Monthly Archives: October 2015

Dear Educators

Dear Educators,

Thank you for doing what you do.

I write to let you know that it doesn’t take much to change the life of one child. Your impact can be magical. And. I don’t think it takes much.

I know that the easier route is to do things the way you have always done them. That sometimes it’s easier to take the “multiple choice test” approach rather than working to create projects and oral assignments and technology-based learning.

I know that you aren’t always given the tools to recognize different learning styles and how to reach those children. That you aren’t always taught (or incented) to recognize that a child performing at average might need to be challenged more and just because they are OK, doesn’t mean they can’t be great.

I know that you are given an onerous task of readying your students for hours of standardized testing to ensure federal dollars and state-wide rankings. And, I know you probably remember a time when 9 year olds were allowed to do projects and experiments and not have to learn stress management techniques.

But, carry on educators. Even with all that’s allied against you, the life of a student will be and can be changed by your kind words. By your willingness to create a slightly different approach for a kid with processing issues. Or to find a different incentive and punishment structure for a kid with ADHD.

This time last year, my bright, easy going son started winding tightly into a coil of concern. anxiety and disappointment. He was crying about school. Repetitive about assignments being completed (“Mom, did you sign it? Did you sign it?”). Most of all, he was withdrawing from himself and the person that he could be, He ended the year with only two As on a report card that included a C in the area we now know is his specialty. Math. We had to hide the report card as his face, his being, fell when he saw it.

After a year of testing and fighting and wondering and learning, we now know he has dyslexia. We entered the school year with a plan and we we know how to help him. We are doing work on the side – phonemic awareness and repetition to rewire his brain. His teachers are doing work at school to give him the educational experience that he deserves.

They provide him with compliments recognizing that a fragile ego is a common side effect of stress and concern. They create alternate assignments – such as typing the spelling lists in sentences instead of expecting memorization. They have a conversation with him to gauge understanding instead of a multiple choice test. They let him go at his own pace. Require him to write his work in a structured and organized fashion.

And, they have changed his life.

He now is buoyed by the opportunity to go to school. A change in the schedule which would have turned him sideways last year is taken as a momentary blip – as it should be – this year. Most importantly, he thinks he is smart, he loves to learn, and he wants to do more.

He did extra credit for the first time. He reads out loud to his brother and sister at night – from his favorite series, Percy Jackson – he has read all 10 in the series since January. His report card? Straight A’s. Pride.

So take heart, educators. Take the extra time to go a little further, and you can be the one that will turn a kid around. Be a part of family lore. The ones that got it right.

You can get it right for so many.

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Survivorship – noun, verb, expletive and blessing.

This year, my Aunt asked me to speak about survivorship at a fundraiser she chairs. They raised $176K for medical research to find a cure for breast cancer.

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I was honored to speak, but nervous. This time instead of talking about a fight I had “won” I would be talking about my state of being And it’s not always pretty. And it’s very personal.

Blogging is so much easier.

But, the act of sharing, the idea of educating, is still important. so here you go … my speech. And your education about being a survivor.

I will be honest – before going through this, I didn’t even think survivorship was a noun … merely a state of being done with cancer – like part of a life timeline. Before kids, after kids. Before cancer, after cancer.

But survivorship is much more than a time marker. It is a noun, and a verb, and an adjective … sometimes even an expletive at our house. But, mostly a blessing.

I think about how I must appear to the outside world – those that didn’t know me on my journey. Now, being three years out, a lot of people have no idea when they meet me that there’s anything beneath the surface. I mean, I probably look pretty together.

There are none of the visible markers of cancer or chemo – I have hair – which take it from me, has not always been a given. I have eyelashes and energy.

Because I look fine on the outside, people couldn’t possibly know is the chaos and pain and ups and downs that my family has endured. Life is good. Life looks good. But it is not, nor will it ever be, normal again.

So a quick version of my backstory. I was diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer in 2012. I had not done self-exams in years. Between breastfeeding and motherhood, who has the time? I had twin 5 year olds and a 7 year old.

And so what if one lady pointed up and one pointed down – I had nursed three kids, including the twins, for over 6 months. The ladies were tired. Frankly, so was I!

I had passed my annual and GYN doctors’ exams with nothing unusual. But my husband got promoted to an executive position in Dubai, and in advance of our move, my GYN recommended a mammogram “just as a baseline” before we headed overseas. That mammogram saved my life.

My cancer is now gone—three years in August. I had a sum total of 2 years of treatment: six months of fatiguing, balding chemo, a double mastectomy, six weeks of daily radiation, and over a year of reconstructive surgeries.

And, in case you were wondering, you are considered a survivor as soon as you begin battle with breast cancer. That should tell you something.

I often feel like I have this little piece of myself – my survivorship – that I carry with me in my pocket – that others wouldn’t see unless I shared. Kind of like that song about the brownie smile in girl scouts “there’s something in my pocket that I keep it very close to me in a most convenient place?”

Only mine is a survivorship smile, something I keep in there and rub when I’m feeling down or crazy or frustrated. It’s in my pocket – out of general view, something I don’t often share.

