Monday, October 24, 2016

My Tribe Will Understand My Memory Issues

I can’t thank this community enough for your support after my last post. I have cried reading through your comments and emails, Facebook messages and texts. I was scared to share this part of my story. I was worried about what it would mean for my identity (because once you put it on the Internet there’s no going back). I was afraid about what it might mean to break ties with a community that’s become a second home.

I shouldn’t have worried. This is my tribe, and its members are not victims who cry foul when another gets good news. Instead, I mostly heard: this is a miracle, and we love you. One friend said, "We are not kicking you out just because you lucked out!"

I love you all right back.

I still had cancer. I still experienced nearly five years of metastatic cancer. Now I just have different appointments and different doctors to figure out what the best path forward is for me. I’ve got more pain and sometimes even miss the damn steroids. I’ve got similar levels of fatigue (apparently it wasn’t just the chemo). My chemobrain might be slowly retreating, but it’s been replaced by an anxious fear that perhaps none of my doctors know what they’re talking about.

I still feel scatter-brained most days.

And Chris occasionally makes fun of me, but keeping track of it all, then and still: the appointments, kindergarten volunteering, and now, also, a job search, is not something I can seem to manage on my phone. Calendars don’t sync, I fumble with my thumbs when trying to enter new appointments into my device at the end of one doctor’s visit and get frustrated, and inevitably ask for a print out of my follow up visits anyway.

I know. I sound like a dinosaur.

I prefer paper. I prefer a hardcover book, too, although I recognize the convenience of my Kindle for travel. But for my calendar? For keeping track of my life? It’s a spiral-bound monthly planner all the way. My 2016 one has photos of Quinn interspersed throughout, and I'll probably hold onto it forever for that. And because this year has been something else, amiright?

The cover of my 2016 planner. Photo taken by Jodi Lynn Wall, April 2015

A few weeks ago, a woman reached out to me to share her breast cancer story, and to ask if I’d be interested in trying out some of the products she’d designed for the company she works for, Erin Condren. You might have heard of them?

Would I like some paper and pens and organizing pockets and even a journal, too? Yes, please! Sign me up. In ink.

{photo source:}

And then I learned that a portion a full FIFTY PERCENT of the proceeds of these products would be donated to the Pink Lotus Foundation, which aims to provide treatments for underserved communities. To help women who don’t have the means or insurance to help themselves when they’re diagnosed with breast cancer. See, corporate America? There IS a way to do Pinktober correctly!


Side note: do you know how much DISPARITY exists in breast cancer survival rates? That African American women are more likely to die of the disease, and that women of color are less likely to be given information about reconstruction options? That death rates are falling overall for breast cancer, but not nearly as quickly for women of color?

This is why I’ve walked the Avon Walk these past 5 years, with my team raising more than $100,000 to help underserved communities (and provide money for research). It is a cause near and dear to my heart because I have been fortunate, and I hope I don’t take a dollar of that for granted.

Do you remember my SIX THOUSAND DOLLAR shot? One shot. That I received probably fifteen times for just the cost of my copays.

Cancer is expensive. Treatment is expensive, transportation to/from doctor's offices is costly, and taking time off work to receive and recover from treatment isn't a viable option for many, many women. That's where organizations like the Pink Lotus Foundation and Avon come into play. I will support them as long as I'm able.


Last week, I went in to have my thyroid checked, because I’ve gained an unusual amount of weight since stopping treatment. My thyroid appears fine, but my joints all ache. I’ve got an MRI of my knee today, and tomorrow an ultrasound of my right armpit for a painful lymph node (or possibly just the spot where my implant is sewn into scar tissue).

I missed the third presidential debate to be on a flight to Houston to attend a metastatic breast cancer conference as a patient advocate. From what I understand, SNL did a fine job of summarizing the two candidates. I'm going to order my "Nasty Woman" coffee mug as soon as I'm done writing this.

Before my flight to Texas, I helped Quinn's class of 27 kindergarteners plant beet and carrot seeds in their class garden. Friday was a school book fair, this weekend we had two birthday parties, a soccer game, and ASU's homecoming. Tomorrow is our 8th wedding anniversary. I can’t keep track of all that in my head! Pre-chemo, I might have been able to, but now I rely on writing everything down.

And I never do sponsored posts here. I don’t even know if this counts as one. But I did receive some free products, and I am vouching for their awesomeness, so here is my disclaimer. Also, send some love to our tribe member Sam if you get a chance. She’s doing good work, and keeping me a little less scatter-brained in the process.

Monday, October 3, 2016

An Announcement

Last Friday, Quinn's class had pajama day and an ice cream party to celebrate the number of "class compliments" they've received since kindergarten started eight weeks ago. He has grown up so much these past couple of months. He's made new friends and started to find his way at a big, new school with big, new rules. He is learning to read, playing soccer now, and asking for time with his friends more and more. Our dynamic is shifting, and I'm trying to breathe my way through it.

But after school last Friday, he went to the bathroom, then walked around the house in his pajama top and underwear, sending me straight back to his toddler years when he refused to wear pants at home. A glance at his thighs alone had me in tears before I knew what hit me: a nostalgia for what wasn't, for something we'd missed, for a past I can't change.

