Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Getting My Body Back After Cancer

I'll never forget the day in January that I stood in front of the mirror, nearly in tears, staring back at the body that cancer left behind.  I had new scars, I was half bald, my skin was so dry it was literally flaking off and had a weird gray hue, and I was nearly 30 pounds heavier.  My cheeks were puffy and swollen (a side effect from the steroids they give with chemo) and my entire body was soft and pudgy from losing muscle while laying in bed for 4 months straight.

While I was SO proud to have beaten this stupid cancer, I was heartbroken and frustrated at what was left behind.  At that moment as I stared at myself in the mirror, I decided it was time to get my health back on track.

In the first couple months, I lost 10 pounds - I got back to the gym and started tracking my calories.  But my body hadn't fully bounced back from treatment and I definitely pushed too hard too fast and ended up with an injury.  It took a couple months to recover from the injury, which was frustrating, but also forced me to slowly ease back into my workout routine, which is what I should have done from the beginning!

On June 1, I decided it was time to make a drastic change!  I cut out 95% of sugar from my diet and went the whole month (minus one cheat day) without any alcohol.  I started tracking my food with the Weight Watchers app, which doesn't track calories, but it tracks macros: fat, protein, carbs, and fiber.  For me, tracking macros made a lot more sense than tracking calories, so I've stuck with it.  By July 1 I had lost another 8 pounds and several inches overall.

I've started running again, ran a 5k last month, and even signed up for my first 10k (which is in a few weeks!).  I incorporated a lot of strength training as well.  I still try to limit as much sugar from my diet as I can, but allow myself the occasional treat or adult beverage.

It's now the beginning of September and I've lost about 30 pounds.  I went from a size 12 to a size 6 (and the 6's are getting a little roomy….).  Even though I beat cancer last November, I feel like I've finally TRULY beat cancer.  I'm stronger and healthier than I was a year ago, and that makes me feel amazing :)

December 2013 vs. August 2014

January 2013 vs. August 2014
June, July, August

I'd be lying if I said that hasn't been hard work.  But it's been worth it.


Friday, July 25, 2014

One Year Later...

My hope is that none of you reading this will ever have to find out what it feels like to hear the words "you have cancer."  For me, that day was exactly one year ago.

I recently watched the movie 50/50.  Although my doctor was much more kind than this doctor, my experience was much like this (feel free to skip ahead to 0:53):

(Sorry I couldn't find a clip without subtitles!)

I had prepared myself for the worst that morning, but I'm an optimistic person and I didn't really think I'd be hearing bad news.  I know my husband asked a lot of questions in that appointment, but I honestly can't remember a single one.  There are only two things I remember from that doctors appointment: (1) the doctor telling me I had Hodgkin's Lymphoma, then handing me a box of tissues; (2) all of the nurses staring at me as I walked out of the exam room (it's a small office, so I assume they all knew what had just happened).

I remember being in a daze the rest of the day.  I spent hours on the internet, trying to learn everything I possibly could about Hodgkin's.  I shared the news with my family, a few close friends, and my boss.  I started this blog.  I had dinner with 4 of my closest friends, who took my mind off everything and helped me laugh through the haze.

What I've Learned and How I've Changed

It's a full year later now, so today I'm reflecting on the past year.  I've learned so much in the past year, but there's one thing specifically that stands out:

People are incredibly kind.

I couldn't believe the support Josh and I got!  People from all over the country and from all different times of my life were sending their love and encouragement.  I especially loved getting cards in the mail.  I hung every single one of them on the wall and read them frequently - especially on my "bad days."  Here's a picture of my card wall:

A group of friends and family arranged for our house to be cleaned each week as well (to help avoid nasty infections and to ease the workload off my sweet husband/caregiver).  This was such a nice surprise and I'm forever grateful for their kindness and generosity.  People did so many nice things for us and I was so touched at their thoughtfulness.

Because of the generosity I was shown, I have been inspired to "pay it forward."  I try to send cards of encouragement and support.  I try to call, text, or email more often.  I've learned that a small gesture can make a huge impact, especially for someone going through a tough time.  Even just a quick note of encouragement can mean so much and make someone's day!

So a year after hearing one of the most frightening phrases a person can hear, I am pleased to say that I'm healthy, incredibly happy, and most of all I'm thankful for having come through this a better and stronger person.


Monday, April 28, 2014

6-month Follow Up CAT Scan

A week ago I had my 6-month follow up CAT scan.  Although my treatment ended 5 months ago, they go 6 months from my last clean scan, which was a PET scan done right after I finished chemo in October.