To me, it is obvious much has changed. For example, my body is totally different. In order to lower the chance that the cancer will come back, I opted for the double mastectomy. A fun medical term– because I only had cancer on my left side, my mastectomy was considered prophylactic because it was to protect me from a future occurrence. Now that’s probably not what you think of with prophylactic right? A lot more fun things come to mind?

Now, I did get to swap out the bum boob models for perky gelatinous silicone implants. A size of my own choosing? Yes please – let’s go up to a C shall we?

I think we can all agree these implants look good. But, I can’t feel anything on my skin there because the nerve endings are dead after radiation and months of surgeries. I actually find myself running into walls with my boobs just because they are bigger and stick out more than I ever had naturally and because I have no sensation. I have to admit, it’s hard to feel too sexy when you can’t feel whether your bra is on or off.

I was also put on tamoxifen, which is a drug that literally blocks my body’s ability to uptake estrogen. For me, I have had many side effects, but lowering my chance of the cancer coming back from 15% to 8% is worth it.

One common side effect is becoming post menopausal. Now I have been lucky enough to get all of the super fun side effects – night sweats! Weight gain! Insomnia! BUT I still get my monthly visitor. Not cool, science, not cool.

As for those side effects, about three weeks after I went on the drug, I gained 30 pounds. Very quickly. Now it turns out that this coincided with the Christmas holiday – so that number may not be totally fair. After all, I ate my way through an entire block of cream cheese jalapeno dip and about 33 bon bons.

But, my entire body shape has never recovered and it wasn’t just Christmas. I lost some of the weight, but I now have the post-menopausal issue of muffin top. The styles I used to love before no longer can work. This may seem vain, but I used to have a small waist and I loved fit and flare. Belted. Now I alternate between strategic draping and stretchy waist bands and girdles.

To combat this change, I have upped the amount of exercise I get – I think I am fitter than I was before cancer. I play tennis and do barre and yoga or crossfit 4-5 times a week. I have done the diet thing – I went through a phase where I was so restrictive that I didn’t allow myself an alcoholic drink for weeks. As some of you know, with three kids that is no way to live sustainably.

And guess what’s even worse, my belly never got flat, my waist never got trim. I think that could be a second job – all consuming – and still not see what I saw before.

I also have insomnia – worsened when I drink more than one alcoholic drink. Or caffeine after 3pm. And, as a survivor, I have to watch for side effects. But, everything feels like a side effect. Is that a lesion? Or just gas?

Finally, there is chemo brain. Which is actually a medical thing. Whatever poor brain cells I had left over after pregnancies had no chance.

My best analogy is swiss cheese memory. When I can’t remember that person’s name after the fourth time that I’ve met them and they know my name and my family name and have been to my house …. I mean, I showed up to a tennis match a month ago in flip flops and had to run to Wal Mart to get tennis shoes. But yes, I won the match,

And, every time you go to a new doctor or dentists or spa or anything, you will have to fill out that you had cancer on your forms. Yes, I had cancer. Yes I take tamoxifen, yes I had surgery. YES. I now take 6 drugs to sleep, reduce anxiety, keep the cancer from coming back, and function. YES.

At the end of the day, though I am lucky. I am able to choose to take tamoxifen and struggle to have a 50-year old waistline with my 20-year old boobs. I am able to claim survival. To see my kids grow up and be crazy and ask “remember the time when you had no hair Mom?”

Yes, I remember.

I get to muddle through life missing homework assignments and class parent names and driving to the wrong soccer field.

Survivorship does not mean cure. It is a set of side effects and a state of being. It is a glorious wondrous chance at the world again – living without regrets as much as possible and hugging and laughing.

With distance from the soul-crushing fight comes pride. Each time I go over my history, I feel that survivorship ribbon sitting in my pocket. I realize what I did and what I’ve been through and what my family and I accomplished. I try each day to accept the changes to my body and my mind. Knowing they aren’t the end of anything – just differences.

And sometimes, like tonight, I take out that survivorship and put it on like a great big brownie smile. And then I can reflect and remember and rejoice. I get to remember that survivorship is the best possible state of being. It is love and respect. And it is pride. It is life.

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Don’t Just think pink, do pink.

Revised and updated from two years ago …

What you should know about breast cancer NOW (because I didn’t know and it almost killed me)

This October will once again be full of the color pink—ribbons, shirts, walks, camo gear, socks and even pepper spray.

Many of you know that in February of 2012 this all became very personal for me. I was diagnosed with Stage 3a breast cancer after a chance mammogram at age 35. I had not done self-exams in years. Between breastfeeding and motherhood, who has the time?

I had passed my annual and physical doctors’ exams with nothing unusual. But my husband got promoted to an executive position in Dubai, and in advance of our move, my GYN recommended a mammogram “just as a baseline” before we headed overseas. That mammogram saved my life.

My cancer is now gone—three years cancer free – and a sum total of 2 years of treatment: six months of fatiguing, balding chemo, a double mastectomy, six weeks of daily radiation, and over a year of reconstructive surgeries.