I spent that evening watching old videos of Quinn: swimming, opening Christmas presents, on our way to adopt our first dog (the one that ended up biting him in the face), telling me I was his best best friend forever. I am a puddle of emotions. How is he five and a half? Again, I borrow from my friend talking about losing her mom: "Two years ago today my sweet mama bear was diagnosed with ALS. Two years. Two years. Two of the longest years of my life. Two of the shortest years of my life. Time bends and twists and deceives the eye and heart and mind. Time, you weirdo contortionist." Time is a weirdo contortionist.

What might it be like to raise a child and not have the fear of cancer looming over you every moment? How might those early years have been different? How might today?

This is one of the hardest posts I've ever written.


You guys know I haven't written here much lately, and I haven't posted a health update in months. I know you've noticed. Some of you have asked, and I've been vague.

I haven't known where to start. I've wanted to be certain, as certain as one can be when talking about one's health, anyway.

Chris always tells me to start with my elbow.

A skin biopsy at the beginning of the year led to questions about my cancer staging. My oncologist wanted to take me off chemo based on the results, which came back as something called sarcoidosis. I wasn't ready to let go of my chemo safety net. Not because of a pea-sized thing on my freaking elbow.

Then I had a scan in March that lit up like a Christmas tree: in my chest wall, my abdomen, my left lung, my spine, the list goes on. I walked out of my oncologist's office as he was handing me the radiology report. Fuck this, I thought. How does anyone deal with cancer progression? How does one face their spouse after news like that, without exposing every fear simmering under the surface? You just hope your partner is a little stronger than you in those moments. Because one of you must steer the ship, and after reading "likely for metastatic disease" in about five different places, I was in no position to steer anything. Afterward, you hope that your partner will take you out for a drink even though it's the middle of the day.

He does, bless him.

Over the next couple of weeks I underwent a slew of tests to determine what was happening in my body. A spine MRI and a pelvic ultrasound were both "unremarkable" despite showing activity on my PET scan. A lung biopsy left me with a partially collapsed lung and a twelve hour hospital visit, but the results were benign: a granuloma with characteristics of sarcoidosis.

Not cancer. Not this time, at least.

I went for a second opinion at the Mayo Clinic. What the fuck? was my basic question to the oncologist there. "If this is metastatic breast cancer, it's the strangest case of it I've ever seen," he told me, after reviewing my scans from the last four and a half years. "We don't tend to see recurrence after a pathological complete response like you had, not with Her-2+ disease."

Where had he been the last several years of my life?


Sarcoidosis is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation -- typically seen in the lungs, skin, and lymphatic system. They don't know what causes it. Bernie Mac died from complications of it, but it's usually not fatal. While it sometimes goes into remission on its own, the treatment for sarcoidosis is steroids.

Like the ones I'd received with every single chemo infusion over the past fifty-four months.

Three doctors agreed on a course of action: take a break from treatment and re-scan in three months. Those months were a series of panic, panic, Xanax. Like a bad game of duck-duck-goose.

And then my three month scan came at the start of the summer. It was clear as a bell. Clean as a whistle. The radiology report suggested a "complete response to interim treatment," except there hadn't been any interim treatment.

Metastatic cancer doesn't clear up on its own.

I cried big tears in my oncologist's office, part relief, part are you fucking kidding me, part hope that any one of my doctors knew what they were talking about. "I hope those are happy tears," he said. "It's not every day someone gets a miracle like this. This is better than winning the lottery."

To which I say: yes, mostly. I imagine it's also like being wrongfully imprisoned and then released after nearly five years and told to go be happy. I am happy, but this news has required a lot of processing. Like, a shit ton of therapy. I'm still processing. I'm still a puddle of emotions every time I catch a sunset. Or a glimpse of Quinn's thighs.


As the news -- that my so-called metastases have always likely been sarcoidosis -- sinks in and starts to seem more real, I have continued to advocate (albeit a little more quietly) on behalf of the MBC community. But it has come to a point where I feel like in order to amplify my voice and those of my friends living with mets, I needed to be able to do so in a way that upheld my integrity, that allowed me to be my most authentic self.

I haven't been restaged, but if I had to guess based on the size of my original tumor and the number of lymph nodes removed during my surgery, I was probably Stage 3A. I don't know if I'll ever know. As one new friend recently put it, "I will always consider you a Stage 4 survivor." But I am no longer considered a metastatic breast cancer patient.

While I have superb insight on what it feels to be one, I feel it is only fair to withdraw myself from Pfizer's Story Half Told campaign, which aims to shed light on the lives of women living with metastatic breast cancer. Pfizer's team has been more than patient with me on the timing of this announcement. But I know that October will be a big push for the campaign and the stories of the women involved. I could not honorably continue as a face of MBC after learning the news I've learned this summer. In no way do I want to distract from my friends who are facing this disease day in and day out.

I will continue to do whatever I can to bring awareness to the men and women living with MBC, to advocate for more research funding, and to bring hope to people that there is life after a terrible diagnosis. In some cases, the details of that diagnosis may even be a terrible mistake. If my story isn't a plug for second (and third) opinions, I don't know what is.

To the few of you who've shared these past few months with me in silence, thank you for holding space for me to grow into this new reality, and for supporting our family as we learn what it means to start over. To the rest of you who have been such a godsend of strength to us these past five years, thanks for standing by us as we adjust to life after cancer.

I always wanted to be an outlier, I just never imagined it would be in this way. Here's to more sunsets. Here's to the ultimate mulligan. Here's to hope. Here's to first grade...and beyond.