It’s been a while. This is my first post for Breast Cancer Awareness Month 2021, but I promise I’ve been busy in the laboratory. In the past two months, I’ve submitted grant applications to Breast Cancer Alliance, METAvivor, and Department of Defense CDMRP Breast Cancer Research Program. The first two are foundations that fund novel research projects, supporting scientists like me so we can take a chance on new projects that are higher risk/high reward and generate preliminary data for larger funding proposals. DOD supports larger research projects at both early (Breakthrough Level 1) and later (Breakthrough Level 2) stages. Fingers and toes crossed for grant funding! If you’re looking for organizations to support, I highly recommend Breast Cancer Alliance and METAvivor.
For this post, I’d like to highlight some survivor communities that have helped me and continue to help me, and to encourage patients and survivors to reach out for support. Cancer made me feel powerless. Sure, I was taking care of myself and following instructions from my surgeons, oncologist, and other providers, but they were doing things to me and for me – cutting out the cancer, managing my followup therapies, monitoring me to make sure the cancer wasn’t back, but I felt like I wasn’t (or couldn’t) do anything. That’s part of the reason I wrote Talking To My Tatas and why I started this blog. I needed to DO something.
I also needed to know I wasn’t alone. Enter other breast cancer patients and survivors. These people are some of the most generous human beings, providing support, practical advice, sharing their stories, and giving lots and lots of love to people who join this club we never wanted to be a part of but is filled with survivors in every sense of the word.
Where can you find support? Plenty of places! The Internet can be a terrible and wonderful place, and in the case of support for cancer patients and survivors, it can be a lifeline. Here are some survivor communities who’ve helped see me through on Facebook:
This is a large FB group dedicated to shared experiences and full of practical advice! I went to them when I was preparing for my mastectomy and I got a TON of tips for what to expect, what to stock up on (soft cotton camis and cardigans with pockets for surgical drains, pillows, etc.). Need advice from folks who’ve been there? Need to vent? Looking for hope? A safe place to express yourself? This is a great one!
Want to know about the latest research? Looking to connect with survivors and get involved in advocacy, or do you need information on resources from financial to physical and mental health? This group is a great place to start.
No matter your background, culture, or identity, you don’t have to go it alone when it comes to breast cancer. I encourage you to find your support network and lean on them. And, when you’re ready, be a part of that community and give your support to someone in need.
A cancer diagnosis affects all aspects of a person’s life, and that includes employment. Coupled with the astronomical cost of cancer healthcare, especially for the un- and underinsured, the short and long term impact of cancer on financial stability and employment can be disastrous. If you are female, a person of color, disabled, and/or LGBTQIA+, these negative impacts are very often compounded by sexism, racism, ableism, and homophobia.
The stigma is real*.
Sexism, racism, discrimination, and other biases make working, maintaining productivity, and feeling valued for your work much more challenging in the face of cancer. I’ll cover some of those challenges in this post, as well as protections in place within the United States to alleviate them (with the caveat that we need more), and additional policies and protections that we could implement to protect and support cancer patients and survivors in the workplace. I’ll focus on breast cancer, but many of these challenges and solutions apply to people diagnosed with other types of cancer.
What are some of the challenges cancer patients and survivors face when it comes to work and careers? According to a recent study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncologychallenges like job loss, decreased earnings, and increased spending (the last two described as “financial toxicity”) are some of the greatest. It seems like a no-brainer: if you lose your job or part of your income plus healthcare coverage while the medical bills for treatments pile up, you’re not really surviving all that well financially, let alone thriving. But we like and trust peer-reviewed data here, so let’s look at data.
Financial distress caused by job loss/lost wages not only makes you feel worse, it has also been linked to “increased symptom burden and emotional distress and to decreased quality of life and treatment adherence.” In other words, if you’re strapped for cash or you’re suffering from the mental health effects of a cancer diagnosis without resources, you’re not as likely to be treatment or medication compliant. That leads to poor outcomes. Worse, cancer patients are more than twice as likely to file for bankruptcy after diagnosis, and bankruptcy is associated with almost double the risk of death among survivors.
That’s the biggie, and adds insult to injury. You have to pay for your treatments in order to live, but you may have to go bankrupt to do it, which increases your risk of DYING!