This year, make your October different. Educate yourself. Know about yourself and this disease. Awareness is only part of the battle. And, based on how much pink is out there, I think we are all aware that breast cancer sucks.

As one of my #lifer friends put it, “We are all AWARE. We are more than pink ribbons and kitschy phrases like “Save the Tatas”. Most of our “Tatas” are in the hazardous waste bin of an operating room, but I still think we are worth saving….”

Bear with me, but a few items you need to know this October:

This isn’t just our mothers’ disease

About 1 in 8 U.S. women (just under 12%) will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. Breast cancer can strike at any age, and breast cancer is the most common cause of death in women aged 35 to 54. The number of young women who are diagnosed with breast cancer is on the rise, with scientists unsure of the cause. Pay attention!

You (probably) know more than your doctor

Diagnosing breast cancer in younger women (classified as those of us under 40) is more difficult because our breast tissue is generally denser than the breast tissue in older women. Whoop whoop! Love that, right? The thing that makes you not sag makes it hard to see through – even with a mammogram. By the time you feel a lump, the cancer often is advanced. In addition, breast cancer in younger women may be aggressive. Mine sure was. And I didn’t even feel a lump.

Many young women who have breast cancer ignore the warning signs—lumps or nipple changes—because they believe they are too young to get breast cancer. Or because they have had changes from pregnancy or nursing. I had things pointing all sorts of directions with irregularity, lack of symmetry, odd changes … and just thought it was my body getting older – and used up! But it is your body and you need to get to know your breasts intimately, regularly, and bring any changes to the attention of your doctor.

Get to know your breasts

In general, regular mammograms are not recommended for women under 40 for the reasons I cited above. But self-exams are a super important tool in discovering breast cancer. Usually, the first noticeable symptom is a lump that feels different from the rest of your breast tissue. More than 80% of breast cancer cases are discovered by touch, by you or your doctor. You need to get to know your breasts in circular motions, horizontal and vertical. And don’t be afraid to palpate deep—many breast cancers are close to the chest wall. Min felt like a Jordan almond up against my ribs. But I didn’t feel it until I saw where the silly bugger was on an MRI.

You also need to feel under your arms—lumps found in lymph nodes located in the armpits can also indicate breast cancer. Other symptoms include asymmetry from left to right in denseness, one breast becoming larger or lower, a nipple changing position or shape or becoming inverted, skin puckering or dimpling, discharge, constant pain in part of the breast or armpit, and swelling beneath the armpit or around the collarbone. If you have any of this—regardless of your age—get to a doctor and discuss it. Don’t think it’s just getting older!

Know your risks and manage what you can

Some of the risk associated with breast cancer is hereditary. A woman’s risk of breast cancer approximately doubles if she has a first-degree relative (mother, sister, and daughter) who has been diagnosed with breast cancer. About 15% of women who get breast cancer have a family member diagnosed with it.

About 5-10% of breast cancers can be linked to gene mutations (abnormal changes) inherited from a mother or father. Mutations of the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes are the most common. Women with these mutations have up to an 80% risk of developing breast cancer during their lifetime, and they are more likely to be diagnosed at a younger age (before menopause). Talk to a doctor if you have a family history of breast or ovarian cancer to determine if gene testing is right for you.

Clearly, inherited risks you can’t control, but you can acknowledge and respond. And, there are many risks that you can control:

Stay at a healthy weight (having more fat tissue means having higher estrogen levels which JOY increases cancer risk)

Take the stairs. Evidence is growing that exercising regularly deceases your chance of getting many cancers – including breast cancer.

Don’t drink too much! Studies have shown that breast cancer risk increases with the amount of alcohol a woman drinks. Alcohol can limit your liver’s ability to control blood levels of the hormone estrogen, which in turn can increase risk.

Don’t smoke. Smoking is associated with an increase in breast cancer risk. As if you needed another reason.

Learn about Metastatic Breast Cancer

Metastatic breast cancer is the ONLY breast cancer that kills. It means that the cancer has spread beyond your breasts to other areas of your body, and once you have it, you are fighting for life (hence the #lifer term). Over 41,000 die each year from MBC. Of the billions of dollars raised for breast cancer, only 2% goes toward metastatic breast cancer.

Think about where you are giving your funds this October. Here is a list of my favorites based on who spends money on what and how much of the dollars actually go towards helping women, researching a cure, and providing love and support for those in the throes of this battle.

– Metavivor
– Theresa’s Research Foundation
– Noreen Frasier Foundation
– Breast Cancer Resource Center
– Wonders and Worries
– Heal in Comfort
– Little Pink Houses of Hope
– Without Regrets

In all, I feel incredibly blessed in a weird way to have been diagnosed with breast cancer. I was diagnosed early enough to stop it, and have been given the opportunity to demystify the disease to my generation. I never was a pink girl really, but now I’m proud to wear pink ribbons, bracelets, T-shirts, and hats. I have become part of the community that unfortunately grows every year. We are sisters in diagnosis, and hopefully, in survivorship.

Knowing your risks, your breasts, your doctor and your history will help in early detection, the key to survival in breast cancer. Don’t just think pink, do pink.

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