Today I got the results - how terrible is it that they make you wait a full week after the scan for the results?!  Anyway, it's GOOD NEWS!  My scan was normal and my blood work looks great!

So after 6 months, I'm still in remission!!!!!!!

My first thought was "I can't wait to tell Tracey!"  But I know she already knows and even after all she went through, I know how proud she would be.

So… where do we go from here?  I'll see the doctor again in 3 months and will have bloodwork done then.  In 6 months, I'll have another CAT Scan of the neck and chest along with more bloodwork.  In 9 months I'll see the doc again just for bloodwork, and in a year, I'll see the doc for another CAT Scan.  At that time, we'll determine how often she'll need to see me and how often I'll need to get scans.

Thanks again for all the support, prayers, and words of encouragement!


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

RIP Chemo Sensei

My heart is broken.

You may remember this post about my amazing cousin Tracey, who I lovingly call my "Chemo Sensei."

Tracey was diagnosed with colon cancer last February - 5 months before I was diagnosed with cancer myself.  She fought a courageous fight but passed away last night.

Tracey is a cousin by marriage - she's actually my husband's cousin.  I'll never forget the day I met her. It was at our engagement party and she was running around with the kids with some sort of metal bowl on her head like it was a helmet.  I remember thinking she was kind of crazy, but so much fun.  Throughout the years we had a lot of laughs - we attended two Pittsburgh Pirates games with her and had a blast at each.  Eventually I began to associate Tracey with hangovers, haha!

When I found out I had cancer, she texted me constantly to see how I was doing.  We often had late night chats when neither of us could sleep due to the steroids given with chemo.  I'll never forget her generosity and support.  It was so nice to have someone to talk to that was going through the same thing I was, experiencing the same things physically and emotionally.

The hardest part of all of this is the intense anger and guilt I feel.  Why did I beat this stupid disease and not her?  She fought so much harder than I did and deserved to win.  Why am I here when she's not?  It makes me so angry.

So today, I'm heartbroken.  I'm in tears over my dear cousin and friend.  I'm in tears for her husband, who is one of the sweetest men I've ever met.  I'm in pain for the sisters and parents she left behind.  And most of all I HATE CANCER.  In the words of Tracey "Screw you, cancer!"

I love you kitty cat.  Miss you.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

My First Time "Topless" In Public!

This past weekend I attended a wedding in Altoona, PA and I actually went out in public "topless": with no hat or wig!  I was worried about looking ridiculous, but my husband and girlfriends said I looked ok, so I went for it!

Here I am with my handsome husband Josh:

Not bad, right?  It's a far cry from the super-thick hair I used to have, but it works!  My new little baby hairs like to stick straight up, so I used a ton of pomade and hairspray to keep them in their place. :)

You can see here the sides are still a little thin (please ignore me drinking out of the pitcher):

And because I love my friends, here's a picture of all (or most) of us at the wedding (that's me right in the middle):

This was a big day for me!  Also, I learned that I can only do this once per wash… The following morning I tried, but the new hair literally stuck straight up in the air (sorry I didn't get a picture of that!) and would not cooperate.  But as long as I wash it in the morning, I can go "topless" all day!

I'm so lucky to have hair that grows really fast.  I'm hoping in the next few weeks those new baby hairs will blend in and it will look even better!  

What do you think?!


Sunday, January 26, 2014

My Survivor Tattoo

A few weeks ago, I got my survivor tattoo!!

I'd been planning on it for awhile (since before I was done with treatment) and finally went to have it done.  Here's a picture (sorry, it's still healing so it's still a little scabby):

For those of you who aren't familiar, these are Beatles lyrics.  The song goes:

Life goes on...

I love this song and I thought the lyrics were appropriate and uplifting.  Purple is the "official" Hodgkin's Lymphoma color, so I added the purple ribbon.

The tattoo is on my right wrist and every time I see it, I feel strong and proud and I'm reminded that life does go on.  What do you think?!


3-month Follow Up With Oncologist

This past week I had my 3-month follow-up appointment with my regular oncologist.  Hard to believe it's been three months since my clean PET scan!

We discussed my mysterious itching, which has gotten much better.  Our conclusion is as expected: dry skin (exacerbated by chemo), combined with stress.  According to WebMD: "Stress causes a chemical response in your body that makes skin more sensitive and reactive. It can also make it harder for skin problems to heal."  I tend to internalize my stress (guilt, worry, etc.), so this is a very likely cause…  

Speaking of stress, it's causing a few sleepless nights as well.  It's getting better, but I'm giving melatonin supplements a shot.

