The Ugly Truth

Its been almost 2 months since my final chemotherapy session and by all accounts it appears I’ve beaten the Big C, notwithstanding that I’m still awaiting that absolute CANCER FREE designation from my doctors.  You would think all would be wonderful but alas no.  I’d been surrounded by family and extended family just one week after my last chemo during a cousin’s wedding.  By the 3 week mark, my taste buds were coming back and my oncologist had given me the all clear to resume eating raw vegetables.

The ugly truth is I’ve been a ball of emotions, exhausted and I dare say experiencing depression.  I’ve gotten mad at myself for feeling this way, after all I ought to be happy to be on this side of treatment.  I’ve wanted to blog but felt paralyzed, unable to put my thoughts down in any sensible way.  Hot flashes have become the bane of my existence.  It’s as if I’m now just mourning, just able to process what I’ve been through over the past 7 months.

I learned about my cancer diagnosis while in the throws of working on a concert production late last year.  So ‘Breast Cancer’ simply became another heading on my checklist, according to my BFF I went into full show production mode with it.  I planned everything meticulously and was in surgery just 10 days after the concert took place.  My sister calls it ‘warrior mode’, which is I suppose, exactly what I needed to be to get through surgery and chemo.  But now that its all done I’m sad, in a way mourning the loss of the person I was before all this.  In many ways I’m a much better person now, certainly healthier, but I still miss the old me, my old body.  And yes, I miss my breast. And I hate dislike the prosthesis.  It’s heavy and uncomfortable and makes me feel self conscious.

Although I’ve approached my diagnosis with general optimism, right now I feel heavy.  Cancer has laid bare things I wasn’t ready to face, my vulnerability, the sheer uncertainty of life.  And while it’s likely that I’m cancer free, cancer is always going to be there, as if it’s waiting in the wings or perched on my shoulder like an annoying fly.  It was easy to write about cancer, writing about depression, not so much.  Cancer you can explain, how on earth do I explain these feelings of melancholy.

Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  I truly believe in the power of community and sharing.  Last week I reluctantly made the trek to my monthly cooking club session, I was not feeling myself at all.  Thanks to the moderator and my sister for pushing me to go.  These folks, the majority of whom I just met in January allowed me to cry and be vulnerable, and had no judgement when I pulled off the prosthesis and shoved it in my handbag.

Cooking Club Family

Pictured with my cooking club family at Stush in the Bush

So while right now I feel like I’m in a bit of a fog, seeing things in varying shades of grey, hope springs eternal that the color will come back.  Soon.

Living Through Chemo

Chemotherapy has been a delicate dance of managing symptom after symptom after symptom.  With every cycle comes something new.  As much as I thought I knew beforehand, seen my mother go through, heard from survivors, been warned by my doctors, I still had this crazy (stupid) notion that the symptoms would hit me all right from the start.  Makes no sense I know.  Instead they came one after the other, gradually, slowly, almost deliberately, never really overpowering me.  Except maybe the hairloss.  That one hit hard. After all I have a whole blog post dedicated to it.

If you’re still here reading, you’re clearly interested so let me break down how its gone cycle by cycle so far:

Cycle 1

Day 1 I felt fine but to be on the safe side I stayed home, leaving home only to get a blood count booster shot in the evening.  My first symptom was a sore throat which came on in the evening of Day 2.  Day 3 of Cycle 1 is probably the worst I’ve felt throughout this whole process.  My stomach was upset all day, I was nauseous, and spent a great deal of time sitting on the throne if you get me.  Actually I must admit that I napped on the floor next to the toilet.  Don’t judge me, it was easier than doing the back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom.  Pains in my hands and feet started on Day 3, throbbing and soreness really.  I’d been warned that I would feel tingling or pins and needles but that’s not what I felt, not yet anyway.  The foot pains were so intense I couldn’t sleep.  That day the 2 things that got me through was smoking ganja for the nausea and injesting THC oil (the only thing seemed to numb the pain and knock me out, allowing me to get the rest my body needed).  Other symptoms included pains under my right arm and in the chest area (around the area of my mastectomy scar) and some coughing.

