t know much about having a dog and I must admit that the thought of having my things chewed or accidents on the carpet is very unappealing.

What IS appealing is having a faithful animal friend that is affectionate; a companion who doesn’t argue and insist on putting a big screen TV in the living room; a reason to go for a walk each day; another being in the house so I’m not just talking to myself.

I feel the way about dogs that I feel about children; I’m not crazy about all of them as a group, but there are individuals that I could fall in love with. I think I could have fallen in love with Buddy. Buddy was a stray dog that showed up at a friend’s cottage this summer. He was too big, too hairy, too mangy, and not too bright – but he was a happy loveable dog with a handsome face, despite having been abandoned and in rather rough shape.
Buddy hung around the cottage and we finally gave in and fed him some cat food (that’s all we had). By this time I was having crazy thoughts of bringing this large energetic dog home to my little town house with its small decked backyard. But what if I was too sick during my treatments to walk him and take care of him? Was this the right time for me to be taking on the responsibility of a dog? Would that be fair to him?

We walked him down the cottage road looking for his owners and found at least a temporary home for him with a neighbor who had another large dog and lots of property for them to run. I went back a few weeks later and Buddy ran down the road to greet us, with what looked like a smile on his face. The neighbor had been taking good care of him. He had put on weight and was in much better shape than when I had seen him last. The neighbor didn't know if he would keep him or not, but promised to call me if he didn't find his owner or decided not to keep him. I never heard from him.

I'm not sure what has happened to Buddy but I hope to go back in the spring and see what I can find out. I realize that bringing him here might have been a disaster, but I often mention my almost-dog Buddy when friends talk about their pets. Maybe there is still a dog in my future. And maybe I’ll regret it. But my dog-fantasy lives on…

pH Balance - Ackaline v.s. Acidic

I’ve heard it said that cancer cannot grow in an alkaline environment. According to Susan MacDonald, author of “Balance … nature’s way to heal your body”, a pH reading of 7.4 pH protects the body from attack from bacteria, viruses & fungi.

You can test your alkaline level at home using strips purchased at a drug store. The drug stores in my suburban area don’t seem to carry them, so you might have to try a more urban one like in the Glebe or a health food store. Susan Macdonald suggests that initial tests should be done daily for 2 consecutive days to start and then weekly until one’s alkaline level stabilzes via lifestyle changes, such as appropriate nutrition, clean water, and stress reduction.

She suggests doing both urine and saliva tests for the most accurate evaluation. The ideal time for taking a urine sample is the second urine stream in the morning, but the first one is acceptable. Saliva tests should be done before a meal and then 4 minutes after the meal. Your pH level should increase after the meal. Avoid putting the strips in your mouth; spit into a spoon or directly onto the strips. Salivary pH should be approximately 0.5 lower than the urinary pH.

Highly acidic foods (avoid): most fast food, meats, grains, cranberries, prunes, plumbs, rhubarb, refined salt, sugar, condiments (e.g. pickles, ketchup) soda pop.

Alkaline foods: almonds, melons, unpasteurized honey, maple syrup, figs, dates, natural yogurt, dairy, root vegetables (e.g. potatoes, turnip) apricots, avocados, coconut, grapes, molasses, raisins & lemons. Alfalfa & other sprouts, cayenne.

Organic almonds are the kings of alkaline foods. Eat 15-20 day. Soaking for 24 hours in pure water starts the germination process and activates its life force. If a person has cancer, they shouldn't eat more than 5 per day. (I'm not sure why; I can't find an explanation in the book).

Suger substitutes: molasses, maple syrup, unpasteurized honey. It takes 30 glasses of water to neutralize the acid from one can of pop.

The aim is to eat 80% alkaline and 20% acidic. Try to consume ½ your veggies raw.

Note: The chart shown did not come from Susan's book. I found it on the Squido website.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Dealing with a Diagnosis of Metastatic Cancer

A friend recently found out that her cancer is stage IV and, understandably, is struggling to figure out what that means for her future. How can I support her?

Here are a few thoughts about what I’ve learned from my own journey that may be of help to someone navigating through a diagnosis of metastatic cancer:

Don’t get caught up in statistics. Those numbers are averages of thousands of people and don’t apply to individuals. For every person who’s on the short end of the scale, there’s someone on the other end; why shouldn’t it be you?

Do your research – or not. I happen to find it helpful to read books about others with my diagnosis or to explore options on the internet. For others, it just adds anxiety and stress. Do what feels comfortable to you. It’s OK if you don’t want to go there. Denial can be a good thing if helps you cope.

De-stress. Dealing with your emotions, the medical system, families, treatment side effects, etc. can make you feel cranky and stressed. I find meditation helps me (when I make the time to do it!). Take time each day to be quiet and focus on slowing your breath. I like to imagine joy coming into each part of my body, surrounding my organs (especially the lungs where the cancer is) and flowing down my limbs. Experiment with mental images until you find one that works for you.

Accept help. For many of those who are used to being independent, it’s hard to ask for help. Remember that others want to help but don’t know what to do. If there is something that you need (drives to treatments, company, a loan of movies or books, etc.) reach out to others. You are probably making them feel better by giving them an opportunity to do something helpful.

Laugh. “Laughter is the best medicine” is not just a cliché. People who make you laugh are gems and may be as important to how well you feel as your health practitioner. Good friends came over for dinner yesterday and we laughed all evening. I’ve been recording reruns of “Who’s Line Is It Anyway” every weekday at 5:30. It’s one show that makes me laugh out loud every time I watch it. Seek out people and situations that make you laugh, every day.

It’s OK to go to the ‘dark side’. That’s what I call the times when I feel like crap and thinking positive just isn’t an option: ‘the dark side’. I think it’s OK, and even healthy, to go there. Just don’t stay there. Sometimes I allow myself a day to wallow in it. Usually I get bored and move on when I’m ready. But I’ve found the more I fight it, the harder it is for me to get past it and be positive.

Ask questions. I find it hard to build a trusting relationship with doctors when I so often see a different one every time I go to the cancer clinic. I used to find it discouraging when I would get different answers to the same question from different doctors. I now see it as a variety of information that gives me more options. I’ve learned to take the answer that best works for me and discard the rest. I’ve also learned not to ask a question that I’m not ready to hear the answer to.

Appreciate your blessings. It might be difficult to feel grateful when you are first diagnosed and dealing with anger and fear. But eventually you move out of that phase and can appreciate the wonderful things that are still part of your life. I seem to appreciate those things more than I used to: the wonderful people who support me; simple things like a sunny day spent in nature; watching a good movie wrapped in a cozy blanket; waking up in the morning with no chemo side-effects. Things I used to take for granted have become all the more precious to me.

Life goes on. No matter what the prognosis, we’re all here right now, living our lives. Cancer doesn’t define me. My spirit is stronger than my body and I find ways to live my life with purpose every day. I’m more focused on what’s important than I’ve ever been in my life. Last week after a dear friend (who’s also going through treatments) and I went for a walk, we hugged and agreed that life is good. And, despite the challenges, it truly is!