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I grew up in Colorado at the foot of the Rocky Mountains, then lived in Denmark and traveled throughout Europe before coming back to Colorado. I have two adult sons, whom I cherish. I started my writing career as a columnist and investigative reporter and eventually became the first woman editor of two different papers. Along the way, my team and I won numerous state and several national awards, including the National Journalism Award for Public Service. In 2011, I was awarded the Keeper of the Flame Lifetime Achievement Award for Journalism. Now I write historical romance and contemporary romantic suspense.

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Seductive Musings

Wednesday, May 07, 2014

Learning to Cope



I’m not sure about you, but I’ve never been very good at waiting when the stakes are high. One thing that made journalism work for me as a career was that everything was happening right then. News breaks, and you respond. A story falls through, so you find another story. A computer breaks down, so you come up with some creative way of getting the paper to press anyway. It’s all action all the time.

Waiting to find out whether the cancer in my left breast has spread and whether I’ll need chemotherapy and for how long quite simply sucks. As of this moment, I have a tentative surgery date for early June — which seems terribly far away. I can’t make it get here any faster, and I have no way of knowing any more about what I’ll be facing until the surgery is completed and I have the full pathology report.

I find myself in the exact circumstances I’ve always hated — one in which I have no control and can take no action. All I can do is pray and wait.

In the past — as recently as the weekend prior to my diagnosis on April 21 — waiting on the cusp of something potentially frightening had a way of ruining my entire day. During the week following the news that I needed to come back because they’d seen something on my mammogram, I felt sick. I couldn’t get my mind off it. I could not escape the fear, some part of me knowing that this was not going to be good.

On April 21, hearing the radiologist say, “It looks like we have an early breast cancer,” made me feel absolutely ill. I cried. I closed my eyes while they did the biopsy. I simply shut down, my entire mind and body rocked by the news that I was now facing a long-term health struggle, one that would change my body and my life forever.

The week that followed involved more dreaded waiting as I carried my cell phone everywhere, anxious to get the pathology report so that I would know whether this was an aggressive cancer or a slow-growing tumor. Fortunately, it turned out to be the latter — estrogen and progesterone positive and HER2 negative.

Then came the week of waiting to see a surgeon and a plastic surgeon, each appointment making the situation I’m facing more real.

And now I’m waiting to have surgery so that we’ll know everything we need to know about the battle ahead of me — whether the cancer is in my lymph nodes, whether the genetic type of tumor requires chemo, whether the surgery went well...

The strange thing is that I have moved from shock and panic to a strange sense of calm. And, no, I haven’t been taking advantage of the state’s legalization of marijuana to achieve this.

Part of it is the fact that I’m getting lots of TLC from my family. My mother has been amazing, cooking meals, doing laundry, letting me live almost like a child in her home and enabling me to focus all of my energy on my own situation. My father has listened to me rant, using words he would ordinarily not appreciate, just to comfort me.

My sister arrived last week, and she makes me laugh more than anyone. She has always been my best friend. When I was coping with the aftermath of being sexually assaulted at age 10, crawling in bed with her in the middle of the night made the nightmares go away. She’s just magic that way.

Also, a quiet community of authors, all of whom are either survivors of breast cancer or currently battling breast cancer, have reached out privately to me, enabling me to ask questions and offering me their reassurances. One of my best friends in Denmark had exactly the same kind of tumor a couple of years ago and spent a good hour or so on Skype with me sharing the details of her experience. All of these incredible and strong women have helped me find my way beyond panic to hope.

My family rallied around me and helped me get spring cleaning done inside and outside my house, taking the burden of that work off my shoulders so that I would have one less thing to worry about in the coming weeks. Their support, expressed in sweat and hard work, means so much to me.

My readers have sent dozens of sweet cards wishing me well, some with gift cards to Starbucks or bookmarks or breast cancer bracelets.

My faith community sent me the flowers from the altar from last Sunday’s service and connected me with women in the congregation who are going through the same thing. My priest, Rev. Susan, gave me a chance to vent my anger and frustration.

All of this together gave me hands to hold and an outlet for the initial emotions I felt about this diagnosis, and for that I am eternally grateful.

But something else is happening as well.

All of us have heard how we should accept the things we cannot change. That idea has been expressed in so many different ways through faith, philosophy, slogans, Facebook memes. It comes down to a simple idea: If you can’t control it, don’t worry about it.

My response to that has always been irritation, even anger. As a reporter, I was ready to go to the mat for the sake of an important story. Fight the bastards. Gather the facts. And flip the bad guys the bird by putting all their dirty laundry on Page One. What a rush! As the editor-in-chief, I was the boss. Shit would happen, and I would tell people how to respond. A crisis almost pepped me up, as it gave me a chance to pit my wits against some kind of obstacle while on the clock.

