Good-bye 2020

Like everyone else in this whole wide world, 2020 was a giant dumpster fire of bad news, cancelled plans, and overwhelming feelings of isolation. A couple of weeks ago, I underwent my first ever brain MRI that my oncologist ordered. I had been experiencing more headaches than normal, and I had episodes of complete forgetfulness which worried me.

First of all, MRIs in general are just anxiety-inducing procedures to begin with. During my MRI, I did not have any option to listen to music. As a result, I spent the 35 minutes in the MRI tube trying not to think about the very enclosed space and cage around my face. I did try to go to my happy place, but the sounds of VMMMM VMMM DUM DUM WHIRRRRR, or a combination thereabouts, prevented me from going to my happy place.

Also, similar to that gut feeling I had when I pushed my oncologist to order the CT and bone scan, I honestly felt like something was there. Guess what? I was right. (Yay me.)

I have a 9 mm (approximately a 1/3 inch) tumor in the back of my brain. When my oncologist told me that news, I just broke down. When I thought I was just dealing with a met to my sternum, it was one thing. Oligometastatic, if you’re going to have stage 4 breast cancer, is the diagnosis you want because the good prognosis and life expectancy odds are in your favor.

However, the idea that I could be also dealing with brain mets not only pulled the rug from underneath me, it beat the shit out of me with a bat. I mean, come the fuck on. This is a lot for anyone to deal with. I knew that even if the brain tumor turned out to be benign, the fact that I had metastatic breast cancer, a brain tumor, plus all the bullshit that comes with Cowden’s Syndrome, felt downright unbearable.

ESPECIALLY IN A FREAKING PANDEMIC. It’s not like I can meet up with my friends for support, or travel down to my parents house for Christmas like I had really wanted to. I spent Christmas by myself (well, my dogs are with me). As a result, I lost it. I cried a lot, and both my anxiety and depression took the wheel, while I stayed in the backseat curled up in a fetal position. I wrote in a notebook how I really and truly don’t want to be anyone’s idea of inspiration or strength. Let me be weak and cry, and for the love of pete, do not put me on any pedestal. I hate that shit.

I’m human, and I’m doing the best that I can. I’m not going to put on a brave face to make anyone feel comfortable.

Finally, after consultations with a neurosurgeon and my radiation oncologist, my team of doctors all agreed that this tumor looked like a typical meningioma, and where it was located in my brain further suggested that it’s a benign tumor. However, since this was the first ever MRI of my brain, the neurologist can’t say with 99.9 percent certainty without a second scan. If this tumor doesn’t appear to have grown in between scans, she can say with almost complete certainty that this is benign and let’s just keep watching it.

If I didn’t have Cowden’s Syndrome, she would have re-scanned me in 3 months and then 6 months, and then so on. Since I have stage 4 breast cancer, they are going to scan me in 4 weeks or so (pending insurance approval), and then every 3 months for a period of time. We will only talk surgery if it looks like it’s growing or I’m symptomatic. I am a-okay with this plan because I have zero desire to have brain surgery unless it’s necessary.

Oh look, there have been research into the frequency of meningiomas in patients with Cowden’s Syndrome: Hidden association of Cowden syndrome, PTEN mutation and meningioma frequency (source). Fun, super duper fun.

I’m not surprised that 2020 ended with one last punch to my emotional well being. This year, I was told that my breast cancer is now stage 4. I missed out on my own planned 40th birthday party, my beloved niece’s high school graduation, and a trip to Maine with my best friend. I spent every holiday at home by myself. Why not add a brain tumor to the list?

In an effort to put a horrible year behind me, I will do my best to recap and focus on the good things that happened (or, in my case, the not so terrible news):

  • My brain tumor is certainly benign.
  • My cancer appears to be only in my sternum still, not widespread.
  • I still have my job, and in fact, I got a promotion!
  • Management at work has been so wonderful and supportive to me. My boss, and boss’s boss, have been the epitome of caring toward me. I will honestly work for them as long as I can.
  • Countless friends have helped me and showered me with love in 2020. They sent generous gifts, bought Huffman rules clothes, and sent me money. Because of my loved ones’ generosity, I have been able to save more money and prepare myself for the rainy day that is coming, and it is coming fast.
  • Last, and certainly not least, my boyfriend has stood by my side, and he makes me feel like the luckiest woman alive. (Never thought you’d hear that coming from someone who definitely did not win the genetic lotter, huh?)