I can confess it now but by Day 4, I was back at work.  Sounds bad I know but I had to do it.  The restaurant had been closed for 2 months, I admit my timing may have been off but as it turned out that was the week we had to reopen.  I wore a mask around other folks and when I felt low or tired, I went into my car to take a rest.  When I look back on the turn of events that week, I have no regrets but I fully get that it may not have been the wisest thing to jump back into work so soon after chemo.  The hairloss began two weeks after Cycle 1 was administered and one week after that right at the the start of Cycle 2 I was bald.

Cycle 2

Just as with the first cycle, Day 1 and most of Day 2 were uneventful.  The coughing and sore throat began in the late evening of Day 2.  By Day 3 I started to feel what I can only describe as a dull pain everywhere, my head, my joints, even my teeth. I thought about popping a couple of the Panadene I had left over from my hospital stay but held off thinking “I’ve got over 8 drugs in my system right now, don’t need anymore”.  Thank goodness for a surprise call from a cancer survivor on Day 4. She shared with me that she had the same experience and helped me to see there was nothing wrong with taking a little help for the pain.  The soreness and throbbing in my feet returned, but not in my hands.  It was a real challenge to walk from my bedroom to the kitchen.  The nausea wasn’t too bad but diarrhea came back with a vengeance.  This time around I made sure to stay home on Days 4 and 5 and by Day 6 I was feeling more like myself and able to return to a full day of work.  The following week I noticed that the skin around my finger tips was stripping, within a few days of that my hands were full-on peeling.  I quickly had to halt my newfound love of bread baking.  I couldn’t have folks eating my skin now could I ….uggghh gross!  Peeling hands 2

Cycle 3

Again things started the same, pretty easy Day 1 and most of Day 2.  Diarrhea by day 3, slight dull pains in my head, joints and teeth again but not as bad as during Cycle 2. The pains in my feet returned along with my hands.  This time I got the tingling/pins and needles in both hands and feet.  More than anything though I felt absolutely exhausted.  The tiredness lasted well into the following week.  I was constantly yawning and had to take daily naps.  Perhaps that was the cumulative effect of all the chemo cycles.  Heading into Cycle 3, I noticed that a few of my finger nails looked like they were starting to lift.  Please God, don’t let me lose my nails.  Two weeks after cycle 3 was administered my nails started to show signs of darkening/discoloration.  My oncologist had prepped me for this but again I got lulled into thinking it wasn’t going to happen to me since it didn’t occur right away.  So much for that huh. Darkening Nail 2

Today I head into my 4th and hopefully final chemo session.  Hallelujah 🙌🏾🙌🏾. And guess what??  Life did not come to a grinding halt.  Through it all I’ve still had find a way to get work done between sessions, I’ve had to figure out a way to keep the wheels grinding at the restaurant (including on the chemo weekends), still had to keep it moving.  There has however been one other symptom I wasn’t quite ready for…..HOT FLASHES.  They started about 3 weeks ago and have ramped up fiercely this week.  I swear yesterday was one 24-hr hot flash, and don’t tell me summer’s coming and it’s starting to get hot.  As I type this, I’m sitting in front of the fan sweating bullets, they come fast and furious even when I’m in full-blown A/C, they come on in my sleep, anytime, anywhere. I had been told that my menstrual cycle may be affected by chemotherapy and that the medication slated to start after the chemo is over would throw me into menopause but Lord knows I wasn’t ready for this part just yet.  It’s a good thing I’m not into wigs cause there is no way I could wear one right now, I’ve had to even park my brand new headwraps due to these confounded hot flashes.  The struggle is real.

