My daughter Ayla (currently 15 years old) is part of a newly formed non-profit called "To the Fullest Foundation" -- started by nine young high school women who are working to increase breast cancer awareness and raise funds for treatment research.
The foundation was established in honor of Theresa Hancock (mother of Sara Hancock, the Founder & President of TTFF) who encouraged her daughter to live life "to the fullest" even throughout her illness and battle with breast cancer.
Some of them have already lost far too much in their young lives to breast cancer, yet these ladies are leaning in and using their trials and gifts for a greater good!
Ayla and her best friend Karis are Social Media/Marketing co-Directors of the Executive Committee for the foundation, and while they're all definitely having a lot of fun together, they take their jobs very seriously and are already doing a phenomenal job.
Speaking of social media, we would be honored if you would follow and support To The Fullest Foundation via the links below:
Obviously, the subject matter is very close to our own family, as I am now considered a "Breast Cancer Survivor" (you can read about my full journey through it at that link), so we are particularly proud of the stance and action Ayla has chosen to take on the subject.
Before the year ended, I decided to give my elbow one last shot -- quite literally. Ben came with me to my appointment for a steroid cortisone shot.
The thought is that this could help reduce the inflammation that was created (and hasn't resided completely) from the surgery, which was 6 months ago now.
While it has finally improved some, it's still tender to the touch, weak, and the joint aches at night and in the mornings. I'm able to do most things as I was before the surgery without pain, but there is definitely still an uncomfortable "not right" feeling that persists. I would say overall it is a marginal improvement over pre-surgery and at this point, I'm not certain it was worth all the hassle if it continues to always bother me in some capacity. We couldn't know that at the time though.
So, before the years ends, I figured, one last shot to see if it'll speed up the process is worth it, and otherwise, I'm moving on and living with it as is.
Update: (1/6/22, two weeks post cortisone shot) I didn't notice much improvement or difference after the shot. So much for that. It is not a constant bother, and I'm not painting signs anymore, so that will surely help it have a chance to heal more completely over time. Meanwhile, I'll just slowly keep building back my upper body strength, with the expectation that it's going to always hurt or be uncomfortable on that arm. Getting old stinks.
It is with mixed emotions that beginning November 1st, 2021, I am no longer accepting wood sign orders. It's finally time (and I'm ready) to close up the shop and move on to a new chapter in my work life. I'm looking forward to more time for rest, less personal and physical stress, and having just one job to mentally focus on each week.
So, I finished up my last round of orders with the wood I already had prepped and cut in the garage, and thankfully had plenty to complete them all.
I did have to turn ordering off a few days early before my sale was supposed to end though. I had too many orders to be able to complete before we left for our Las Vegas trip...and when we returned, we had scheduled to get new flooring and the exterior of the house painted. So my office and painting porch were both going to need to be completely dismantled for several weeks.
So, I spent about three weeks here at the end pressing through and painting 5 days a week (a huge increase from the 2.5 days I'd been doing more regularly). By the time I was done...I was ready to be done.
These are a few of the last orders I painted...no fancy photos, just snapped before shipping. As always...the custom designs were my favorites. I *will* miss making those.
It's been a good long run. I'm very grateful for the life this business has given me, and the opportunities it has created for our family. Thank YOU for supporting me all these years by buying my signs as gifts for family and friends. It has meant the world.
Octobers are going to be interesting. Let me lament a little bit...I think maybe it'll be therapeutic for me.
While I'm very thankful for the awareness and fundraising and research all the pink brings to Breast Cancer, the truth is that I struggle with seeing PINK everywhere when I'm doing my best (at least this year) to try and put my breast cancer experience behind me and move forward.
The pink bows and pom poms and cute shirts and products are so good for awareness, but the joyful nature of all of it can be a little off-putting to those of us who have been hit directly by it. It's most definitely a trauma trigger for me, that forces me to pause and reset my headspace, to remember that the pink is there because people care, not because anyone is trying to flash my trauma in front of me at every turn.
The flood of pink reminds me of all that was taken from me as I tried to maintain as much of "me" as I could while going through treatment. It reminds me that recurrence will always hang over my head. The pink reminds me of people I know and was close to who died because of this disease.
When I look at the picture on the left, which was taken last year in October 2020, just after I finished chemotherapy, I want SO BADLY to be more proud of where I am in the picture on the right, which was taken this October. I want to see "recovered" and "healed" and "whole". But, instead I see a tired, worn down, hurting, angry, and less hopeful person than I once was.