When the Columbine shooting happened, for example, it took me less than five minutes to make all the decisions regarding our coverage and the deployment of reporters and freelancers. Though the situation was horrifying, I was able to control my emotions and respond immediately.

I have simply never accepted that there might be a situation I can’t overcome by being quick on my feet, smart, proactive, and relentless.

But there is no way to win by pitting one’s wits against breast cancer. I cannot outsmart it or assign a team to deal with it so that I can do something else. I cannot make it go away by writing about it. There is evil-doer to expose, no deadline after which the problem will be gone. And the adrenaline rush isn’t fun; it’s terrifying. There’s really nothing for me to do that will change the outcome of my surgery.



Oh, sure, I can research the hell out of breast cancer and treatments and doctors and procedures. I can (and do) get second opinions. And at the end of the day, my situation hasn’t change one bit. It is what it is.

By all rights, I should be hanging upside down from the ceiling pulling my hair out by now. Uncertainty and helplessness are not the environments in which I thrive. But for the past couple of weeks, I’ve had far more good days than bad ones, far more days when life has seemed more or less normal than days when I’ve been consumed by fear.

I’m astonished at how normal and fun a day can feel even when you know you have cancer.

I guess I’m starting to “get it.” I cannot change the situation I’m in. I can’t outwit the tumor in my breast  or bark orders at it or call it out in public and shame it into going away. I can’t worry myself into being well, or make the surgery day come any faster. This is my reality. And I just have to surrender to it and take life one day at a time, enjoying each moment as fully as I can.

If someone had told me on April 21 that this is what I needed to do, I probably would have told them to cram it. But something has shifted profoundly for me in the past ten days or so. I find myself willing to let things go. I call it “taking time off from cancer.” If I don’t have an appointment or anything that I can do that day, I say my morning prayers, let it go, and focus on the day.

It’s not that I have to trick my mind into thinking of other things; I truly do let it go. I didn’t know I was capable of doing that, and knowing that I can enjoy life now, that I can cope and even thrive has  opened a world of possibility for happiness that I didn’t realize existed.

That’s not to say I don’t have bad days or bad moments. I definitely do. Also, I haven’t started writing again, and that perhaps is the truest test of how well I am coping emotionally. But my days are no longer dominated by fear.

If there is anything I could do with my own experience so far it is to make other women less afraid of doing monthly breast self-exams, getting regular breast exams and mammograms, and being assertive about getting extra screenings if they feel anything might be wrong. Feel you need an extra mammo? Demand it.

But the message of this blog is simply this: Life with cancer can be happy. I never imagined I could be in this situation and yet feel so calm.




And now because I’ve gotten so many emails, I thought I’d do a quick FAQ about my own situation. (I can’t answer everyone’s emails or Facebook messages, so please post here or on Facebook rather than sending Facebook messages or emails! I can’t read through them all.)

Q: Did you feel a lump?
A: No. I had three breast exams by my doctor in the past 12 months, and she didn’t feel anything abnormal either. The lump, which is roughly 2 cm (an inch) in size, was behind fibrocystic tissue, making it hard to detect. Any time I go to the doctor, I get a breast exam. I figure what the heck, right? It didn’t help me, but it might help someone else.

Q: Do you get regular mammograms?
A: Yes. I’ve always gotten the screenings done when I was supposed to. This time, I delayed it by two months because I was on vacation in Europe. This is a very slow-growing tumor, so the delay will have no impact on the outcome. The surgeon says the tumor was already growing last year when I had my 2013 mammogram but was too small for radiologists to detect. I’ve seen last year’s mammo. There was nothing there last year. This year, a half-circle of white dots mark calcifications in the tumor. Had I felt reassured by my 2013 mammo and skipped this one altogether, I’d be facing a very different situation next year. Moral of that story? DON’T SKIP YOUR MAMMOGRAM!

What you might find out from a mammogram is far less terrifying that what you might miss if you don't get it.

Q: What risk factors did you have?
A: The only risk factor for me was being sedentary and overweight, one of the hazards of being an author. I have no family history of breast cancer. I had my kids in my early 20s. I breastfed for a long time. I don’t smoke and rarely drink. I did not use birth control pills for longer than five years. I’ve never had an abnormal biopsy. I didn’t reach puberty early. There’s no real obvious reason why I have this. My doc said they’ve seen a spike in breast cancer, in part due to better diagnosis, but also because rates are climbing due to environmental contamination by estrogenic carcinogens. (Go online for a list of these chemicals. You’ll find them in skincare products, food packaging, etc.)

