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Meet Debbie

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This month we are pleased to introduce you to Debbie, better known on our community as cancertakesflight. Here's a bit about Debbie, in her own words. 


My Cancer

My name is Debbie and I was diagnosed with breast cancer in February 2011, but my journey started much earlier.

In November 2010, I noticed a red stain on the front of my nightgown when I got up in the morning. I figured I was a messy eater and must have spilt something on myself the night before. When the spot continued to appear every morning, I knew I had more than an eating problem.  It wasn’t until I was getting dressed that I noticed a small drop of blood coming from my left nipple. I knew that wasn’t normal, but I didn’t know what it meant. It never occurred to me that it could be breast cancer. No lump…no breast cancer.   

When I went to see my family doctor, she definitely knew what my symptom could mean. I could feel her urgency, but I still didn’t grasp that she thought I had cancer.  And so, the cycle of waiting, testing, and waiting began.

After multiple mammograms, ultrasounds, ultrasound biopsies, a ductogram, an MRI, a fine needle aspiration (FNA) and an MRI biopsy, I was diagnosed with breast cancer.  Tests indicated that I had ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS) with some small tumours. The size of the cancerous area (10 x 6 x 4 cms) was large enough to eliminate the possibility of breast-conserving surgery. I had to have a mastectomy.

In March, on my birthday, I went shopping for tops that closed with zippers or buttons so I wouldn’t have to pull tops over my head after my mastectomy.  Two days later, on my husband’s birthday, I had my left breast removed. Two sentinel nodes tested positive for cancer during surgery, so my surgeon removed 20 lymph nodes from under my arm for further testing. My husband and I definitely did something special for our 50th birthdays; however, I hope we don’t do anything like it again.

When the results came in after my surgery, I was diagnosed with Stage IIB breast cancer.  Fortunately, none of the 20 lymph nodes that were removed were cancerous.  Even with that good news, I was destined for chemotherapy and radiation. I had my first chemo treatment on May 27th and had my final radiation treatment on November 7th.  Today, I am taking Tamoxifen to keep my cancer at bay; however, the side effects have resulted in other health issues.  This is a whole different cycle of life. It’s why I say that cancer is the gift that keeps on giving.
 

My Epilepsy

While cancer is hard enough to deal with on its own, it is even more exciting when you throw epilepsy into the mix. I have multiple types of epilepsy. From childhood until my early twenties, I only had absence seizures (formerly known as petit mal).  At some point, I was having 200 seizures per day until the correct drug combination was found and the number of seizures dropped to only 30 per day.

During delivery of my first son, I discovered I had another form of epilepsy. As soon as I got to the birthing unit, I had a convulsive seizure (formerly known as grand mal) on the bathroom floor. I had never had this type of seizure before.  I was told that it took about six nurses to get me off the floor onto the delivery table. This was the point when most mothers were pushing and I was unable to push. My son was too low for me to have a C-section. There was lots of excitement, but everything turned out well in the end.  I did not repeat this performance for my second child.

In my mid-forties, I started to have what my neurologist describes as day-long seizures. This is not the convulsive kind.  It’s like an absence seizure that never really seems to end. I have trouble understanding people. I have trouble expressing myself; I cannot string enough words together to say a complete sentence. Tasks that I complete each day without any problem are no longer routine.  I have been known to sit and stare at my computer screen for an entire day if I happen to be at work. It’s a scary and frustrating experience, and it is happening more frequently. It could be hormonal changes or it could be another spin on chemo brain.   

With this medical history, it’s not surprising that I was concerned about the potential impact of chemotherapy on my epilepsy. My oncologists would only check for potential drug interactions with my epilepsy medications. They would not look at the bigger picture and associate the toxicity of my body with the potential for increasing my seizure activity. Ultimately, I knew best, and my biggest problem with my chemotherapy was my epilepsy.
 

My Coping Mechanisms

Other than my recovery period after my surgery, I didn’t take time off work. Mentally, I needed to keep busy and feel productive. I wanted to think about something other than me and my cancer.  With some help from my brother, who does complementary medicine, I was able work my regular hours and then some. On the days I didn’t feel well enough to work, I used my banked hours to make up the time. In the end, I had banked more hours than I needed.

After my mastectomy, I felt more in control than before my diagnosis. I say that I got my cancer legs because I knew what I was dealing with and had a sense of direction. Waiting and not knowing what was going on was much worse.