The truth is, I was in much better shape both mentally and physically last October than I am this year. Even though last October, I had just been through 14 weeks of chemo in the middle of the Covid pandemic, suffered through my father passing away from cancer, and caretaking for my mom while she was in the hospital. What could possibly be harder than all of that, I thought?
But since that photo was taken last October, my body has now been through three more surgeries, two were cancer-related and one was for my elbow injury (the first was incredibly difficult, the second much easier, and last has not gone as well). A week does not go by when I don't have a doctor's appointment of some sort to arrange the rest of my responsibilities around. Every single day is a constant evaluation of how I feel, what I'm capable of, and what I'm NOT capable of.
The "normal" that I thought I'd be able to return to when all of my treatment was finished just doesn't exist anymore, and I haven't successfully let go of that expectation. The capacity I have to be involved in all the things and people's lives and activities that I used to be a part of, that brought me joy and gave me purpose, is so significantly and disappointingly diminished. I just don't have the space for all of it, physically, mentally or practically. It feels like over the past couple of years my world has been forced to shrink considerably down to the bare minimums of health maintenance, work and carting kids around--and I think maybe that's been harder for me to accept than anything else.
I miss all the extra--the fun, the energy, the excitement, the wonder, the events, the get-togethers, the relationships, and the activities. Those aren't all gone--you can look at my Instagram and Facebook feed and see that there's plenty of things happening in my life that are fun and social and enjoyable and good. But my anticipation and participation in them has had to change. Instead of excited anticipation, I have to "fuel up" and reserve energy and say "no" to a lot of things I'd really like to say yes to. (Are you familiar with the Spoon Theory?)
I don't know if that's permanant, or maybe I just haven't recovered yet from all the things and need more time. Perhaps I shouldn't have expected to be "fine" yet. I just don't have as much bounce in my bounceback as I used to have. I guess that's normal and reasonable--in fact, I'm sure it is. It's what I'd say to anyone else telling me the same thing. But internally, it feels like a concession. Like giving up. Like being forced to accept myself as less than I think I *should* and *want* to be. And clearly I don't do that well or happily.
My body refuses to heal from this last surgery. My mind is often clouded and cynical--or just numb. My spirit is tired of fighting and believing and hoping for better. I spend everyday writing about and encouraging other women to take care of their bodies, to believe in themselves, and in what they can achieve and overcome, and yet, I'm wallowing in disappointment because my body and mind won't cooperate with what I think I deserve and am trying to achieve for myself.
I regularly ignore or get angry at this post it note I leave up in my office, posted right in front of all my upcoming labwork, doctors appointments and paperwork.
I don't know if I'll ever truly learn the lesson. I haven't yet.
Obviously, "pink" is not my problem...but more what seeing it brings up for me that IS the problem. It reminds me that I don't have as many spoons each day as I used to (seriously, read the Spoon Theory). It reminds me of all the trauma I've experienced over the past few years, not just cancer related. And it reminds me of the loss and disappointment that came with all that trauma.
I would love to be the face of encouragement and positivity, fight and success, especially in October--but today, I'm just not there. Maybe by next October...
I appreciate you reading my lament, listening to my wailing heart, and maybe even relating to some of these feelings. It's taken me a long time to find the words, name the feelings, and be ready and willing to publicly express how I've been feeling in the aftermath of all of this, so I do it tentatively. But, it's a continuation of the story I started to share a year and a half ago. I feel like being transparent and honest throughout the journey might be helpful for someone else, somewhere--and maybe then they can cope better than I've been able to lately!
Week 12 to Week 14 - Saw the surgeon. Had another MRI. Taking lots of anti-inflammatories (naproxen & voltaren). Stopped PT and am trying to rest it as much as possible. Not much change.
"You look so good!"
"I'm so glad you're doing well."
I hear that sentiment pretty often when I run into friends and acquaintances who know my story. Then I have to tell them that I'm the "healthiest-looking sick person you'll meet."
Week by Week Healing Process
Lacertus Syndrome Release & Epicondyle Debridement Surgery Recovery
6 Week Evaluation
I thought it had been too long since I had a surgery...
But after all my breast cancer treatment and surgeries were complete this spring, I realized that my Golfer's Elbow injury from tearing apart an enormous fence two years ago *still* wasn't any better.
The initial injury...
I've tried physical therapy exercises, dry needling, rest, a cortisone shot, plasma rich platelet injection, a wrist brace, elbow compression sleeves and lots of modifying for daily activities. But it just wasn't going away.
Dry needling efforts...
Compression sleeves and lots of modifications...
Platelet-rich plasma therapy injection...
