Monday, October 01, 2007

National Breast Cancer Awareness Month



October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. In honor of the estimated 178, 480 cases of breast cancer...this year, alone....in females, of which 40, 460 will die and 2,030 cases in males, in which 450 will die....I am choosing to focus today's energies on creating an awareness for finding, treating and eventually curing this disease.

My own 82 year old mother, is an amazing and miraculous survivor. Proof that even in the most serious of cases...and the most unpredictable...there is still hope, and a chance of recovery.

My mother had Inflammatory Breast Cancer...the rarest and most aggressive form. Unlike most breast cancers, there is usually no tumors or lumps present. Instead, it is a condition in which cancer cells block the lymph vessels in the skin of the breast. This type of breast cancer is called 'inflammatory' because the breast often looks swollen and red, or 'inflamed.' IBC accounts for as small a percentage as 1% ...to at the most 5%, of all diagnosed cases of breast cancer.

Because it is rare, it is also most often harder to recognize, diagnose and treat. The treatments are still the same...chemotherapy, surgery, radiation and sometimes hormonal treatments. But the prognosis is usually more severe. When my mother was diagnosed in the spring of 2001, she had less than a 1.3% chance of survival. She was already at Stage 3B on a scale that goes to 4, which is certain death. By the time all three treatments were completed over a nine months time....chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, she then had a 40% chance of survival.

The symptoms of IBC often do not include a distinct lump in the breast, so it is important to be aware of the visible symptoms, which are:
  1. skin appearing red, pink, reddish purple or bruised
  2. skin having ridges or appearing pitted, like the skin of an orange
  3. swelling, warmth, heaviness, burning, aching or tenderness
  4. an usual increase in breast size
  5. a nipple that is inverted (faces inward)
These symptoms develop quickly, over a matter of a few weeks or a month. Swollen lymph nodes may also be present under the arm, above the collarbone, or in both places. Diagnosis of this form of breast cancer is based primarily upon the results of a doctor's examination. It can be confirmed with additional tests, but often does not show up in them, so awareness of symptoms is absolutely crucial.
My mother was diagnosed in Juneau, Alaska. Our hospital there offers simpler forms of chemotherapy and cancer treatments, but usually sends patients to Seattle for initial treatments. My mom and dad left for Seattle within a week or so of diagnosis, but due to backlogs, my mother still had not had her first chemo treatment...at one of the best cancer treatment centers in the U.S..... by a month's time. And all that while, she and my father were paying to live in a hotel, eat all their meals in a restaurant, and take taxis to see the doctors. And on top of all of that, my mother is legally blind and a fragile diabetic.
At the time, I remember thinking that they must have truly thought she had no chance of making it. Why else did they not rush her into immediate treatment? I'll never know the answer to that, because I choose to bring her and my father...out of living and waiting in a hotel in Seattle, to Salem, Oregon to live with me, and my family.
They lived with us for nine, intensive and extensive, months. My mom was in treatment within one week, here in Salem. Within two weeks, my father and I were active participants in her care...my father with almost daily personal care assistance, and myself with driving them to almost daily doctor's visits or treatments, cooking, cleaning, encouragement and then the actual caring for the catheter which was surgically implanted from her chest wall into her heart.
The catheter was implanted in her chest, as a better alternative for her, than a pic line which is often placed in the patent's arm. Once a week, we went to the Cancer Care Center, where my mother sat in a recliner.... in a room filled with at least two dozen other patients in recliners.... covered with donated blankets, quilts or fleece throws, and had intravenous chemicals inserted into her catheter, directly into the blood flow in her heart. These treatments alone, lasted three months and required diligent care of the chemo catheter line.