Yeah, 2020 sucked royally, and my life will never be as it was. It’s okay. If my only win this year was that I survived, I’ll take it.

Some Type of Normal

For the first time in almost two months, I went for a run today. Well, it was more like a “jog” than a run based on my effort and time. Still, it does not matter. I put on my running shoes, and I moved this body of mine 3 miles around the Northside of Pittsburgh. I decided to stay in a relatively flat area because I am nowhere in the shape to conquer hills.

I went down the path on River Ave and just focused as much as I could on my form and breathing. When I run, I can clear my head of all my worries and anxiety. This run was different because I wanted to be even in more touch with my form, my breathing, and my general sense of being.

With each step, I made sure to step as light-footed as possible. I don’t want to be hard on my knees, ankles and shins, especially since Aromatase Inhibitors are brutal on bones. By the time I reached around Heinz Field, I began feeling pain in my ankle. Never in my life have I ever had problems with my ankles. If I had to guess, my AI was the cause of that ankle pain.

Since my hysterectomy, I have only managed to walk 2 miles at the most. I ran 3 miles today! My pace was 13:40, which is 2 minutes slower than my pre-MBC time. Honestly, now that I am dealing with metastatic breast cancer, every completed run is a win. Besides this blog post, there will be no more comparison to who I was as a runner before MBC , because that Lara is gone and she ain’t coming back. I won’t waste time mourning something I can no longer change if only I trained hard enough.

I don’t have the time.

This is a new normal, and I’m going to adapt to it. I used to to say I took up running because I wanted to see what my body can accomplish after cancer showed me how my body failed me. I was wrong. I was so wrong. My body didn’t fail back then. It did what it does – it formed cysts and tumors. I see it clearly now, and it came to me during my run today

My body, this ever-involving flawed vessel that carries me around, is amazing and capable of so much. It endured the violent onslaught of early stage cancer treatment. It… I have ran thousands of miles, finishing races that most people don’t even try or can do. My body has been beaten up, both by illness and by my own making, but I endure. I have fucking endurance.

Don’t get me wrong – I don’t think I can beat stage 4 cancer, and this is not where I’m going with this. My goal is to endure for as long as I can, and it is going to be accomplished by one, slow run at a time. I’m going to keep moving and stay upright for as long as I can, and when it’s time to rest, I will know I gave it everything I could. The miles I log will tell my story.

Back to Work

Today was my first day back at work, and I beyond excited to be back. Am I ready? Mentally – hell to the yeah. I am someone who loves and appreciates a routine. Recovering from major surgery and dealing with the fact that I have metastatic disease has honestly made these past six weeks feel like six months. All I had to do each day was think about my poor health and catastrophize my fate.

Needless to say, time dragged.

Work will be a welcome reprieve from my worried mind. I can focus on audit, fraud, and whatever else I have been tasked with. Work will allow me to be more than just a cancer patient. I mean, yeah, I’m a cancer patient, but I can put on a different hat for the majority of my week.

Plus, I like working, and I really love the team I am on at work. We are a great, supportive team. I truly enjoy figuring things out, editing, research, and analysis.

Am I ready physically? Maybe. I am tired, friends. My body feels foreign to me now. For the last couple of days, my legs have felt heavy, and I feel winded just walking up stairs. This time last year, I ran a marathon!

The gyn oncologist cleared me for exercise today at my 6-weeks post op appointment, and I am already setting goals for myself. I would love to be able to run a 5K in the spring. Even if I am slow as hell, I am going to keep moving until my body tells me I have to stop.

I swear to GOD, I will crotch punch anyone who cries at the sight of me running and refers to me as inspirational. Never ever ever ever ever make me the subject of any inspiration porn.

I just want to live my life, and I’m going to do whatever I can to have more good days than bad.

5 Stages of Grief

It has only been one month since my oncologist told me that I had metastatic breast cancer, and it’s only been a little over three weeks since my hysterectomy. Honest to dog, it feels like a couple months since all this began, as if I am in a suspended state. Between Covid-19 and my medical leave of absence, I have no concept of time anymore.

During this period of time, I have definitely cycled through the different stages of grief, which I imagine is quite common.

