What A Difference A Year Makes?!

It’s been a while folks, so let me first apologize for the long gap between posts.  I’ve had quite a bit going on these last few months, not the least of which is the complete upheaval of my life as I knew it.  Many of you may (or may not) know that 3 months ago I took the big step of relocating to South Florida. The transition while welcomed has not been without its challenges but all in all I have absolutely no regrets.  Some days I still have to pinch myself.  One year ago if you had told me that this is how things would end up, I would never have believed it.

You see today marks the one year anniversary of the start of my cancer treatment journey, the day I had my mastectomy.  On December 12, 2017 at 8:30 am with the support of my sister and closest girlfriends, I was wheeled into the operating room at the Tony Thwaites Wing of University Hospital of the West Indies for what would be the most overwhelming experience of my life to date.

Tina Post Op

One year ago today, post op reading messages of encouragement from family & friends

Seems petty now but I remember before heading to the hospital how I stood in front of the mirror for 30 minutes just staring at my two breasts thinking “this is the last time I’m going to see myself like this for a while”.  And yes…I took pictures of myself.  Funny I hadn’t looked at them at all until just last week and I have to admit I didn’t recognize the person in those pictures.  So much has changed.

I’ve said this before but it bears repeating.  Cancer is the wake up call I needed to make a much needed shift in my life.  Personally and professionally.  For years I’d lived in the shadows of others around me, fulfilling other people’s dreams and deferring my own. But God has a way of showing you that he is the one in the driver’s seat, all you have to do is trust and believe.  The truth though is that while I was going through chemo I felt very alone.  I had the support of friends but I still had to deal with its ravages by myself for the most part.  Another ugly truth that I have to live with for the rest of my life is that cancer could come back.  I pray that it doesn’t but I have to be prepared nonetheless.  With most of my immediate family living in the United States I came to the realization during my chemo journey that if cancer were to come back, I didn’t want to be on my own again.  At the time I had no idea of what was to come but I surrendered it all to the Almighty and simply prayed for a good outcome.

In August, after months of feeling like I was floundering, deliverance came in the form of the job offer of a lifetime.  Your girl is the new Events Director of Irie Weekend Management Company, part of a group of companies owned by celebrity DJ and Mr. Miami himself DJ Irie (If you don’t know who that is, I suggest you google him…no joke).

Tina & Irie

With ‘boss man’ Irie on the day I got the job offer

The offer required that I relocate back to the US, bringing me closer to my family, exactly what I prayed for (even though at the time I had no idea what I was praying for would look like).  I’m now 3 months in, my first production on the books (a country music festival, go figure) and now in the throws of planning the 15th Anniversary of Irie Weekend slated for late June 2019.

Seriously, what a difference a year makes?!




The Ugly Truth

Its been almost 2 months since my final chemotherapy session and by all accounts it appears I’ve beaten the Big C, notwithstanding that I’m still awaiting that absolute CANCER FREE designation from my doctors.  You would think all would be wonderful but alas no.  I’d been surrounded by family and extended family just one week after my last chemo during a cousin’s wedding.  By the 3 week mark, my taste buds were coming back and my oncologist had given me the all clear to resume eating raw vegetables.

The ugly truth is I’ve been a ball of emotions, exhausted and I dare say experiencing depression.  I’ve gotten mad at myself for feeling this way, after all I ought to be happy to be on this side of treatment.  I’ve wanted to blog but felt paralyzed, unable to put my thoughts down in any sensible way.  Hot flashes have become the bane of my existence.  It’s as if I’m now just mourning, just able to process what I’ve been through over the past 7 months.

I learned about my cancer diagnosis while in the throws of working on a concert production late last year.  So ‘Breast Cancer’ simply became another heading on my checklist, according to my BFF I went into full show production mode with it.  I planned everything meticulously and was in surgery just 10 days after the concert took place.  My sister calls it ‘warrior mode’, which is I suppose, exactly what I needed to be to get through surgery and chemo.  But now that its all done I’m sad, in a way mourning the loss of the person I was before all this.  In many ways I’m a much better person now, certainly healthier, but I still miss the old me, my old body.  And yes, I miss my breast. And I hate dislike the prosthesis.  It’s heavy and uncomfortable and makes me feel self conscious.

Although I’ve approached my diagnosis with general optimism, right now I feel heavy.  Cancer has laid bare things I wasn’t ready to face, my vulnerability, the sheer uncertainty of life.  And while it’s likely that I’m cancer free, cancer is always going to be there, as if it’s waiting in the wings or perched on my shoulder like an annoying fly.  It was easy to write about cancer, writing about depression, not so much.  Cancer you can explain, how on earth do I explain these feelings of melancholy.

