My Life As A Cancer Survivor

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The chemo knocked me out, and the more weeks went by with my bi monthly treatments, the worse it got. And I knew it was temporary, I just kept my eye on the prize: My babies. My babies. My babies.

[My Survival Story]


"There's some bad news, the mass is not benign."

In January last year, my world was turned upside down with that one sentence.
 
But, now – thanks to the highest, like an incredible number of women in and around New York, I am a breast cancer survivor.

Wow, even saying that takes my breath away!
 
But, according to a report, in the U.S., 270,000 people will die from cancer this year, 15% from breast cancer.
 
I spent 2007– literarily from the first of the year: discovering a lump, undergoing surgery, being diagnosed, and then having seven more surgeries, four months of intense and aggressive chemotherapy, which ended in December 2007.
 
As I share this experience with you in August 2008, I am still battling the side effects of the last chemo drug Taxol. The neuropathy: the constant stinging, cramping and severe lack of sensitivity in my hands and feet, as the nerve endings were assaulted by the drug.
 
Still, a single parent of two, I took the minimal time off during surgery, and kept working throughout my chemotherapy treatment. It might not have been the smartest move to go from an hour of treatment straight to my office. Told that I could take as much time off as needed by the job, but sitting at home thinking about the trauma and the pain wouldn't have worked for me.
 
 
Upon first been given the diagnosis, I was anxious and bowled over by the news. I initially told no one, I went to the doctor, got a mammogram and sonogram; and had a lumpectomy. Then another one.
 
I wanted to go from in shock and afraid, to problem solving and curing.
 
I acted on automatic pilot, but had no idea of the long flight I was about to embark on. Like millions before me I contemplated my mortality, embraced issues of faith and belief.
 
After the BIG surgery – mastectomy and TRAM flap reconstruction, when visiting nurses stopped coming, and the bandages came off at the surgeon's office, while I was ready for the stitching and the scaring, I didn't know how I'd feel about the look of the result of an eight hour surgery, which served to remove the breast cancer tissue; and an instant reconstruction with tissue taken from my abdomen.
 
Let us not talk about, but merely mention for the sake of propriety, the post surgery trauma of having four plastic bottles stitched to chest and torso to collect excess blood and related gunk.
 
 I accepted the look for the miraculous endeavor that it was. Faced with a couple of options, this is the choice I made. Doctors told me that I was free from the cancer that I'd been told that I had only five months prior.
 
 
Suffice to say it put me on something of an emotional roller-coaster. But it showed me who my friends really were, and how close my family actually was even though they were spread from Nigeria, to Canada to Europe and America.
 
It was life saving.

But, it was not over.

To chemo or not chemo. There were moments of clarity when I just wanted to eat some leaves, juice some fruits, get on a fast, and detox all the crap that had invaded my 120lb, 5ft 2" frame.
 
Osasere, my brother, a surgeon and head cancer specialist, urged me to follow convention.
 
Me, I looked over at the rows and rows of glass bottles with proposed detoxing and fortifying ingredients.
 
I talked to every body – in triplicate; and I read, and I researched – ultimately for me the decision came down to surviving for my two young daughters.
 
Like the true Brooklynites they are –smile-- they pretty much took my illness in stride.
They saw me go through multiple surgeries, and sometimes saw me doubled over in agony. Hugging intensely wasn't an option, but a brief exchange of energy was very necessary for healing.
 
They were cool, and that by itself eased my mind.
 
 
I fought having to do chemo because I wanted to go the natural root. I consulted with several alternative practitioners from around the country – including Nigeria.
 
My holistic circle of natural practioners urged me to ignore the western diagnosis and stick to some herbs and earth-friendly concoctions. Sure, I wanted the leaf and raw food diet as opposed to a questionable chemical cocktail. My brother the surgeon was among the many others stressing tackling any remnants of cancer with the controversial – but all too common – chemotherapy.

A natural-born fighter, I recognized that all of a sudden my foundation was kicked from under me. The constants and the anchors were family and my work. I thought about my activism, and my two decades in the world of print and broadcast journalism in America and England; and my current position as editor of the Amsterdam News.
 
But, every thing that was, now wasn't.
 
Sure I'd rather put belief in a leaf, than let myself get cut and radiated, but
I wanted to survive too. I had little ones – I needed to get through this.


So I decided on the chemo. And decided that I would maintain a healthy and green leaf-dominated diet, to keep my rejuvenation and strength up.
 

I had a port placed under the skin of my right breast. But it got infected, and I had to endure an emergency surgery - awake, to have it removed.

As an alternative for four months I had Picc line - an IV in my right arm – a fact that had total strangers stopping me in the street and asking, "Sis, are you alright?"
 
Sitting in the chair with the andromycin dripping into my system was not too bad initially, but the injection the next day to increase my white blood cell production – stung like I can’t tell you. The much documented fatigue, floored me two days later. But the children were beautiful – they rolled with the punches. I constantly reassured them that everything was going to be okay.

And then there was the community…
 
Neighborhood leaders, activists and every day peoples from across the city sent flowers and groceries; and gave moral support and offered to do shopping and housework and such like.
 
 
Used to simply doing for self I simply just didn't reach out to those who offered to pass by the house. I succumbed a little though after radio host Imhotep Gary Byrd called me one day and chastised me for it.
 
I didn't really know that I had such a big support network. But, I did.
 
The chemo knocked me out, and the more weeks went by with my bi monthly treatments, the worse it got. And I knew it was temporary, I just kept my eye on the prize: My babies. My babies. My babies.
 