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

If you are like me and need a refresher as to what constitutes the 5 Stages of Grief, refer to this article on Psycom.net (link), which discusses the Kubler-Ross Model.

DENIALAvoidance, Confusion, Elation, Shock, Fear

I previously believed that denial involved only avoidance, and even thought at one point, “Well, at least I never visited the denial phase.” Boy, I was wrong.

During September, I had both a bone scan and a CT scan of my neck down to my special area. When the bone scan posted to MyChart stated that my sternum presented as potential metastatic disease, I had a delayed mental breakdown. I had an important meeting that morning, which I had to lead. I told myself that I could break down later. When it was safe, I ended up taking a half day from work because I went to a bad place.

Quite simply, I went into shock. 

I swear, I knew that very day I was going to be stage 4 and that my cancer was back. I was already back in the chemo chair in my mind. I rocked back and forth in a corner in my bedroom, whispering, “I can’t do this” over and over again. My face went numb. My arms went numb and eventually, my hands went numb. I couldn’t

My loved ones who knew I was having a panic attack about this told me, “Oh this could be the result of your trip and fall.” I wanted to believe them and go along with their theory, and I eventually agreed it could be a possibility. I never really believed it fully, but I wanted to.

The fear that I felt that day will stay with me for a very long time. It’s the type of fear that consumes you and changes you. It definitely changed me.

ANGER – Frustration, Irritation, Anxiety

Oh, I have visited this stage and camped out here for a spell. Heck, I think I have bought a house in this stage, renovated it, and redecorated. I know this phase so well. I have felt angry, and why not? I’m allowed.

I did everything I was supposed to do to ensure that I didn’t suffer the same fate as my mother. I started getting yearly mammograms at the age of 25, and sometimes, I had to go twice a year. With every mammogram, I had an ultrasound done due to having dense breast tissue (aka fibrocystic breast tissue). I had multiple fiboradenomas, and multiple biopsies.

At the age of 30, doctors found my breast cancer at stage 1b. I “caught it early.” I went through absolute hell and back for almost 2 years – a lumpectomy, chemotherapy (including anaphylactic shock), radiation, double mastectomy, and reconstruction. Still, to this day, I experience legit flashbacks if I ever get lightheaded and dizzy because that’s the sensation I felt before anaphylactic shock.

I. Did. It. All.

My oncologist threw everything but the sink at me, and I came out of that period of my life scarred and shell shocked. I even had my oncologist repeatedly tell me that the odds of it coming back were so small because of the early stage and aggressive treatment. I did everything I could to prevent this, to not end up like my mother, and it still fucking happened. This should make me angry, and it’s okay to be angry. I’m not going to pretend to be someone or something I am not.

BARGAINING – Struggling to Find Meaning, Reaching Out to Others, Telling One’s Story

Man, if I thought I could bargain my way out of this, I absolutely would. For real, if I had something I could offer in order to not have this disease, then I would do it. “Lara, you will no longer have stage 4 cancer anymore if you give up coff-” “DONE.”

In all seriousness, I don’t consider myself all that religious, so I don’t typically hold conversations with God. I didn’t, nor will I ever, ask God why this has happened to me because why not? Me having stage 4 cancer is not some horrible tragedy. It’s genetics.

It might also be that I don’t believe that God gave me cancer, or that I have been set on some journey. (Whenever I read ‘cancer journey,’ I cringe. It’s a disease, not a trek in the woods.)

While I haven’t had any “WHY GOD WHY” conversations with a higher being, I have been struggling to find meaning in all of this. One of the reasons why I love(d) running so much is that it allowed me to be someone other than a cancer patient. I got to be a runner, an athlete. I wanted to test my physical capabilities, especially after my body betrayed and failed me.

Life as a cancer mutant with a rare genetic condition means I live a different life. I have had a black and white view of what this body of mine does, and this diagnosis has me wondering if it just all grey. Maybe my body didn’t fail me? Maybe my body did what it just does, and I just have to navigate these setbacks and accomplishments more graciously?

DEPRESSION – Overwhelmed, Helplessness, Hostility, Flight

According to the American Cancer Society, 1 in 4 people with cancer suffer from major or clinical depression (source). I have made absolutely no secret that I have dealt with depression before. After treatment for my early stage breast cancer ended, I suffered and I struggled with my life. I had to reach out for help when it got really bad for me in my early 30s.