Thankfully, there is light at the end of the tunnel.  I truly believe in the power of community and sharing.  Last week I reluctantly made the trek to my monthly cooking club session, I was not feeling myself at all.  Thanks to the moderator and my sister for pushing me to go.  These folks, the majority of whom I just met in January allowed me to cry and be vulnerable, and had no judgement when I pulled off the prosthesis and shoved it in my handbag.

Cooking Club Family

Pictured with my cooking club family at Stush in the Bush

So while right now I feel like I’m in a bit of a fog, seeing things in varying shades of grey, hope springs eternal that the color will come back.  Soon.

Living Through Chemo

Chemotherapy has been a delicate dance of managing symptom after symptom after symptom.  With every cycle comes something new.  As much as I thought I knew beforehand, seen my mother go through, heard from survivors, been warned by my doctors, I still had this crazy (stupid) notion that the symptoms would hit me all right from the start.  Makes no sense I know.  Instead they came one after the other, gradually, slowly, almost deliberately, never really overpowering me.  Except maybe the hairloss.  That one hit hard. After all I have a whole blog post dedicated to it.

If you’re still here reading, you’re clearly interested so let me break down how its gone cycle by cycle so far:

Cycle 1

Day 1 I felt fine but to be on the safe side I stayed home, leaving home only to get a blood count booster shot in the evening.  My first symptom was a sore throat which came on in the evening of Day 2.  Day 3 of Cycle 1 is probably the worst I’ve felt throughout this whole process.  My stomach was upset all day, I was nauseous, and spent a great deal of time sitting on the throne if you get me.  Actually I must admit that I napped on the floor next to the toilet.  Don’t judge me, it was easier than doing the back and forth from the bedroom to the bathroom.  Pains in my hands and feet started on Day 3, throbbing and soreness really.  I’d been warned that I would feel tingling or pins and needles but that’s not what I felt, not yet anyway.  The foot pains were so intense I couldn’t sleep.  That day the 2 things that got me through was smoking ganja for the nausea and injesting THC oil (the only thing seemed to numb the pain and knock me out, allowing me to get the rest my body needed).  Other symptoms included pains under my right arm and in the chest area (around the area of my mastectomy scar) and some coughing.

I can confess it now but by Day 4, I was back at work.  Sounds bad I know but I had to do it.  The restaurant had been closed for 2 months, I admit my timing may have been off but as it turned out that was the week we had to reopen.  I wore a mask around other folks and when I felt low or tired, I went into my car to take a rest.  When I look back on the turn of events that week, I have no regrets but I fully get that it may not have been the wisest thing to jump back into work so soon after chemo.  The hairloss began two weeks after Cycle 1 was administered and one week after that right at the the start of Cycle 2 I was bald.

Cycle 2

Just as with the first cycle, Day 1 and most of Day 2 were uneventful.  The coughing and sore throat began in the late evening of Day 2.  By Day 3 I started to feel what I can only describe as a dull pain everywhere, my head, my joints, even my teeth. I thought about popping a couple of the Panadene I had left over from my hospital stay but held off thinking “I’ve got over 8 drugs in my system right now, don’t need anymore”.  Thank goodness for a surprise call from a cancer survivor on Day 4. She shared with me that she had the same experience and helped me to see there was nothing wrong with taking a little help for the pain.  The soreness and throbbing in my feet returned, but not in my hands.  It was a real challenge to walk from my bedroom to the kitchen.  The nausea wasn’t too bad but diarrhea came back with a vengeance.  This time around I made sure to stay home on Days 4 and 5 and by Day 6 I was feeling more like myself and able to return to a full day of work.  The following week I noticed that the skin around my finger tips was stripping, within a few days of that my hands were full-on peeling.  I quickly had to halt my newfound love of bread baking.  I couldn’t have folks eating my skin now could I ….uggghh gross!  Peeling hands 2

Cycle 3

Again things started the same, pretty easy Day 1 and most of Day 2.  Diarrhea by day 3, slight dull pains in my head, joints and teeth again but not as bad as during Cycle 2. The pains in my feet returned along with my hands.  This time I got the tingling/pins and needles in both hands and feet.  More than anything though I felt absolutely exhausted.  The tiredness lasted well into the following week.  I was constantly yawning and had to take daily naps.  Perhaps that was the cumulative effect of all the chemo cycles.  Heading into Cycle 3, I noticed that a few of my finger nails looked like they were starting to lift.  Please God, don’t let me lose my nails.  Two weeks after cycle 3 was administered my nails started to show signs of darkening/discoloration.  My oncologist had prepped me for this but again I got lulled into thinking it wasn’t going to happen to me since it didn’t occur right away.  So much for that huh. Darkening Nail 2