I had blood work done before my appointment, and apparently my hemoglobin levels are still a little low from chemo.  Hemoglobin is a protein in red blood cells that carry oxygen.  Although my levels are still a little low, they are higher than my last blood test (from October) and are barely below the "normal" range for a healthy person.  No cause for alarm and this shouldn't cause any symptoms.

The plan moving forward will be to have CAT scans done every 6 months for several years (likely 5 years).  We originally anticipated PET scans every 6 months, but my oncologist says recent studies actually show better results with CAT scans for monitoring purposes.  PET scans can show false-positives more often.  CAT scans won't be able to highlight cancer the way PET scans can, but it will show any unusual tumors.  CAT scans are much easier, shorter, and cheaper than PET scans, so I'm happy for this news!

The doc did a physical exam - which included feeling my lymph nodes throughout my body.  She felt no noticeable abnormalities.  So now I'll see her again on April 21 (the CAT scan and blood tests will be scheduled for the prior week).


Sunday, January 19, 2014

Melissa Beats Karl - Party Time!

I officially killed Karl (that's what I named my stupid cancer) at the end of November.  I spent the month of December recuperating from chemo and radiation, and by early January I was feeling much more like the person I was before stupid Karl decided to pick on me.

So last night we had a "Melissa is Cancer Free!" party to celebrate the end of my treatment and for killing Karl.  We had some snow come through the city, but luckily most people were still able to make it out and we had a great night!

I finally got the confidence to wear my wig, so I went from this:

To this:

Here are some pictures from the night (the quality isn't great on some of these - cell phone pics in a dark bar…):

Getting photo bombed

Bri, Sarah, me 

Some of my all-time favorite people:
Jenny, Bri, Sarah, me
Sarah and me 
Love these two Erins!
My husband likes to photo bomb
Erin, me, Alyssa 
Jama, Alyssa, Erin, me, Lindsey, Holly
Thanks again to all those who braved the snow and made it out to celebrate.  I have the best friends :)


Monday, January 13, 2014

How Much Does Cancer Cost?

Cancer is expensive.  As if I need another reason to hate it…   I'm about to share the cost of my Hodgkin's Lymphoma treatment with you.

Because mine was caught in Stage I, my treatment was minimal.  The time between when I discovered the tumor in my lymph node to the time I completed my final treatment was 6 months.  Many people go through much more treatment over a much longer period of time, so keep in mind the amount I'm about to share with you is on the extreme low end of cancer treatment cost.

Ok, so are you ready to hear how much my cancer treatment was?  As of 1/13/2014, the total cost of my treatment has been…. $153,000.

Now, let me clarify - $153,000 is the amount that has been charged to my insurance company.  Thankfully I have a good insurance plan, so my personal expense this year was somewhere around $4,000 (deductible, out of pocket expenses above deductible, prescriptions, and over the counter medications).

So, how does $153,000 break down?  I've been tracking all of my bills over the last 6 months, so I have that answer!  Here's the short(ish) answer:

It cost $26,300 to diagnose - including doctors visits, ultrasound, blood work, CT scan, needle biopsy, and excisional biopsy.

Once I was diagnosed, it was $33,300 to prepare me for my first chemo session - this included oncology appointments, port placement surgery, PET scan, heart and lung tests, and bone marrow biopsy.

Each chemo treatment was a little different in cost because the cost of each chemo drug is constantly changing.  On average, each chemo treatment was around $3,200 (the most expensive one was $3,600) totaling $13,000 for 4 chemo treatments.

If you recall, my white blood cells kept dropping, so I had to have several Neupogen shots at $430 a piece.  I still haven't seen the bill for the two Neupogen shots I had to get at the ER over one weekend…  But for the 8 shots I had at my oncologist's office, the total was $3,500 for Neupogen.

The total cost of radiation was $54,000!  This includes doctor visits, radiation planning (done by doctors before treatment), and 10 radiation treatments.

It was another $8,000 for my last PET scan to make sure I was cancer- free.  Then $11,000 to have my port removed.