An October 2, 2013 article on MD Anderson’s website provides the following symptoms of depression:

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities you used to enjoy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness
  • Slow physical and mental responses
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Feeling worthless
  • Feeling guilt for no reason
  • Decreased concentration ability
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

In addition to medication, MD Anderson recommended the following activities to manage symptoms of depression: psychotherapy exercise, and stick to routine. The article explained, “Following a routine can help you maintain a feeling of accomplishment and a sense of control, both of which can be negatively affected by cancer and depression. A routine can also help push an individual to engage in activities they wouldn’t necessarily be motivated to complete.”

I did end up doing all of those suggestions, and it worked for me! Once I got help, started running and dumped a horrible boyfriend, I got my depression and anxiety under control. I really did climb out of the fog of depression and learned to really enjoy my life.

Now… *waves around* this.

I am struggling with the enormity of this disease, and what it’s taken from me. When I read the symptoms of depression listed above, I can say that I can check off six of those items. What I have feared for so long has come to be. For so long, I have been absolutely frightened that I was going to end up just like my mother, and now that it has happened, I’m just a scared 40 year old who wishes she had her Mom.

Be rest assured that I do have a good network of support to assist me as I come to terms with my new normal. If I can get back to running, even if at a much slower pace, then that will help me manage my depression. I also think being off work right now is playing a part in my mood. I enjoy a schedule and routine, and I also appreciated the ability to not think about cancer for 8 hours a day.   

ACCEPTANCE – Exploring Options, New Plan in Place, Moving On

What does it meant to achieve acceptance with a stage 4 diagnosis? I know and understand that my life is going to regularly consist of doctor’s visits, blood draws, scans, and sometimes surgeries. None of this will be easy, and I likely will regress back to the earlier phases more often than not. I truly believe that this phase will involve layers upon layers of events and truths that I need to accept, until I get to the final layer, the core: inner peace.

I have accepted that I have stage 4 breast cancer. It’s not like I have a choice, and I can somehow opt out of this. If I could, I fucking would. (Way too many people say that “cancer is a gift” and if that was true, I’d keep my receipt and return this.) This is my life now, and I can either fight my circumstances or do whatever I can to accept all of this and adapt. It’s not an act of bravery to accept my stage 4 diagnosis. It’s a necessity.

When I dig deeper, there are some hard truths that require reflection and acceptance. I accept the fact that I will die from this disease. I also accept that there is a possibility that I may not see my 50s or my 60s. I have to accept the fact that I may not even see 45, although I do hope that is not the case. This could all be out of my control.

As noted above, I want to achieve inner peace. This disease has forced me to rethink about what my priorities are and what they should be. I, for sure, want to figure out my new plan. I’m not going to figure it all out now. I can’t plan this out. I just have to let go.

This, I promise

Understandably, I have been thinking a lot about my priorities since my oncologist told me my cancer is Stage 4. What do I want to do with whatever time I have left. Don’t get me wrong – my oncologist at no point has told me to start getting my affairs in order and preparing for death.

However, the thing about metastatic cancer is that you have no way of knowing if you’re going to be one that responds well to treatment or poorly to treatment. Right now, as far as we know, the cancer is only in my bones: confirmed in my sternum and possibly in my spine. Cancer is smarter than all of us, and I have no doubt it’s already thinking of where it wants to go next.

As I recover from my surgery, I have been thinking about what I really want to focus on and try to achieve, and what time-sucking activities should I just let go. I hope and I pray that the side effects from the upcoming endocrine therapy will not be so bad so that I can go back to work.

I want to go back to work, I really do. I thrive in a structured environment, and I enjoy having a purpose and teaching others what I know. I’m an internal auditor, which I get isn’t like making scientific breakthroughs or saving lives. I contend that even in the normal, every day jobs, you can always make a difference in someone’s life by small acts. Maybe my enthusiasm for research and dogged determination to figure out the answer will rub off on a fellow coworker?

I also work for a company and a team that know about my stage 4 diagnosis. I truly believe that this company, if possible, will want to help fight against metastatic disease and the criminal underfunding of metastatic breast cancer research. I still have zero desire to be, what I call, cancer famous. If I have to put myself out there, though, to put a face to metastatic breast cancer and the importance of research, I will do it.