Rather than face potential contamination from ever present hospital germs, I was trained by staff to care for my mom's surgeries, instead. Donning a surgical mask and gloves, I learned to sterilize, clean with iodine, and then flush her catheter's line clear, with saline solutions and a syringe, on a weekly basis. In more ways than one, my hands were connected to her heart, my spirit to her soul. My dad was by her side, and mine, every single step of the way.
The three of us...father, mother, daughter...joined in a trinity of caring that refused to give up on treatments, and refused to give up on her. Bit by bit, she got over her fears, bit by bit she joined her energies with ours and miraculously....she had no symptoms from the treatments. Almost no nausea, almost no vomiting, and no burning...from one of the strongest chemo treatments the human body can withstand. She only gagged when she had to swallow chemo pills, and we never managed to help her get over that!
Surgery was harder, but she did it, and we dealt with that and all of the myriad of emotions that affect a woman and a mother, with the loss of a breast. We kept that wound site clear, we helped bandage it on a daily basis and we just dealt with it. In some ways, it was almost harder on my father, and we dealt with that, too. As we helped her deal with survival, we helped him get over immense fears of her loss.
Each of us learned to call on higher forms of ourselves. We entered a sacred place of belief and of healing, and we rode the waves of its flow. Rip tides would come in and often want to push and pull us back out to sea again...but over and over, we found the wave and rode it back in to shore. We learned in the horribly, beautiful process how to face our deepest fears, how to release our deepest pains and conflicts and how to find a place where belief and faith was allowed to grow into a holy place of healing.
Radiation was the only treatment that left marks other than the surgery. That did burn her skin. But as I went in to the 'gowning area' as they called the changing room, each and every day to help her disrobe, I felt privileged to have other cancer patients openly show me their proud scars, and their burned flesh.

I learned to see these brave women and their wounds as 'red badges of courage'. There was no shame, but a great deal of pride in having survived what they had. It gave us the opportunity to support them, as well, to tell them how nice their scars looked...how clean and actually beautiful in a way.... badges that they should wear with pride.

It was the most amazing and deep honor to be joined with this courageous band of women. I felt like a guest in a band of Amazons. And like the true Amazons, many of these women had only one breast. In the Amazon women, it was supposedly a self-mutilation....to make using a bow and arrow in battle, easier. In these women, it made their own survival and their battle....easier, as well.

I discovered that while my 82 year old mother's skin was reddened, it was mildly burned compared to many of the other dear women...many of whom truly suffered from their side effects. We learned to be open, to be honest, to be supportive, and most of all to always see the good and the grateful...in each and every experience that we had.

My mother is alive....and as far as any of us know, cancer free today...five years later. It was an amazingly challenging journey, but one that bonded us together in ways that I would never, ever have been blessed to experience, otherwise. My mother is a gift, a miracle, and an amazing and courageous woman. In honor of her, I salute all women who have battled this disease and pray and send out my thoughts to all of you, who battle it now.
shown above:
the 'Pink Ribbons' fleece throw I made in September, having previously given my mother her Manifesting Miracles quilt I had made in honor of her five years of survival.

6 comments:

  1. Michele, this is a truly amazing story. Thank you.

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  2. Laurel Burch definitely is a great role model to follow in the way she handled her obstacles, and you and your mother too. Very inspiring.

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  3. Michelle...thank you for sharing the story of your mother's journey with IBC. As you know, she is a very lucky woman. Bless you for taking your Mom & Dad in for 9 months while she underwent treatments.

    Please give your Mom congratulations from me on being a 5 year survivor of breast cancer. I, also, am a survivor...nearly 7 years and love hearing success stories of others.

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  4. Thank you for sharing and reminding me that this month I am suppose to have my mammogram.

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  5. Isn't it amazing what we find we can endure -- and more than endure, what it teaches us about our own lives and spirits? Thank you for sharing!

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  6. Thank you, dear Michele, for opening your heart wide open and sharing this personal story of love, devotion and HOPE! You are so very special, such a blessing to so many!

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Michele Bilyeu blogs "With Heart and Hands" as she journeys between Douglas, Alaska and Salem, Oregon.