Keep in mind I'll have four appointments with my oncologist (about $200 each) and two PET scans a year ($8,000-$10,000 each) for the next 5 years.  I'll list all costs below for those of you who want to know.  Some of these expenses may surprise you:

Initial Doctors Visit
Follow Up Doctors Visit
Blood Work - CBC
CT Scan

Needle Biopsy
Consultation with Surgeon
Excisional Biopsy
Consultation with Oncologist
Detailed Blood Work
Initial PET Scan
Lung Function Test
Heart Test

Port Placement Surgery
Bone Marrow Biopsy
Chemo #1

Blood Draw from Port
ER visit

Doctors Visit - Nurse Practitioner 
Blood Work  
Chemo #2

Neupogen shot
Neupogen shot
Blood Work  
Doctors Visit - NP
Blood Work  
Chemo #3

Neupogen shot
Neupogen shot
Neupogen shot
IV fluids

Neupogen shot
Neupogen shot
Blood Work  
Neupogen shot
Blood Work  
Chemo #4

Blood Work  
Doctors Visit - NP
GP doctors visit
PET scan

CT (w/ PET)
Doctors visit  
Blood Work  
Radiation Oncologist consult
Radiation Planning (Simulation)
Planning Appointment
Radiation Simulation
Treatment Plan & Scans


Radiation Treatment
Radiation Oncologist Physician Services
Port Removal Surgery
Follow Up with Radiation Doctor

Friday, January 10, 2014

Hair Update!

Lots of people have been asking about my hair, so I'll share a few pictures.  My hair is definitely growing back (finally!) and it does look better than my last update.  It's still a little thin, but I'm making progress!

Thankfully my hair grows pretty fast, so I'm hoping that within a couple more months I'll be able to go out without a hat!

Speaking of hats, I got a couple new ones for Christmas.  Here's one:

Ok, so onto the hair pictures…

Here's the view from the front and my goofy face:

I have these little baby-hairs sprouting from the front.  I tried to part my hair on the side to cover it up, but it just looks like a bad combover.    I'm hoping that once these are long enough to blend in with the rest of my hair, the front will look somewhat normal:

Here's a view from the side.  This side still looks really thin - no amount of styling makes this look better:

View from the top - still pretty thin:

I also have a Miley Cyrus thing going on on the sides - the hair's really short and I have these awkward sideburns:

I haven't used Toppik lately (Toppik is the product that's hair fibers I have to make my hair look thicker… I used it in this post).  I don't think it would do much good right now, but once these short little hairs get a little longer, I think it will help.  I'll keep you updated!


Monday, January 6, 2014

Radiation Oncology Follow-Up

It's been a few weeks since I've blogged - haven't had anything to share!

Last week I had a follow-up appointment with my radiation oncologist.  He just wanted to see me about a month after my last radiation treatment to make sure I was feeling ok.

I did get a little nauseous as I pulled into the parking lot of the Cancer Center.  After a month away from that place, being back just stirred up a lot of emotions.  I don't miss that place!

The appointment went really well - uneventful really.  I feel pretty good at this point; I don't notice being fatigued anymore (that lasted about 3 weeks after treatment, but each day seemed to be better until I was back to normal).  The doc did a physical exam, feeling the lymph nodes in my neck, armpits, and groin.  He said none of them felt enlarged or unusual and since I was feeling back to normal, there was no reason to see him again!

At this point, I'll see my regular oncologist every three months for a couple years and have scans every 6 months for 5 years.  Once I hit 5 years, I'll be considered CURED!  My next appointment is in a couple weeks (January 22) with my regular oncologist.  She'll do a physical exam as well and then I'll have my next scan in April.

Lots of people have been asking about how my hair's coming in, so I'll be posting some pictures very soon.

Many people have asked about the mystery itch, too.  Luckily, it's much better than before.  Our conclusion is that it was a combination of dry skin (exacerbated by the chemo) and stress (it's very common for people post-treatment to worry and stress about recurrence, I can attest to that).  I've been using a great moisturizer called Cetaphil which has helped.  I still take a prescription on occasion that helps with anxiety, relieves itching, and helps me sleep.  I don't take it too often (less than once a week), but it's helpful for when I need it.

2013 has been an interesting year - lots of great things happened: a trip to our favorite city (Key West), an amazing 8 day cruise to celebrate our second wedding anniversary, and kicking cancer's butt.  The year had its challenges as well as I went through months of testing followed by a cancer diagnosis and then treatment for Hodgkin's Lymphoma (not fun at all).  I leave 2013 behind feeling stronger than I knew I was and more loved than I realized.  I'm really looking forward to a year of good health and I'm hoping to have a great year professionally since I was sick and miserable (and limited to work) for about half the year last year.

Happy New Year everyone.  All the best, and more updates to come!