Two weeks after my chemo began I found one – then two locks on the floor. I took the decision to cut my own hair, as opposed to going through the much-discussed emotionally devastating experience of waking up with my African crown on my pillow.
 
Ladies – let me tell you, making the decision to gently cut each lock, while painful in one sense, was also incredibly liberating, because it was one aspect of this situation that I could control and not let HAPPEN to me.

So, out came my glorious African wraps, and various assortment of hats – folk said the look was cute. Only those I told knew she was without follicles! Although when my eye lashes and some brows disappeared, I started counting the weeks to the end of the treatment.
 
I had two months of Andromycin and two months of Taxol.  The Taxol was different.
 
The fatigue I expected. The tingling in my fingers and feet, all down my calves and up and through her torso for days and days – I did not.
 
The pain was excruciating. My body felt like it had been dipped in ice and left to thaw in sub-zero temperatures. I didn't know what arthritis felt like, but I guessed it was something like this.

But, I looked forward. I would simply pace myself – allow the process to take its course.
 
Fear became hope became acceptance, understanding and gratitude. This was about prolonging my life – right?! Okay then. Let's go.

Grateful am I that I have had the means – via insurance to address the cancer.
 
 Meanwhile, my oldest child had her fourth grade exams to prepare for and her sister was settling into first grade comfortably. That was my total focus.
 
Then….One more treatment to go, I was very nervous.
 
My appetite was so off. So was my diet. Crackers, some vegetables, and popcorn of all things. Pre –chemo I'd planned to just drink green juice and eat veggies. Didn't happen. It was either eat what I could keep down or faint from hunger…
 
At different parts of the day I would have the fan heater blowing over my half-blanketed body, while an upright fan would be sending cool air over my entire frame, simultaneously being hot and cold was either the possible chemo-induced early menopausal situation the doctor warned me about, or it was – as my oncologist suggested, my hormones being out-of-wack due to the treatments.
 
And then there was the damn hot flashes. They came over me like intermittent waves, drenching my body in almost unbearable heat. 'Twas hard to be warm enough, 'twas hard to be cool enough.
 
Ah, four months done.
 
 
And then out came the IV.
 
Post-chemo, I could not sleep, and being out I couldn’t walk far or stand for long. I was a hot and cold mess! The numbness in my fingers and was debilitating, it kept me from sleeping, and it hurt. I got me some detox pads to pull the nail-blackening toxins out of my body. 

I was eager to get back to something like 110%.
 
This 60% crap wasn't happening!
 
 
Then six weeks post chemo, I saw beautiful fluffy spots of air coming in. I was delighted, but I was impatient. I wanted an Afro, canerows, my locks.
 
 
But, I was still physically weaker than I could stand. So I took my Juice Plus capsules, Neurontin for my nerve damage, glucosamine, calcium, fish oil and
Vitamin C. Not being able to eat, plus the chemo brought me down from 120lbs to 98lbs.

It was pitiful, but exactly a month after I finished my chemo I woke up hungry! What? All praises due! A couple of weeks later, one of my doctors called and declared: "Your PET scan was 100% clear!"
 
I was numb though. I was just afraid to be excited. I was off auto-pilot now.
 
Now the real detoxing begins – and once my weight was up from I would redefine that diet of mine!
 
Then one doctor suggested I do radiotherapy. Another said I shouldn’t. This discourse went back and forth for months, until it was finally decided that the benefit would be minimal being that so much time had gone by.
 

I knew that I needed to regain some of that 20 pounds my non-appetite-having self had lost recently. I realized how dire things were when I was crossing Frederick Douglass Blvd. at 125th Street one Thursday morning and one gust of wind tried to pick me up and carry me to Connecticut.
 
"Eat red meat and get some sugar in you," my doctor brother ordered.
 But I had an on-the-way-to-vegetarianism plan.
So I ate what I could stomach and what my body craved. Not the green stuff I'd planned to eat, but food that I had been used to growing up, rice, eba, pounded yam, okra soup, salmon, oxtail and lamb.
I put on 15 pounds and my energy came back.

Two months ago my mammogram appointment rolled around.
 
Mammograms aren't cute. There's some squashing, some awkward leaning, and some more squishing.

My results were clear, and I have to go back in six months, but I’ll take it.
 
It has been rough, I have to tell you that. It took a year out of my life. But I am blessed and grateful and watchful.

I have been feeling fit and healthy and energized. My once pseudo-shiny pate is now sporting a cute little black and fluffy Afro. I am going through a process of rebirth and revitalization.

Women, we have broad shoulders – and they can be sexy and toned (smile) – just to carry the burdens with which we are tested! Surviviors often become advocates; and that can be anything from talking to friends and family, to becoming speakers at organized cancer events. Each one teach one.

Dos and Don'ts
 
Get tested – doctors say early detection is key. Avoid if you can the above scenario.

Do seek as many opinions from doctors, surgeons and specialists as you feel you need to become comfortable with your choices.
 
Do know that no question that you want to ask about your condition is inappropriate.
 
Do go to appointments with advocates, you may be overwhelmed with information and need a clear-headed person with you.
 
Do not be bullied or rushed by any medical personnel.
 
Don't refuse help from family and friends, this may extend to post surgery and chemo, because recovery takes it out of you too.

Forewarned is fore-armed. But, you can get through it; survive and thrive baby!

We at the Amsterdam News are about to go on the Susan G. Komen 5K Race for the Cure in Central Park on September 14. Please feel free to join us.

Nayaba.Arinde@amsterdamnews.com

Ms. Arinde a good friend of The Black Star News family is Editor of The Amsterdam News

http://cms.komen.org




 

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