This, I promise, is my solemn vow: I am not going to go quietly. Please don’t mistake this statement as some declaration of mine that I’m going to “fight” cancer and win. Cancer is not a battle or a fight, and I’m not going to “beat it” or “win.” It is a deadly disease that will eventually kill me just like it killed my mother (hmm, maybe I shouldn’t be a motivational speaker, eh?).

Two generations of Metastatic Breast Cancer

I intend to make as much noise as I can for as long as I can about the importance of metastatic cancer research and the insidious PTEN mutation that caused my cancer. When I was considered to be an early stager, I was often described as outspoken or very vocal. Well, guess the fuck what… that’s just a preview of what’s to come. Ideas are brewing.

Metastatic breast cancer killed my mother, and I was told I had stage 4 metastatic breast cancer at the same age she was when she died. I was maybe 3 years old when my mother was first diagnosed, so this disease has been a part of my life for more than 3 decades, almost 4. I’ve never wanted to be defined by cancer, but we don’t always get what we want.

I’m not going to go quietly. I plan to do something about this, and it’s not always going to be positivity and rainbows. If I’m angry, I’ll be angry. Same goes for sad, depressed, happy, or hopeful. I’m going to feel all the feelings, and when the time comes for me to meet my mother again, I hope she knows I gave it my all.

So Much Love

Ever since my Stage 4 diagnosis earlier this month, I have honestly felt like I have been living in a waking nightmare. How is this real? I cry a lot, and I’m often stricken by fear and anxiety whenever I think about the enormity of having metastatic cancer.

Am I going to make it to 45?

Will I be able to outlive my dogs?

Will I see all my nieces and nephews graduate?

How much time do I have left before I can no longer work?

I try my best not to let the fear overtake me but I do acknowledge that there is nothing wrong with trying to come to terms with my mortality. I have no desire to live in denial. However, I have to remind myself that I cannot afford to live whatever time I have left with one foot in the grave. That’d be the real tragedy of this disease.

Whenever these thoughts and emotions get to be too much, I am doing my best to lean into the love that I have been shown. My goodness, I have been showered with so much love and care that it has made me cry. This time, happy tears though.

To the surprise of absolutely nobody, I was a giant nerd in high school and had maybe 3 or 4 friends. My hair always looked like a frizzy mess, and I wore glasses covering up half of my face. (Why weren’t glasses trendy when I was in school? Whhhhhyyyyyy?) My stepsister, who is my age, was the popular one, and I absolutely resented that if anybody knew who I was, I was known as only her stepsister.

I got bullied a lot, and after awhile, I believed the bad things said about me. I was more inclined to believe the bad and second-guess the good. Sad thing is, I still do it. My instinct whenever I receive a compliment is either to: a.) make a joke, or b.) completely ignore it because acknowledging it makes me so uncomfortable.

If you compliment me or show me affection, IT TRIGGERS SOME SORT OF FIGHT OR FLIGHT RESPONSE IN ME.

This trait of mine might have been quirky before my cancer recurrence, but now I am finally realizing that these lies I have told myself are apparently not true. Who would have thunk? Did it take a metastatic cancer diagnosis to finally snap me out of this “haha, I’m a nerd and nobody notices me” mindset?

Don’t get me wrong – I still do not like attention, and I will not be seeking any spotlight. I don’t desire fame, and this will not change. Once I recover from surgery and adjust to my new normal, my focus will be on researching my own disease and advocating for research.

Friends, loved ones, coworkers have expressed such raw, genuine emotion to my news. Tears have been shed, and I have been on the receiving end of so much love and kindness. I have been drowning in my own fear and sorrow, and I have been reminded dozens of times over that I am loved. Friends and loved ones have shown up to take me to appointments, sent me meals, money, and have contributed to my Huffman Rules fundraiser.

I am so unbelievably grateful, and words cannot adequately express how thankful I have been. All these years where I have believed I have been flying under the radar – turns out, I’ve been popping up on radars here and there. Oh no, my cover is blown!

From the bottom of my icy cold heart, thank you thank you thank you thank you. I, of course, hope that once I heal from the surgery and have been on a steady endocrine therapy, I can get back to some semblance of normal. I want to go back to work. I definitely now want to go on vacations that I have been putting off. I want my siblings’ kids to know without a doubt how much I love them.

I have a lot to do.