Oh yes…there has been one other symptom, one that’s pretty much persisted right from the start of Cycle 1 and all throughout this process: a metal taste in my mouth.  It distorts the taste of every striking thing, the only thing I can really detect is hot pepper.  It’s been terribly frustrating, especially since I’m operating a food business and even more so because I love to eat!  Counting down and hoping that in another month or so my taste buds will be back to normal.  Ready to get my grub on if you know what I mean.

Anyhoo….I really am just super thankful that chemo hasn’t completely mashed me up and keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I will get through this last round relatively unscathed.

#tbt Perspective

Perspective (and time) is a hell of a thing.  When I posted this photo on my social media pages on December 30, 2017 I must admit I never really took it in.  At the time of posting my caption read:  Ready to see the back of this year but here goes my #2017bestnine #2018willbebetter.

best nine

Just 2 1/2 weeks into my recovery from surgery, I was reeling, smiling on the outside, trying to be strong, but inside I was a mess.  I had just learned of questionable actions at the restaurant, forcing its temporary closure right at Christmas.  Although I was myself surrounded by the overwhelming love and support of friends and family, I was feeling an immense amount of guilt that my staff, although not without fault, were out of work during the holidays.  I felt FEAR.  What if I couldn’t reopen? What was I going to do?  Those were the things going through my head when I posted this collage.

Fast forward to now.   Today I have a chemotherapy session, after this one more to go. Praise God!!  Chemo although challenging has been manageable.  It took two months but Martha’s Kitchen finally reopened on February 27th, exactly 5 days after chemo began and with new staff I might add.  The restaurant is still not where I want it to be but its been steady and holding its own in this first month back.  Between cycles I’m still not able to work a full week yet, the whole heap of blood tests and as we say in Jamaica general ‘body come down’ (translation: exhaustion, feeling of weakness) have me a way star.  My new kitchen staff and extended family at Martha Brae have been champions at holding it down when I’m not around and for that I am eternally grateful.

Now when I look at this image, I see it through such different eyes.  I’m finally able to appreciate how really wicked this best nine of 2017 was.  Notwithstanding my breast cancer diagnosis 2017 wasn’t so bad after all.  Making the cut are three of my favorite women – my mother, my sister and my best friend.  Then a throwback photo of my first time working with Chronixx at Reggae Sumfest 2013 and the drone shot of our amazing show in Montego Bay a few months ago.  A little known fact to many was that show was just 10 days before my surgery and the best thing that could have happened at the time.  It gave me something to keep my mind off what was to come.  Me with cutey pie Genuwine after his BritJam 2017 performance. What more needs to be said? After all it’s Genuwine and he’s foine!  Me goofing off on a raft at my office…not a bad office eh?!  Rounding it out are two selfies.  The one in the middle was taken at the wedding of my brother’s brother back in late July.  Yeah we got that blended family too.  I remember how happy that time was.  It was the first time in years my father had his 3 children together, difficult to orchestrate often with one living in England, one in Virginia and me in Montego Bay.  Daddy had gone out of his way to pull off the trip.  My brother was in his ackee, as we say in Jamaica.  It was the first time he had his mother and father, his two brothers and two sisters all together under the same roof and he was like a kid in a candy store.  That selfie of me in the pink was taken and posted in October for breast cancer awareness.  I was still awaiting my biopsy results but pretty much already knew it was cancer from consultations with folks in the radiology world.  Funny enough, that smile wasn’t fake (not that I’m into fake smiling), I was on my way to getting healthy and felt ready to deal with whatever came my way.

So now, 3 months after posting, I’m happy to report that I’m finally able to appreciate this Best Nine of 2017.  Go figure…

Turns Out I Wasn’t Ready

I thought I had things under control.  And then came hair loss.

It’s widely known that one of the side effects of chemotherapy is the loss of hair.  No big deal…it will grow back.  After all, I had watched my mother deal with losing her hair not once but twice as she tackled the ‘Big C’.  I had fooled myself into thinking that the hair loss was the least of my worries.