Today I head into my 4th and hopefully final chemo session.  Hallelujah 🙌🏾🙌🏾. And guess what??  Life did not come to a grinding halt.  Through it all I’ve still had find a way to get work done between sessions, I’ve had to figure out a way to keep the wheels grinding at the restaurant (including on the chemo weekends), still had to keep it moving.  There has however been one other symptom I wasn’t quite ready for…..HOT FLASHES.  They started about 3 weeks ago and have ramped up fiercely this week.  I swear yesterday was one 24-hr hot flash, and don’t tell me summer’s coming and it’s starting to get hot.  As I type this, I’m sitting in front of the fan sweating bullets, they come fast and furious even when I’m in full-blown A/C, they come on in my sleep, anytime, anywhere. I had been told that my menstrual cycle may be affected by chemotherapy and that the medication slated to start after the chemo is over would throw me into menopause but Lord knows I wasn’t ready for this part just yet.  It’s a good thing I’m not into wigs cause there is no way I could wear one right now, I’ve had to even park my brand new headwraps due to these confounded hot flashes.  The struggle is real.

Oh yes…there has been one other symptom, one that’s pretty much persisted right from the start of Cycle 1 and all throughout this process: a metal taste in my mouth.  It distorts the taste of every striking thing, the only thing I can really detect is hot pepper.  It’s been terribly frustrating, especially since I’m operating a food business and even more so because I love to eat!  Counting down and hoping that in another month or so my taste buds will be back to normal.  Ready to get my grub on if you know what I mean.

Anyhoo….I really am just super thankful that chemo hasn’t completely mashed me up and keeping my fingers and toes crossed that I will get through this last round relatively unscathed.

Following My Gut

Decisions, decisions…that’s been the focus of my life since being diagnosed with breast cancer.  Do I seek treatment in Jamaica or head back to Virginia where my family lives? Some folks I know got treatment in Mexico…do I go there?  Lumpectomy or mastectomy? If I stay in Jamaica, do I have surgery in Montego Bay or go to Kingston? End of the year was drawing close….before Christmas or wait til the new year?  Do I consider reconstruction right away or wait?  To chemo or not to chemo?  Do I look into alternative medicine?  It was all a bit daunting but at the end of the day decisions had to be made.

The first decision I made before even consulting with a surgeon was that no matter what I was told I was doing a mastectomy.  Because my cancer was caught early, I was told that I was a perfect candidate for breast conserving surgery aka lumpectomy.  Every (male) doctor I spoke with made sure to tell me that the choice between lumpectomy or mastectomy would not affect my overall survival.  There was even one doctor friend who said “You don’t need to lose your nice pretty breast”…yeah you read that…my nice pretty breast.  Turns out that as beautiful, and might I add voluminous as they were, I wasn’t so attached to them.  Nah, it could go.  Plus for my own peace of mind the aggrieved breast needed to go.

You see there is a history of breast cancer in my family.  My mother was diagnosed with the same cancer at the age of 43.  She had a mastectomy with chemotherapy and lived cancer free for 14 years before it returned, first in her lymph nodes, then eventually spread to the liver and bones.  She passed away 4 years after the cancer returned.  My mother never did reconstructive surgery so I had seen her live fully without one breast, never once doubting her body image or feeling like less of a woman.  No doubt being in a fulfilling relationship with my father who adored every ounce of her being had a little something to do with that.

After consulting with doctors in both Jamaica and the United States, and connecting with breast cancer survivors, I ultimately decided to stay in Jamaica choosing to have surgery in Kingston where I have a strong network of phenomenal sister-friends who supported me every step of the way.  With the help of my best friend, I got connected with an amazing surgeon who although advising me to go with a lumpectomy (+ radiation and chemotherapy), completely understood and supported my decision to go with the more invasive mastectomy.  He encouraged me to consider doing reconstructive surgery right away and had me consult with a plastic surgeon, who revealed he wouldn’t be able to recreate my ‘volume’ and would need to do a reduction of the left breast to match the new right one.  Although the thought of ending up with a summer body and two perky breasts sounded appealing it just seemed like too much to put my body through, especially with chemotherapy on the horizon.  Reconstruction would just have to wait.