2. The scope is significant. Around 45% of people diagnosed with cancer in the United States are working age (20-64). This affects a LOT of people, y’all!
These are the same essential workers we’ve failed as a nation to support during the global pandemic.
4. Aside from concrete challenges, the mental and emotional health costs of a cancer diagnosis can reduce social engagement and a patient’s sense of self worth. I work as a cancer researcher and a cancer center, have a TON of privilege, and even I’m not immune to these challenges*. If I’m not, imagine how awful it is for patients and survivors with fewer resources and protections.
5. I cover disparities related to cancer care, outcomes, and financial toxicity in my book, but suffice to say, if you are female, not white, not able bodied, and not straight, you are likely to disproportionately experience all of these challenges on a much more significant level thanks to racism, sexism, homophobia, and ableism.
Existing and Future Solutions
In addition to FMLA and ADA protections (for those who qualify), many non-profit organizations offer financial assistance to cancer patients. Funds are available from Susan G. Komen for the Cure, the American Cancer Society, Young Survival Coalition, and other organizations, many of which I cover in my book, that can be used to cover the costs of treatments, bill pay, home health care and childcare, and a variety of other expenses.
But to truly and comprehensively tackle this issue, we need systemic changes. Some of the more so-called “progressive” solutions, like universal healthcare coverage, tend to be met with skepticism or outright hostility from free-market (*cough, cough – rich, white conservatives – cough, cough*) advocates who complain about lack of “personal responsibility,” think the current system works just fine, and/or think vouchers for purchase of private insurance and other non-government solutions work better (even though universal healthcare works very well in most other industrialized nations).
Aside from universal healthcare, there are other initiatives that have worked in other nations that might appeal to conservatives while making a significant impact on job retention and financial stability for cancer patients and survivors. For example, as noted in the Journal of Clinical Oncology Society study cited above, “A 2012 systematic review evaluated the effectiveness of government policies in place from 1990 to 2008 in Canada, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, and the United Kingdom to change employer behavior with regard to return to work. The most successful policies included financial incentives for employers to hire people with disabilities; flexibility and adaptations in the work environment, particularly with flexible schedules and giving employees more control over work demands; and programs that involved employers in return-to-work planning.” These incentives benefit everyone, including employers, patients/survivors, and society as a whole.
Patient-oriented interventions that tackle physical, psycho-educational, and/or vocational portions of cancer patients’ employment retention were associated with higher return-to-work rates compared to patients who received standard care. And patients who received this type of multidisciplinary intervention “experienced a significant increase in perceived importance of work, work ability, and self-efficacy with regard to returning to work, and return to work was 59%, 86%, and 83% at 6, 12, and 18 months, respectively.”
It’s going to take a lot of work in the form of political will, advocacy, legislation, and incentives to solve this problem. What can you do to help? Contact your elected officials and voice your support for programs that support cancer patient financial stability and access to reliable and affordable healthcare, job retention, and return to work with appropriate accommodations. It’s the right thing to do, and it’s good for the economy, society, and humanity.
If you’ve experienced workplace discrimination based on your status as a cancer patient/survivor, click here for information about your rights and what you can do to protect them.
You’d think being a cancer researcher who works at an academic institution dedicated to cancer care, research, and saving and improving the lives of those diagnosed with cancer, I’d be immune to the bullshit discussed above.
In many ways, I am. Thanks to a supportive Department Chair and Division Chief (both female), I was granted an extension on my tenure clock, additional discretionary funds, and professional/personal support from my (largely female) colleagues. To these individuals, I see you. I appreciate you. I love you.
Then there are the (largely male) colleagues who have made my experience working while undergoing cancer treatment and returning to work after the Covid-19 shutdown and a (very short) medical leave a lot shittier. My passion for breast cancer researcher didn’t diminish when I was diagnosed. I became MORE passionate! I worked through radiation treatments, horrible systemic therapies while trying to find one I could live with for 10 years, and after surgeries when I remained swollen, sore, fatigued, and mentally struggling with all of the emotional fallout associated with cancer.