It turns out the Lacertus Syndrome (a fairly rare condition, often seen in throwing athletes) is an unnecessary band that was restricting the muscle in my forearm and keeping it from expanding when it was exercised. It finally made sense as to why the PT exercises to strengthen my forearm muscles to solve the Golfer's Elbow weren't working.
It has been a long, all-consuming and difficult process, including 5 months of chemotherapy, three surgeries, the trauma of complete hair loss, large chunks of time where I felt physically sick and weak, mentally discouraged, and frustrated at having to put so many things aside to focus on the task at hand. Whether I wanted it to or not, everything we did for the past year had a wrapper of cancer treatment around it. I was either anticipating, going through or recovering from some step in the process, waiting for the next appointment and the next unknown.
But as of this week--it's over! I'm finished.
As I had my stitches removed from my final reconstructive surgery on Monday, I sensed a dark cloud that has followed me for a full year roll away. The skies above me cleared and I felt like I could finally look up and forward and see life beyond this season. I cannot adequately describe the incredible feeling of relief that washed over me, and frankly took me completely by surprise.
Ben, my lifelong DJ, suggested I take another listen to the song "Rainbow" by Kacey Musgraves. I could not keep the tears from rolling down my face as I listened to the words...
As a family (both immediate and extended to all of you who have walked alongside me), we are not left unaffected by this storm-- but we are through it. Finally.
So today, instead of forever associating St. Patrick's Day with a grim and heartbreaking day that hijacked a full year of my life, I'm able to smile and laugh and look forward to a lighter and brighter future.
And this shirt seemed perfectly appropriate to sum up my year...
The short version:
- Surgery went well.
- Fat-grafting is much more significant recovery-wise than the implant exchange has been so far. I am still very swollen and sore at the fat grafting donor site and where it was injected, but my new breasts and incisions aren't bothering me much at all other than being a little itchy from the surgical tape.
- My arm mobility is almost 100%, although I'm intentionally not over-extending or lifting more than 5lbs to allow my incisions to heal.
- At one week post-exchange surgery I feel more like I did 4 or 5 weeks after my previous surgery, so it's significantly more tolerable this time around.
The longer version:
Ben and I got to the hospital around 6am on Monday, surgery day. I really wasn't too nervous about the process this time. Just ready to get it done and put it behind me. Surgery day itself is pretty easy for me. I just have to show up. Everyone else is doing all the work!
I brought significantly less stuff with me this time, since I would be going straight home afterward that afternoon--basically just the clothes I was wearing, my phone and my Kindle. I was glad that I brought my book to read while I was waiting back in the pre-op area though, because they didn't let Ben come back there until after I had gotten my IV and talked to the doctor, which was almost two hours after I went back. So, I guess I was pretty chill since I was casually reading fiction while I waited...
When I talked to my surgeon, he re-explained what we were doing -- exchanging my tissue expanders for silicone implants, pulling both my breasts in just a little bit to have less of a gap between them, removing my port, and fat grafting from my lower back and inserting it into the upper cleavage to soften the edges of the implants, since there was no breast tissue to do that naturally. I told him I liked the size we'd gotten to with the expanders, but I didn't care so much about what size they ultimately were, as long as they were fairly symetrical and "fit" my body. I think it's helpful in this process not to have too specific of a picture in your mind of what they will look like finished. For me, that leaves less room for disappointment, and more likely to be accepting of the final result.
One thing to note (should you be going through this), is the amount of saline in the expanders does not necessarily translate the same number of CCs for the implants. So, although I had 300cc of saline in each breast in my expanders, I knew in order to achieve the same size with silicone implants, they would likely be a larger number. I didn't have the opportunity to choose which kind or size of implants I wanted. I trusted my surgeon to pick the right size based on the way the expanders looked and our conversations. So, of course my first question when I woke up in the post-op recovery room was "What size implants did he put in?" And I had to ask twice, because I was completely drugged and incoherant and didn't remember the answer the first time.
But, I got my answer: 415cc on the left and 385cc on the right. The implants I ended up with are Natrelle Inspira SoftTouch SSF by Allergan, which are one step below the highest profile (roundest) option, and described as "smooth, full profile". It's not uncommon to have two different sized implants in order to make them symetrical. Since natural breasts are rarely exactly the same size (mine were not), one side might need a little larger implant to match the other. The size and type of implant is really determined more by your chest width and size of your chest cavity. I've read stories from other mastectomy patients that said they had 700cc implants and ended up a small C-cup. Clearly 700ccs would make me look enormous, but on someone with a wider chest and deeper chest cavity, it might not be very large at all. It's also worth noting that the number of CCs of implant used for a reconstruction has a completely different meaning than a breast augmentation, which would be adding the size of the implants plus your natural breast size. The point is, don't get caught up in the numbers. They mean different things on every person's body.