My first chemo cycle was not as rough as I had expected, yes I had some slight nausea, pains in my feet and hands but overall I just felt weak and fatigued.  Nothing too unbearable.  When there was no hair loss in the immediate days after that first cycle, I was like…”Maybe I’ll be lucky and not lose my hair”.  And then a week and half later it began.  At first it looked like normal shedding, but then it got progressively worse.  Next thing I knew there was hair everywhere, on my pillow when I woke up, in the bathroom sink, on the floor….just everywhere.

Exactly 2 weeks after my first chemo treatment, I headed to the hairdresser to do a big chop.  Again, no big deal right, especially since I’ve worn my hair in a ‘teenie-weenie afro’ many times over the years.  Once I had cut it I remembered how much I loved wearing my hair short….yeah I could do this again. Teenie Weenie Afro

Except I was still losing hair.  If I so much as brushed my hand across the top of my head, hair came out.  Pretty soon, I had resorted to only touching my hair once for the day in the morning.  Less than a week after cutting it while market shopping, a friend hinted that I might need to start wearing a scarf.  A bald patch had now appeared in the back of my head.

The next morning (last Thursday in fact) on the dreaded chemo day, as I massaged hair product in, the hair loss was more profound than before.  Literally the side of my head had peeled out.  I sent this picture to my sister who joked that I looked like a little birdie.  My response to her…. “more like a peel head jankro”.

Peel Out

It threw me into a tailspin.  For the first time since this whole experience began, I felt real depression.  I had planned to go into work for a few hours that day before chemo at 5pm but I simply couldn’t move.  Over the course of the day  depression turned to guilt, guilt because it felt like I was being vain to put so much stock in my hair of all things.  Turns out losing my hair was actually harder than losing my breast.  It hit me like a ton of bricks that no matter what I did, I had no control.  No matter how much I cut my hair, it was still coming out.

Later while scrolling through Instagram, I came across this post from The Laurus Project (@thelaurusproject), a non-profit organization focused on helping breast cancer survivors thrive.

The Laurus Project

The image and caption was just what I needed in that moment.  Better to take control and just shave it off.  So on the way to chemo, I made a quick stop at the barbershop.

Bald

BEST. DECISION. EVER.

Celebrating My Tribe

Yesterday we celebrated International Women’s Day and it got me to thinking about all the amazing women in my circle who’ve supported me in my darkest hour.  Without their love, support, prayers and helping hands I could not navigate my way through this difficult road.  The females in my tribe stepped up in a big way….my sister, cousins and sister-friends rallied in a way I never expected, although knowing them I shouldn’t have been surprised.

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You see I’m not one to ask for help.  I guess that comes from being a single woman in my late 40’s.  When things need to get done, I do it myself.  But life has a funny way of twisting and turning.  This experience more than anything is teaching me that no man or woman is meant to trod this earth alone, we all need to be nurtured, loved and supported.  We all need help.  And we shouldn’t be afraid to ask for it.  Asking for and accepting help has been the most humbling and vulnerable part of this journey for me.  The women in my tribe flew in from overseas, drove miles to pick me up in Montego Bay or just to visit, were prayer warriors and a constant presence at the hospital, opened their homes to me for recovery after surgery, set up a Tina’s Tribe chat group and a Go-Fund Me campaign, paid bills, accompanied me to doctors appointments and so much more.  Now as I’m going through chemotherapy, they are by my side, even tag teaming to call me when they suspect I’m defying orders to take it easy ;-).

The truth is though its not just the women in my immediate circle, there are some pretty dope men in my tribe too.  Leading the pack is my father who lives overseas but calls daily, my brother and nephews who send messages of encouragement.

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Then we have my amazing medical team, my surgeon and oncologist, even the oncologist friend of a friend who’s taken an interest in my case from all the way in Maryland.  College friends who although we don’t speak regularly came through to visit me in the hospital, the brothers and husbands/partners of my female tribe who visited and held things down for their women as they rallied for me.  The farmer who sent me freshly cultivated greens, the male friends who continue to call or message to check up on me, drop by with food, guinea hen weed, sour sop leaf, lemons…I appreciate you all and every little act of kindness.  I can’t leave out my social media family.  Social media gets a bad rap sometimes but for me the tribe I’ve cultivated on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter have been nothing but supportive.  Messages of encouragement, prayers, advice, connecting me with survivors, getting a great hook up to have affordable genetic testing done have all come from me sharing my cancer story on social media.