Fundraiser

During my radiation appointment, MyChart sent me a notification that I had a new bill. Well, apparently all my bills decided to just gather together, hang out, and then pop up on my doorstep on the same day. When I saw the amount owed, it actually took my breath away.

I’m on short term disability until end of November, so I can’t break out my camera and try and earn extra dough. I’m not allowed to lift anything more than 10 lbs, so my 20-plus-lb camera bag is definitely off limits.

With the help of my friend Nancy, I created my first Bonfire campaign – the Huffman Rules campaign. If you want to help out a cancer patient, here’s your chance.

https://www.bonfire.com/huffman-rules/

Get Up Swinging, or just get up?

On Friday, I went into the hospital for my complete hysterectomy, which marks my umpteenth surgery. Honest to dog, I have lost count how many surgeries I have had. I know I am in the double digits, but I would have to put pen to paper to figure out just how many times I have had surgery. My friend Amy and I joke about how many times we’ve both had surgeries. I feel like I should have a punch card, and she thinks we should have a hospital wing named after us.

The gyn oncologist was able to complete the surgery laparoscopically, and now I have four new stab, er, surgery wounds. My abdomen honestly looks like an abstract work of art. Instead of brush strokes, it’s just scars, radiation burn, and stretch marks.

What message do you believe the artist is trying to convey?

Hmm, the message I’m receiving is surgery. Just a lot of surgery.

The gyn oncologist didn’t encounter any complications, and I got released after spending one sleepless night in the hospital. I can never ever ever sleep when I’m in the hospital. I ended up texting a friend on the West coast around 1:30 am in the morning, and then watching episodes of American Greed on CNBC.

I am now home recovering. I am not allowed to drive for two weeks, and I cannot lift anything more than 10 lbs for six weeks. My boyfriend has been taking great care of me, even though I know I am driving him crazy. I have a hard time relaxing and asking for help, so I putter around my 1st floor a lot instead of just laying down and relaxing.

I know sooner than later, I am going to start feeling the side effects of this surgery: mood changes, hot flashes, and fogginess. I am grateful I have ability to take time off work to recover from this surgery and adjust to this new normal for me. My managers at work have been absolute freaking fantastic toward me and what I am up against. Their support has taken a giant load off my shoulders, and they have made it crystal clear that my first priority should only be my health and recovery.

This week, I should be completing radiation simulation. What is radiation simulation, you may ask?

Positioning is extremely important in radiation therapy. Your body will be positioned carefully in order to get the best radiation treatment. You will be in the same position during every treatment, and you will have to remain still. To stabilize your position, you will probably be asked to lie in a special “immobilization device” on the treatment table.

There are different kinds of immobilization devices. Some look like a cradle; others look like a foam box that is shaped to your form. You will not be trapped or closed in. You may be asked to lie down in a custom-shaped mold that just touches your back and sides; or your treatment center may use a “breast board” that places your head, arm, and hand in a fixed position. Unfortunately, no padding can be used on the treatment table or positioning devices because that makes your treatment position less precise

https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/radiation/types/ext/expect/simulation

Also this week, I have an appointment with my medical oncologist to discuss what AIs I will begin taking. Now that I have had my hysterectomy, this should make the discussion on what I can take a little easier. With AIs (aka Aromatase Inhibitors, or endocrine therapy), I am definitely going to experience side effects and this will require an adjustment for me.

None of this is going to be easy, and there will be tears and frustration. I cannot promise I am going to be the same Lara that I was before, but I will reach out for help when I am struggling. I may get angry and mourn the life that I used to have. It’s okay to not know what to say to me or how to act around me. I don’t know what to say or how to act either. This is new territory. I am not going to “beat” this, and I will be in treatment for cancer until the day I die. I am not a cancer survivor. Now, I just want to be a thriver.

I may not get up swinging, but I will do whatever I can just to get up.

10 Years, 10 Days

September 22 marked 10 years since I learned that I had Stage 1b breast cancer. 10 days after that, I found out that my breast cancer has returned, but this time, I am stage 4. I have metastatic breast cancer, which means it’s treatable, not curable. I will be in treatment for the rest of my life, however long that may be.

Let’s back up a couple months. In early August, I tripped and fell during a trail run, and I body-slammed myself into the ground. Not only that, I was wearing a hydration vest with two detachable water bottles located at each boob. One second I was running and the next second, I found myself face first on the ground, feeling like I had the wind knocked out of me times 100.