And yet…a peer reviewer for a grant I submitted felt the need to make the following comment in his (I’m 99.999999% certain it’s a dude) review summary: “Dr. Brantley-Sieders is an Assistant Professor of Medicine…who completed her Postdoctoral fellowship in 2003. A concern is her lack of productivity, with only a single first or last author publication since 2017, and only 4 in total since 2012. That said, as noted in her letter of support by [DEPARTMENT CHAIR], she is a breast cancer survivor and there may be circumstances that underlie her less than optimal extent of productivity.”
First of all, it’s not true. I had and have more first/senior author publications since 2017 and 2012. In fact, I have published over 55 papers in high tier journals, which demonstrates my highly collaborative approach to science. Secondly, WHAT THE ACTUAL FUCK??? This reviewer thought it was okay to weaponize my own breast cancer diagnosis on a grant I submitted to a BREAST CANCER RESEARCH ORGANIZATION in the presence of other BREAST CANCER SURVIVORS serving as consumer reviewers. But, since my application wasn’t de-identified, and with my hyphenated last name (for which I’ve received inappropriate feedback about), this reviewer felt entitled to pose this outrageous and untrue criticism on an application by a female scientist.
Rather than hiding in a corner to lick my wounds, I reported this to the organization starting with leadership. Was it a risk? Of course! Backlash and retaliation are always a risk, especially for women who dare to speak out. But, if I stayed silent, I would have become part of the problem. I refuse to do that. I’ll be part of the solution.
I’m in the middle of another situation with a colleague I once trusted (my mistake) that centers around perceived shortcomings related to how I am balancing my work and ongoing treatments. What started as a communication issue is rapidly escalating into something more serious. At best, it’s a problematic situation. At worst, it may represent a serious violation of policy. I hope to resolve it in a way that is fair and satisfactory to both parties, but the damage is done in terms of trust and my perceived value to the project. Again, I could just sit quietly and accept it, but I’m not going to be part of the problem. I’m a fighter. I’m a damned good researcher who has made and will continue to make valuable contributions to science, and I’m worth it.
Wow, I haven’t posted since January??!! Shame on me! But I’ve been busy writing, and I now have a completed draft of Talking to My Tatas: A Breast Cancer Researcher’s Adventure With The Disease and What You Can Learn From It.
It feels pretty freakin’ AWESOME! I learned so much through the research, especially about the clinical aspects and how my own experience fits with breast cancer care in the United States. I also learned more about emerging therapies, disparities, and mental health related to breast cancer.
When I started this process, I had been writing fiction for about 10 years and understood more or less how to construct a story in my genre, how to query agents and small presses, how to self-publish when a particular book or story doesn’t fit with traditional publishing, and how to write blurbs (it’s HARD), synopses (it’s TORTURE), and other things that go along with the fiction universe.
When it came to nonfiction, aside from my scientific manuscripts, I had no clue where or how to start. Fortunately, I had the amazing Alice Sullivan in my corner to coach me through the process. A long time ago in a pre-COVID galaxy far, far away, I became friends with Alice, and she sent me a guide to writing nonfiction proposals. That proved to be one of the BEST tools I had in hand when I started the process for Talking Tatas.
Unlike fiction, which requires a full, complete, polished manuscript (for the most part) prior to querying agents/publishers, nonfiction requires a proposal rather than a completed manuscript. Memoirs are sometimes the exception. What is a proposal? It’s basically a plan for your nonfiction project. It includes a working blurb, detailed outline of each chapter, what makes your book stand out from other comparable titles in the market, unique selling points, a marketing plan, your credentials (or reasons for writing the book, like personal experience), and sample chapters.
A tight, well-written, carefully crafted proposal is the key to getting an agent and a publisher if you’re going the traditional publishing route. Even if you’re not, it’s a great way to map out and organize your thoughts and to be thinking about defining your target market and how you’ll reach readers in that market. If you’re planning a nonfiction project, check out these sites for proposal essentials/how to, templates, and examples of successful proposals: Nonfiction Authors Association, Reedsy Blog, Scribe Media.
Once you write the proposal and craft a killer query letter, you start the long and arduous task of sending these items to literary agents (whom you’ve selected based on research and matching interests) and hope to get some interest. It’s not speed dating, but you’re definitely looking for a connection. Be prepared for LOTS of rejections with the understanding that it’s not personal. I repeat. IT’S NOT PERSONAL. If you take rejections personally, you’re going to have a tough time in the publishing biz. That being said, if you’re lucky enough to get feedback with a rejection, put it to good use by revising your proposal. For example, I received a lot of rejections based on the fact that my proposal was cross-genre (story of my writing life/same issue with my fiction). In Tatas, I’m blending elements of memoir with the personal story and prescriptive, which is the informational component.