So this post is simply about giving thanks.  Giving thanks to all the folks who’ve touched me along this path.  And giving thanks to God for putting all these people in my path.

 

Following My Gut

Decisions, decisions…that’s been the focus of my life since being diagnosed with breast cancer.  Do I seek treatment in Jamaica or head back to Virginia where my family lives? Some folks I know got treatment in Mexico…do I go there?  Lumpectomy or mastectomy? If I stay in Jamaica, do I have surgery in Montego Bay or go to Kingston? End of the year was drawing close….before Christmas or wait til the new year?  Do I consider reconstruction right away or wait?  To chemo or not to chemo?  Do I look into alternative medicine?  It was all a bit daunting but at the end of the day decisions had to be made.

The first decision I made before even consulting with a surgeon was that no matter what I was told I was doing a mastectomy.  Because my cancer was caught early, I was told that I was a perfect candidate for breast conserving surgery aka lumpectomy.  Every (male) doctor I spoke with made sure to tell me that the choice between lumpectomy or mastectomy would not affect my overall survival.  There was even one doctor friend who said “You don’t need to lose your nice pretty breast”…yeah you read that…my nice pretty breast.  Turns out that as beautiful, and might I add voluminous as they were, I wasn’t so attached to them.  Nah, it could go.  Plus for my own peace of mind the aggrieved breast needed to go.

You see there is a history of breast cancer in my family.  My mother was diagnosed with the same cancer at the age of 43.  She had a mastectomy with chemotherapy and lived cancer free for 14 years before it returned, first in her lymph nodes, then eventually spread to the liver and bones.  She passed away 4 years after the cancer returned.  My mother never did reconstructive surgery so I had seen her live fully without one breast, never once doubting her body image or feeling like less of a woman.  No doubt being in a fulfilling relationship with my father who adored every ounce of her being had a little something to do with that.

After consulting with doctors in both Jamaica and the United States, and connecting with breast cancer survivors, I ultimately decided to stay in Jamaica choosing to have surgery in Kingston where I have a strong network of phenomenal sister-friends who supported me every step of the way.  With the help of my best friend, I got connected with an amazing surgeon who although advising me to go with a lumpectomy (+ radiation and chemotherapy), completely understood and supported my decision to go with the more invasive mastectomy.  He encouraged me to consider doing reconstructive surgery right away and had me consult with a plastic surgeon, who revealed he wouldn’t be able to recreate my ‘volume’ and would need to do a reduction of the left breast to match the new right one.  Although the thought of ending up with a summer body and two perky breasts sounded appealing it just seemed like too much to put my body through, especially with chemotherapy on the horizon.  Reconstruction would just have to wait.

Fast forward to three weeks ago (just before traveling to the States to visit my family), my surgeon called to advise me that the pathology report from surgery was good, we got all the cancer and my lymph nodes were negative for cancer.  Great news but in crept a little doubt….could I have gotten by with doing the lumpectomy instead of losing my nice pretty breast? Well I got the answer last week when I went to see him to review the surgery pathology report.  Although the report was extremely positive showing that the margins and 18 lymph nodes removed were all clear, there was a second precancerous tumor present in my breast that was not detected by either the mammogram, ultrasound or CT scan.  Had I chosen to have a lumpectomy it may not have been caught and if I was lucky perhaps the radiation and chemotherapy would take care of it.  I prefer to think that going with my gut from the outset was the best decision for me.