My boyfriend ended up taking me to the ER, where the doctor ultimately diagnosed me with a chest wall contusion and a concussion. The chest X-ray and spinal X-ray didn’t show anything concerning.

In early September, I had routine bloodwork ordered by my oncologist done. He had been monitoring my rising CA 15-3, which kept slowly rising over the previous year or so. Dr. C didn’t seem concerned about it, but I certainly was. Dr. C knows cancer, but I know Lara. To ease my concern, Dr. C told me that he would normally just re-test the tumor markers in 3 months and see, but he knew I was very concerned. He said that he would order a bone scan and a CT scan to put my worry to rest. (Haha.)

Both scans showed potential metastatic disease in my sternum, and the CT scan showed a potential lesion in my T11. When I learned this, I did not take the news well at all, and why should I? I had the worst panic attack of my adult life and had to take off work for the rest of the afternoon. I went numb in my face, my abdomen, and I lost feeling in my hands. I knew that day this was it.

My loved ones repeatedly said, “No, no, no. These scans are showing the result of your fall.” Fair argument, and at times, I did want to believe it. Ultimately, deep down, I knew this was stage 4 due to the fact my tumor markers were high. I have always known this was going to happen because this is what my body does.

I had a bone biopsy of my sternum, and not going to lie, that was one of the most horrendous procedures I have had done. When the radiologist inserted the needle into my sternum to numb it, I screamed in pain. While screaming, I heard them say, “Be still!” Hahaha, fuck you. I’m doing my best.

Fast forward to present day, it appears that my cancer is contained in the sternum and has not traveled to any other organ. If that is indeed true, then that is a big WIN for me. (I learned a new term – it’s called oligo.) It means we can radiate the cancer in my sternum to high hell, and then I start taking an AI. No need for chemo for bone mets. My other “good” news is that the metastatic breast cancer is estrogen and progesterone receptive and Her2 negative. That means I have a lot of options in AIs. The goal is to get the cancer back to zero and keep it there for as long as possible with AIs.

Am I devastated? Oh God, yes. I am gutted. I cry a lot. This is my literal nightmare come true. My mom was also diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer when she was 40, and died before she turned 41. How can this not mess with my head? I am my mother’s daughter.

I have to take all this minute by minute, or hour by hour, or day by day. I have a great support system here to throw me a life preserver when I feel like I am absolutely drowning. My team of doctors does include a psychiatrist to help me deal with the emotional bitch-slapping that stage 4 cancer brings.

I guess this means Get Up Swinging is back. Instead of making one billion phone calls after each update, I just plan on updating this. I need to get back to my introvert ways, and keep my inner circle small. All these phone calls have left me just absolutely drained and exhausted. I understand people who care about me want to check in with me and make sure I’m okay, and I am very appreciative. I also want to eventually transition to an easier way to keep anyone who cares apprised of my health.

Plus, this will be the best way to document how I keep cycling through the 5 stages of grief, and vent about cancer-related topics that piss me off (i.e., inspiration porn, or calling cancer a battle). Also, OF COURSE I WOULD BE DIAGNOSED WITH STAGE 4 BREAST CANCER DURING BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH. Argh. It’s like pouring salt in a large gaping wound.

So… stay tuned?

Running in the time of ‘Rona

For as long as I can remember, I have dealt with anxiety in some form or the other. The diagnosis of Generalized Anxiety Disorder has been stamped on my medical charts since my early 20s. However, I am not ashamed of it. This is who I am, and my brain is just wired a tad differently. I am also certain that anyone who meets me in person could pick up on the fact that I’m anxious after 5 minutes of conversation. I feel as if my anxiety is as much a part of my personality as much as my ridiculous ability to remember random movie or television trivia. I am who I am, and who I am is anxious.

Anxiety

My anxiety had a heckuva time after my cancer diagnosis, where every unfamiliar pain or ache led my brain to leap to the “YOUR CANCER IS BACK OH MY GOD” conclusion. It’s cliché, but it is true for me that anxiety is fear of the unknown. I started running in 2013 as a way to cope with my anxiety and well, just life.