But really, beyond collecting that information (and the time...I always want to know how much of the day has disappeared when I wake up from surgery), my main focus was to try and wake up and evaluate my pain levels.
It took me a little while to not feel so groggy, and they let Ben come back with me before too long (the details are fuzzy now). I do remember having a very dry and sore throat from the breathing tube, and feeling VERY nauseaus. I threw up several times before we left the hospital. Evidently that's my typical response to the anesthesia. I wasn't in too much pain, though I could feel that my chest was very sore, particularly the top portion (where they added fat). My lower back was mostly numb, so it wasn't bothering me much (yet).
Once I was feeling pretty alert and had finished throwing up, they let me get dressed and leave--in a wheelchair of course, which I was thankful for, because the walk from my hospital bed to the bathroom was pretty shaky.
We got home a little before 2pm, and I went directly to bed, propped up on my pillows. I was able to check my phone and text a few people, but my throat was hurting so bad, and it was hard to swallow and I kept falling asleep. In fact, I fell asleep sucking on a cough drop. Thankfully, I didn't choke on it, but it was still there when I woke up an hour later. I was able to eat some yogurt and scrambled eggs that afternoon, but anything more solid than that was impossible for me to swallow.
When I woke up later in the afternoon, I had a rude awakening. The numbness on my back was wearing off and OUCH. Suddenly the soreness there was MUCH worse than my chest. I took pain pills pretty regularly through the next evening, which definitely helped, but when you can't lay on your side or front, and your back is sore, there's nothing super comfortable. I ended up piling pillows on top of the wedge pillow, leaving a gap at the bottom so my lower back didn't rest directly on the pillow. That kind of worked. But then all my bodyweight was put on my bottom and my tailbone, so eventually that gets sore too. Getting up and walking around a little bit every once in a while was a good relief.
That evening, I was able to change clothes and take a look at myself and see what kind of damage had been done. I noticed immediately that my arm mobility was significantly better than it was after my mastectomy surgery. I had no problem changing my clothes myself, though I did it slowly and gingerly, and though I wasn't going to fully extend, I could lift my arms enough above my shoulders to reach the overhead light switch in our closet, items on the closet shelves, etc. I saw that my waist was very bruised, a little swollen, and I had two small stitches on my back from where they did the fat grafting.
I'm supposed to wear a bra 24/7 for the next two weeks at least -- maybe longer (hopefully a more normal-looking one than this surgical vest that looks terrible and lumpy under every item of clothing). My chest is taped up with clear tape, so while I can kind of see what I'm working with (which looks fine--different, but fine), I haven't focused much on what my new breasts will look like until the tape is off and everything settles down and into place.
I did notice though that my surgeon did not use my mastectomy incisions for the exchange (which were on the sides of my breasts, kind of like sewing darts on a dress). Instead, he made new incisions below each breast, which explained why I had some dull pain there. I had assumed he'd use the same incisions, but I guess he decided this was better. Once they heal, I don't think they'll be very noticable, but I was a little bummed about now having two mastectomy scars, two exchange surgery scars, two drain scars, a port surgery scar, and two new small scars on my back. That's quite few battle wounds from this year.
Week 1 Recovery
I spent the next several days on the couch during the day and in bed at night, propped up on pillows, and just taking it easy.
I was still taking pain meds and antibiotics, and so my main job was remembering when to take my meds and trying to avoid the post-surgery and pain pill and lack of movement-induced constipation that is inevitable. TMI, I know, but it was a huge part of the first week of recovery and is VERY uncomfortable. I took stool softeners and HerbLax supplements, drank coffee and lots of water, and eventually that worked and I had some relief. It's also an incentive to STOP taking the pain pills since they cause a lot of that, so by Wednesday morning, I was only taking tylenol for pain. The pain pills also make me itchy all over, so that was another incentive to quit taking them.
I did lots of reading on the couch, and just trying to be patient and let my body put ALL my energy into healing. I was surprised at how good I felt compared to the last surgery. Not having drains is a gamechanging difference and were it not for the soreness and swollen feeling from the fat grafting, I think I would have felt amazing right away. I was able to do pretty basic tasks like making coffee, emptying the dishwasher, and heating up my own food, etc. which were good ways to get me moving around a little bit each day. Walking around definitely hurt at first, because of the bruising, but each day lessened a little bit, making it easier to move around.