From the day after my surgery and onward, I wrote many emails. I wanted to keep family, friends, and co-workers informed and I didn’t want to repeat the same information. I created an email group called Boob Buddies. Far from being just a status report, my emails became a way for me to deal with everything that was going on; explain terms, concepts, and procedures to people; and share humorous stories about my experiences. I chose to look for the humour in things and, surprisingly, there was a lot to laugh about.

Ultimately, I combined these emails with tips, tricks, and learnings associated with my cancer experience. I am in the process of publishing my book, “When Breast Cancer Takes Flight.” I have included a portion of my book in the Personal journals section of cancerconnection.ca.
I look forward to replacing this picture of a book with the cover of my book when it is published.
 
 

My Family, Friends, and Co-workers

I was fortunate to have many family and friends who cared about me. My husband, Mike, was with me every step of the way, quite literally. He took me everywhere for my appointments, tests, and treatments…many of them in other cities. There was nothing that he wouldn’t do for me. 

We did not tell our sons, Kyle and Tyler (20 and 16 at the time), about what was going on until we had a diagnosis. We figured that there was no reason to worry them if everything might be fine (or at least something other than cancer).  We applied the same principle to most of our family members (our parents and siblings). The exception was my youngest brother, Glenn, since he knew about the symptom and the ongoing testing. I actually told my in-laws before my own parents so that they could support my husband. I also thought that they cared about me less than my own parents, so they wouldn’t worry so much. It turns out that I was wrong and I caused my mother-in-law many sleepless nights. As for my parents and brothers, they took my news in stride when I told them. In fact, one day, when I was at the hospital because my dad was sick, I wore a mask. Someone asked me if I had a cold and, without missing a beat, my mom answered, “No, she’s got cancer.”

I also have a core group of friends that I know from grade school and high school. They were a great source of support. Doris went to my appointments with my husband and me, and we stayed at her place the night before my appointments, tests, and surgery. These visits were one of the silver linings to my cancer experience.  She was a source of support and, unfortunately, a source of chocolate.

The year after my treatments ended, my core group of friends went with me to Montreal. Here are three of us (Ang, me, and Cindy) mugging for the camera. Doris, in a continuation of her support role, took the picture.
 
 

My Learnings  

While no one chooses to have breast cancer, I believe it is your choice what you do after the diagnosis. You can choose to let it empower you or to let it take power away from you.  Personally, I felt empowered, and I continue to feel that power even today. If I am afraid to do something, I remind myself that I have dealt with breast cancer so I shouldn’t be afraid to do anything else.   

For example, even though I never really liked public speaking, I have spoken at several conferences and have come to enjoy it. In fact, having breast cancer has given me a topic to present, “Atypical Documentation for Breast Cancer Patients”.  Since the majority of my career has been as a technical writer, I thought that it would be good to provide a first-hand perspective about what is good and bad about the information available to breast cancer patients.
 
 

As you may suspect from my slide (above), once I started researching tests and all things related to breast cancer, I decided to avoid the internet. I wasn’t one of those people who could go to one site and stay there, just as I am not one of those people who can eat just one chip. When I went on the internet, I hopped from website to website. I saw too much too soon. There was so much information. There were pieces of information that I wished I hadn’t seen. It overwhelmed me. I decided not to go on the internet for the rest of my cancer journey.  For this reason, I didn’t know there was a lot of online information available to me, including cancerconnection.ca.  Although I didn’t use this great site when I was going through diagnosis and treatment, the site is still relevant.  It is never too late to learn from others, and it is an opportunity for me to help wherever I can.

 

My Dedication to Lise

While I was writing this blog post, I got word that my friend, Lise, passed away from endometrial cancer. I was lucky enough to visit her about a month ago in Halifax when she was lucid and her pain was relatively under control. I will always treasure those days and the approximately 20 years that we knew each other. Goodbye Lise.  I will miss you.   
 




Comments

Absolutely. I can send you a friend request so that we can communicate directly.
  • Posted Wed 02 Sep 2015 09:37 PM EDT
Hi Debbie; I was flipping through your page and what stud out the most was your "Epilepsy" mainly because I also have epilepsy... and if you read my journal you will see I'm kinda new at this site. Would you consider communicating with me on the two topics ?
  • Posted Wed 02 Sep 2015 07:00 PM EDT

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