3 week scar

Mastectomy scar 3 weeks after surgery

This process has taught me so much, not the least of which is that I am my best advocate.  Changing my diet was the first good decision I made.  I’ve lost weight and my body responded extremely well to surgery, considering all it was put through.  I got by in the hospital without needing morphine and was off the saline drip within 20 hours of going under the knife.  I firmly believe that was a result of cleansing and preparing my body before surgery.  Turns out decision number two, the mastectomy was the right one too.  There is still an uphill battle , chemo starts next week.  I’m admittedly a little nervous but ready for the fight ahead.

The decision I’m not yet ready to make – which breast prosthesis to purchase.  Sheesh….who knew there were so many to choose from.  I’ve scoured website after website, turns out choosing the right fake breast is more daunting for me than which surgery to go with.  Come to think of it, my mother for a long time just pinned a shoulder pad into her bra….yes folks a shoulder pad. Not a soul could tell.  So for now if you see me looking a little lopsided, it’s cause the sock stuffed in my bra may have shifted a little….lol.

My Aha Moment

Tuesday October 17, 2017 . . . . .the day my life changed forever.  The day I read the words INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  I sat in the car for what seemed like an hour just staring at the words…..INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  Finally, after 4 agonizing weeks I knew.  Truth is, deep down I knew it from the very day I felt the lump coming out of the shower.  That day when my hand brushed across my right breast and stopped on something hard, I instinctively knew it was the ‘BIG C’.

I spent the next few weeks getting really intimate with the folks at Radiology West…first the mammogram, then the ultra sound and finally a needle biopsy.  Thanks to a resourceful friend I was able to get the 3 tests done within a 5-day span, but then came the wait, 3 whole weeks.  Not enough pathologists in Montego Bay meant I had no choice but to wait.  While I waited, I read. Read everything I could get my hands on as it relates to cancer.  Google became my best friend.  Cancer feeds on sugar, cancer flourishes in stress, body needs to be in an alkaline state to ward off disease.  By October 17th, I had cut just about everything from my diet…..sugar, rice, flour, dairy, all meat except fish once or twice a week.  All the things I had tried to purge myself of over the last 3 years, I quit cold turkey in just 3 weeks.

Turns out my body had become a perfect storm, the perfect storm for cancer to form in her midst.  I wasn’t putting the right things in it, simply put too much sugar and I internalized my stress.  So here I was in the middle of starting a new business, not making enough money to make ends meet, no health insurance, now contemplating how to deal with a potential cancer diagnosis.  It made no sense to panic.  The only thing that made sense in that moment was to take charge of the one thing I could control…what I put in my mouth, what I fed my body.  By the time I met with a surgeon on October 19th I had lost 5 lbs.  I remember joking with my 2 girlfriends who tagged along for that first consultation that there was a least one silver lining in this whole thing….weight loss.  LOL, haffi tek serious ting mek joke.

With the help of my tribe, I ate and laughed my way to December 12th (surgery day), the day the fight with the big C officially began.  The day I said ‘Bye bye’ to my right breast, the day I sent her packing.

Girlies Pre Op

Lisa & Jilly saying goodbye to my right breast pre-op!

This fight is by no means over, its really just begun.  The important thing is I AM HERE, now 26 lbs and one breast lighter 😉, armoured up, bolstered by my tribe and READY FOR THE FIGHT AHEAD.  I’ve struggled with whether to keep my battle with cancer private.  Over the last 2 months I’ve connected with a number of women who walked this same path and their insight has been priceless.  On the urging of my sister and close friends I’ve decided to chronicle this journey in the hope that it will help even one person who may face this same battle.

Tina & Ayah Pre Op

Tina with sister Ayah just before surgery….and yes that’s bright red lipstick 😉

So here we are in 2018 and I am thankful for my tribe who have held me up, prayed with me, laughed with me, cried with me, sponge-bathed me 😉. I am thankful for life and strange as it may sound, I am thankful for cancer.  Cancer forced me to face some hard truths about myself, brought me closer to a healthier me. Not to worry though, I am ready to see cancer’s back so happy to send it packing like I’ve done with 2017, not welcome around here no more…..