Fast forward to three weeks ago (just before traveling to the States to visit my family), my surgeon called to advise me that the pathology report from surgery was good, we got all the cancer and my lymph nodes were negative for cancer.  Great news but in crept a little doubt….could I have gotten by with doing the lumpectomy instead of losing my nice pretty breast? Well I got the answer last week when I went to see him to review the surgery pathology report.  Although the report was extremely positive showing that the margins and 18 lymph nodes removed were all clear, there was a second precancerous tumor present in my breast that was not detected by either the mammogram, ultrasound or CT scan.  Had I chosen to have a lumpectomy it may not have been caught and if I was lucky perhaps the radiation and chemotherapy would take care of it.  I prefer to think that going with my gut from the outset was the best decision for me.

3 week scar

Mastectomy scar 3 weeks after surgery

This process has taught me so much, not the least of which is that I am my best advocate.  Changing my diet was the first good decision I made.  I’ve lost weight and my body responded extremely well to surgery, considering all it was put through.  I got by in the hospital without needing morphine and was off the saline drip within 20 hours of going under the knife.  I firmly believe that was a result of cleansing and preparing my body before surgery.  Turns out decision number two, the mastectomy was the right one too.  There is still an uphill battle , chemo starts next week.  I’m admittedly a little nervous but ready for the fight ahead.

The decision I’m not yet ready to make – which breast prosthesis to purchase.  Sheesh….who knew there were so many to choose from.  I’ve scoured website after website, turns out choosing the right fake breast is more daunting for me than which surgery to go with.  Come to think of it, my mother for a long time just pinned a shoulder pad into her bra….yes folks a shoulder pad. Not a soul could tell.  So for now if you see me looking a little lopsided, it’s cause the sock stuffed in my bra may have shifted a little….lol.

My Aha Moment

Tuesday October 17, 2017 . . . . .the day my life changed forever.  The day I read the words INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  I sat in the car for what seemed like an hour just staring at the words…..INVASIVE DUCTAL CARCINOMA.  Finally, after 4 agonizing weeks I knew.  Truth is, deep down I knew it from the very day I felt the lump coming out of the shower.  That day when my hand brushed across my right breast and stopped on something hard, I instinctively knew it was the ‘BIG C’.

I spent the next few weeks getting really intimate with the folks at Radiology West…first the mammogram, then the ultra sound and finally a needle biopsy.  Thanks to a resourceful friend I was able to get the 3 tests done within a 5-day span, but then came the wait, 3 whole weeks.  Not enough pathologists in Montego Bay meant I had no choice but to wait.  While I waited, I read. Read everything I could get my hands on as it relates to cancer.  Google became my best friend.  Cancer feeds on sugar, cancer flourishes in stress, body needs to be in an alkaline state to ward off disease.  By October 17th, I had cut just about everything from my diet…..sugar, rice, flour, dairy, all meat except fish once or twice a week.  All the things I had tried to purge myself of over the last 3 years, I quit cold turkey in just 3 weeks.

Turns out my body had become a perfect storm, the perfect storm for cancer to form in her midst.  I wasn’t putting the right things in it, simply put too much sugar and I internalized my stress.  So here I was in the middle of starting a new business, not making enough money to make ends meet, no health insurance, now contemplating how to deal with a potential cancer diagnosis.  It made no sense to panic.  The only thing that made sense in that moment was to take charge of the one thing I could control…what I put in my mouth, what I fed my body.  By the time I met with a surgeon on October 19th I had lost 5 lbs.  I remember joking with my 2 girlfriends who tagged along for that first consultation that there was a least one silver lining in this whole thing….weight loss.  LOL, haffi tek serious ting mek joke.

With the help of my tribe, I ate and laughed my way to December 12th (surgery day), the day the fight with the big C officially began.  The day I said ‘Bye bye’ to my right breast, the day I sent her packing.

Girlies Pre Op

Lisa & Jilly saying goodbye to my right breast pre-op!

This fight is by no means over, its really just begun.  The important thing is I AM HERE, now 26 lbs and one breast lighter 😉, armoured up, bolstered by my tribe and READY FOR THE FIGHT AHEAD.  I’ve struggled with whether to keep my battle with cancer private.  Over the last 2 months I’ve connected with a number of women who walked this same path and their insight has been priceless.  On the urging of my sister and close friends I’ve decided to chronicle this journey in the hope that it will help even one person who may face this same battle.

Tina & Ayah Pre Op

Tina with sister Ayah just before surgery….and yes that’s bright red lipstick 😉

So here we are in 2018 and I am thankful for my tribe who have held me up, prayed with me, laughed with me, cried with me, sponge-bathed me 😉. I am thankful for life and strange as it may sound, I am thankful for cancer.  Cancer forced me to face some hard truths about myself, brought me closer to a healthier me. Not to worry though, I am ready to see cancer’s back so happy to send it packing like I’ve done with 2017, not welcome around here no more…..