While the bruising on my back and sides went down and didn't look too bad, my lower back became much more swollen and has stayed that way the rest of the week and has by far been the main focus of this recovery. It feels like I have a fanny pack attached to my back. It's numb in some spots, tender to the touch, itchy as nerves come back to life, and my waist feels about 2 or 3 inches wider than it normally is. I barely notice my incisions from the exchange, but I definitely feel the bruising and tenderness where they inserted the fat on my upper breasts. I hope the fat grafting "takes" because I'm not interesting in signing up for this part of the process again, which is an option down the road if I'm not happy with the results. I'm gonna have to be REAL unhappy with the results to do this again though.
Thursday and Friday I did some work at my desk in the mornings, and then spent the rest of the afternoon and evening on the couch resting and reading. Physically, I am definitely tired and moving slower than I normally would, but mostly I'm feeling good. Mentally, I am doing MUCH better than I was after the last surgery. I know it'll just take time and I have to be patient, but everything will feel "normal" again eventually.
By Saturday, I was ready for my first trip out of the house, and went to Ayla's volleyball tournament, here in town. It was admittedly ambitious, especially since it required quite a bit of walking from the parking lot to the court & back. But I decided to take a pain pill to get me through it, which was a good choice.
Sunday, I was able to drive myself to the tournament (no pain pills that day) and sat through several matches as well as lunch at a restaurant with Ben's parents. By the time I got home that afternoon, I was pretty exhausted.
This week, I expect to be back to a mostly normal workload and daily responsibilities. I can accomplish most of the things I need to do without too much physical activity, so it'll still be a pretty restful week. I don't expect to be cleared to exercise for at least 3 more weeks while everything heals and settles into place, so I'll continue to lay low until then.
I'll see my plastic surgeon's nurse next Monday and be able to take the tape off my incisions at that point. And hopefully the swelling will be down by then? We'll see...
Mid-February put me 3 months post-surgery after my double-mastectomies and first portion of breast re-construction. I had a meeting with my plastic surgeon to check on how everything had settled and begin talking about the next (and hopefully final) phase -- exchange surgery, which has been scheduled for this Monday, March 1st.*
*It's worth noting there, that my initial ultrasound and mammogram was March 2nd, 2020, so this final step will happen *just* under a full year from the time we first started this process. This ain't no boob job...
The next surgery is called an "exchange" surgery because they will be exchanging the strange-feeling and looking, hard as rocks tissue expanders with silicone implants that they assure me will look and feel much more natural.
In addition to the implant exchange, my surgeon will be removing my port (YAY--while I was glad to have it, I won't miss looking at that bizzare contraption!) and doing something called fat graphting. He calls the fat graphting "photoshopping", but as a regular user of Photoshop, I KNOW that digitally photoshopping is NOT the same as having fat sucked out of one portion of your body and inserted into another. Photoshopping doesn't hurt. But, I get his point, and it does help explain WHY he's doing it. Since I won't have breast tissue above my implants, they can take fat from another area of my body (my lower back "love handles", in my case) and insert it into the layers of skin above the implants to soften the edges of the implants under my skin and make my constructed breasts look more natural and less like they're just two half softballs stuck to my chest.
I'm skeptical about the benefits of fat graphting vs. the pain in recovery and bruising and compression gear required for several weeks afterward, especially since I've been told it may take several separate attempts at the fat grafting for it to "stick". A large percentage of the fat moved often doesn't "take" and re-absorbes into your body. But, for this surgery, since I'll already be put under and have forced recovery time, I figured it was worth an effort if he thinks that will help it have a better finished result. I gotta trust him. He's the pro.
I was very glad he didn't ask me to gain a bunch of weight before the surgery. I was just hitting my stride with 5 good HIIT workouts a week. I did eat plenty of Edgars orange rolls though over the past couple of weeks, because why not?
Over the past 3 months, I have VERY much enjoyed getting back to full functionality, and I'm not looking forward to another 4-6 weeks of sitting still and recovering. But I am VERY thankful to be knocking out the next, and hopefully last, big step in this cancer treatment journey.
I've spent the last week getting ready to be out of commission again for a while, and while I definitely have some anxiety about going through another surgery and recovery, this is a WHOLE different ballgame. At the end of this surgery's recovery, I should look better, not worse (which was definitely the feeling after my port insertion and double-mastecomy surgeries.) There's not a fear of what the pathology will say, and it doesn't even feel that "cancer-related." It's also the last step in a LONG list of steps that I've been going through one at a time over the past year, which feels pretty good.
The way I see it, I've made it through all of that, so I can surely get through this too. Here we go...