I am never going to be that person who says, “Oh running is my therapy” because that is such a BS, tone deaf statement for anyone with actual mental health problems, like anxiety. No, therapy is my frickin’ therapy. Running is just one of the several tools I use to help manage my anxiety. While I run, my brain quiets and I’m not overthinking. It’s my meditation.

Enter Covid-19, and one of my tools to managing for my anxiety transformed into one of my sources of stress and anxiety, instead of my respite from them. Normally, I am a road runner. When the pandemic first began, I would try to avoid as many people as I could while running some of my common paths. However, other Pittsburghers would have the same idea as me, and I ended up playing the “excuse me” game to small groups of people either running, walking or riding their bike.

Whenever I witnessed people not social distancing or not wearing masks, I would feel a combination of anger and helplessness about them not following the rules. I missed running with my friends, and I was running solo. Why can’t they follow the rules?!? What makes them so special?!? Oh lord, this pandemic will never end….

As soon as I realized that after a run, I was routinely walking back to my car in a fit of rage, instead of my normal state of productive exhaustion, I knew I had to make a change.

I decided to switch from road running to trail running to stay away from as many people as I could.

avoiding-all-the-crowds

If you know me and my history of trail running, then you’d know this is a big deal because I am not really confident when it comes to trail running. Like, not at all. I have done a handful of trail races without actually having ever trained for a trail race. Unsurprisingly, I did not do particularly well at these races. In summer 2019, I signed up for three ridiculously difficult trail race. I completed two of those races, and the third one I gave up after the first loop (my first DNF – did not finish).

When I decided to start primarily running trails, I was signed up for a race in August that I knew would be canceled. However, I figured that it was good motivation to get me out there on the trails anyway. (Turns out, I was right, and the race was recently postponed until 2021.)  Regardless, this race that never was turned out to be great motivation to get me out there.

Trail running is hands down much more difficult than road running, and in the past, I have been discouraged from trail running due to that very fact. It is hard. The elevation gain, and terrain that can send you flying down a hillside face-first if you’re not careful, all make for an adventurous and challenging task. I’m a klutzy person in general, so someone like me trail running is asking for trouble.

These last months trail running has changed something in me and how I see myself as a runner. I really enjoy trail running, and at the same time, I’m still not very fast or good at it. Finally, I got to my moment of Zen about trail running: Who cares!?!

When I am running in the woods, I never feel so alone yet so connected to something bigger than me. As I huff and very much puff along the trail path, I can focus on what I hear and do not hear. I listen out for other runners or hikers on the path, or the sound of mountain bikes coming toward me at a speed I do not understand or wish to emulate.

The views I get to see on my trail runs are incredible and oftentimes, I just stop my watch and take in my surroundings. I rarely take pictures whenever I do that because I don’t believe I can truly capture what it is all I am seeing. It’s not just the sights. It’s the smells and the sounds. The symphony of birds chirping or birds rhythmically pecking at trees entertain me.

I like whenever I pass by spots where uprooted trees have toppled down the hillside. Sometimes the base of the tree where the roots are jutting out look like a creature straight out of Jim Henson’s imagination, and I expect to see a pair of sleeping monster eyes open from their slumber.

Other joys of trail running include spotting creatures I normally don’t see on the road. I have seen groundhogs, and been stopped in my tracks to wait for deer to leave the path. One time, a small feral black cat crossed my path. As soon as the little spooky kitty spotted me, it dashed the other way and I felt the opposite of cursed. I had to make a last second leap to avoid accidentally stepping on a tiny toad. Squirrels and chipmunks are a constant sighting, and they rustle the branches and brush alongside the trail as I run by. Sometimes I feel like I have been transported in a Bob Ross painting, even during a heat wave that’s making me sweat buckets at 6:30 am.

I don’t that many other people often during my run, and that’s been my saving grace during this pandemic. I do miss running with my trail buddies, but for now, I have to keep at this by myself for the time being. The time I am spending by myself and challenging myself at something that has been daunting to me for so long has been wonderful for my self-esteem. I can do hard things. Maybe when we’re allowed to have races again, I will sign up for more and actually do well because I am getting over my weird complex about trail running.

No matter what, I am kicking ass by just finishing these runs. It doesn’t matter that my pace is slow compared to others. Who cares? I am having fun, and my quads are getting even more massive (you can’t see it, but I am smirking with pride right now). I am a runner without a single race to train for, and what a change of pace this has been…. Um, pun not intended.