Q: What is going to happen to you?
A: I have opted for a mastectomy of my left breast (the one with the tumor) and a preventive mastectomy of my right breast even though I could have a lumpectomy because I want to do all I can to minimize risk of future recurrence. Women who get mastectomies have a slightly smaller chance of having a new cancer in what remains of their breast tissue than women who have lumpectomies. That right there was enough to convince me. Other women make other choices, and I support them in doing that. But this is my body. I need to make my own choice.

During the mastectomy, they’ll check lymph nodes for any cancerous cells. My ultrasound showed normal lymph nodes. All of the blood work I’ve had done indicates that the cancer has not spread. The tumor is small as breast tumors go. The tumor is made of the most treatable kind of cancer. So there are a lot of things that stand in my favor and are very hopeful. We’ll know for certain after the surgery. 

Because I haven’t reached menopause and because I’m relatively young, I will almost certainly have to have chemo. They treat breast cancer more aggressively in younger women because of the estrogen in our bodies. But they’ll do a special DNA test on the tumor and more blood tests on me to make the final determination sometime after the surgery.

There is lots of waiting ahead of me. But I have lots of living to do in the meantime.



Thank you to all of you who’ve been so supportive. Your posts, pink ribbons, and virtual bouquets of pink flowers have meant so much to me. And all the thanks in the world to my family for rallying around me.







8 comments:

Aren't you glad you spoke out and shared your diagnosis? So many women waste away in silence because they think they don't have support. I'm glad that you did and I cannot wait all to be right in your world again.
Much love,
Anjeanette

WendyB said...

Oh Pamela...I am so lucky to (so far) not have had to deal with what you are going through, so well, so passionately and so admirably. I can however totally understand how you felt about how to attack it. I am the same kind of relentless, must-do-something person,(even if there is nothing that can be done)and I've spent many many hours with my mind churning and computing what-ifs, searching for answers to questions I simply could not know answers to yet. The Partner calls me (not always affectionately!) "the Terrier" and he is right. So I get what you are saying and my first thought when you said surgery was so far away was 'How the HELL would I be able to wait for weeks'(waiting for a couple of weeks between the possible conception of my child and the pregnancy test almost turned me into a basket case). So i have learned something from you today, that calm, patience, and resilience is possible. Thinking of you from the other side of the world and counting down the days as well for you, it's all forwards from here. Thank you Pamela.

Pat F said...

I admire your courage, your honesty and most of all your response to this very cruel and unfair invasion of your life. We know the power of prayer, we have seen it right in front of us. I offer the prayers of my family and when your feeling better Isla and I will come give you a hug.
Love you, Pat

Nikki said...

You are a warrior. Thank you for sharing your story.

Marianne said...

So very sorry you are having to go through this. But you're approaching it with a great attitude! Just to cheer you on ... my mother is a 20+ year survivor of breast cancer. She, too, decided to have a radical masectomy and has remained cancer free all this time. Our family rallied just like yours and it brought us all much closer. You will remain in my thoughts and prayers as you go through this. May you become just like mom ... a true SURVIVOR!

I'm so sorry that you are having to go through this. Also, I'm sorry to have to say that my mama was diagnosed with breast cancer 2 days ago. She is having a double mastectomy next Wednesday. No reconstruction though. Hers is much the same situation as yours. So far all of the tests have been normal so they don't think she will need chemo but they won't know for sure until after the surgery. I will be praying for you both and have a lot of other people praying too.

I am so grateful that you are sharing this experience with such detail and honesty. As a fellow journalist (former) and writer (current), my guess is that your innate belief in uncovering the bs and shedding light on this process is what motivates you. There should be some sort of Pulitzer for this type of journalism.
That you have reached a sense of calm is so fascinating. Is this what people mean when they say cancer changes you? You are fortunate to have the support you have, that both your parents are alive and able to be parents. But you are a gift, Pamela. A true gift.
A close friend of mine has been diagnosed with breast cancer this week. I can't think of how many that makes now. This has to stop...but that's another fight for another day.
Thank you, thank you. I just know that you are going to be so okay. Better than okay. You are going to soar!
We are all with you in spirit.
Sarah

Thank you for being open and honest - as a fellow Warrior, and one who writes, I think one of the best things we can do for our Sisters is to TALK ABOUT IT. Enough whispering in the dark. We are much more powerful when we stand together. Like you, I am blessed to have a wall of Warriors standing around me, holding me up when I start to falter. Meeting with my surgeon on Wednesday and will be asking the same things you asked. I think it really helps to know that we are not alone. xo

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"I am an artist. I am here to live out loud."
—Emile Zola

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—Jane Austen

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