Ultimately, I restructured my proposal to focus more on prescriptive and less on memoir (about 80/20), and that worked!
Once you get an agent, you’ll most likely tweak your proposal again for submission to editors, perhaps having a few drafts tailored for different editors. The submission process can also be a long, arduous process, and remember, rejections are NOT PERSONAL.
Trust me – you want an agent and editor who are super enthusiastic about your work. Someone who’s lukewarm won’t be as likely to champion you, and in this very competitive business, you need champions.
While you’re querying/submitting, you should be working to build or expand your platform. This blog is part of my platform. It gives readers information to supplement what I include in the book, to showcase my style and strengths, and to hopefully connect with readers who are likely to be interested in my book. It’s also great to network with other folks who have platforms with interests that match yours. I LOVE The Bloggess and have been lucky enough to connect with her by advertising on her blog and cultivating a relationship based on fangirling and promoting her stuff. It wasn’t so much strategic as it was OMG-I-LOVE-HER-AND-EVERYONE-NEEDS-TO-KNOW-ABOUT-HER! I also adore SciBabe, A Science Enthusiast, and Sana Goldberg, so I’ve been connecting with them.
Thanks to my day job, I’ve cultivated relationships with a lot of influential people and organizations in the cancer research field and I’m forging relationships in the patient/survivor advocacy community – of which I am now a part. All of this will help me spread the word about my book, get endorsements, and hopefully make the book a success.
It’s been one hell of an adventure! Stay tuned for more. In the meantime, I’m working on a new Screw the Woo Woo post on a “spell caster” who was recommended to me on Facebook. That one’s going to be wacky and fun. Mwahahahahahaha!
With the recent emergency use approval of two independent vaccines for SARS2-CoV-2, the virus responsible for the horror that is Covid-19, many folks have questions: What the heck are these vaccines? Are they safe and effective? Should I get one?
Note: I’m not going to dignify any wild conspiracy theories about vaccines and microchips. Bill Gates doesn’t care about you or me or anyone else he doesn’t know and he has better things to do that track you with a microchip in a vaccine. Seriously. People believe some weird shit… If anyone wanted to track you, they’d do it digitally by your freakin’ cell phone.
That being said, the first three questions are completely legit. My goal in this post is to break down the science behind the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, what we know so far about their safety and effectiveness, and dispel some common misconceptions about them.
First, here’s a crash course on how your immune system fights infections. This is important, since vaccines harness the power of your immune system to mount a rapid and robust defense if and when you encounter the actual pathogen (i.e. virus or bacteria that cause disease) in your daily life. The arm of the immune system that does this is called the adaptive immune system. The other arm is the innate immune system and includes natural barriers like skin, the tiny hairs and mucous in your nose, and stomach acid.
How does the adaptive immune system work? First, it involves cells that roam around your body looking for something suspicious. Cells like macrophages and dendritic cells, which patrol various organs and tissues, find pathogens like bacteria or unhealthy cells infected by viruses like SARS-CoV-2, and eat them (fancy word is phagocytosis). Infected or damaged cells send out protein signals called cytokines as a distress call to attract macrophages and dendritic cells. While “digesting” the bacteria/infected cell, they salvage proteins or pieces of proteins—antigens—that identify the bacteria or virus as “other,” and they present these to immune cells, usually in lymph nodes, that mount an immune response. Macrophages and dendritic cells are known as professional antigen presenting cells (APCs)
When activated by APCs, immune cells called B-cells produce antibodies against the antigen, which can do a lot of things to fight an infection. Some antibodies neutralize the pathogen by binding it and stopping it from entering a cell. Other tag infected cells for other immune cells to come and kill them. Others coat pathogens or infected cells in a process called opsonization (meaning to “make tasty”), which signals other cells like macrophages to come and eat the coated pathogens/cells. Specialized B-cells called memory B-cells archive the information about the antigen so your immune system can recognize the pathogen when it hits you again and mount a faster immune response.
Other immune cells called T-cells become activated by APCs and mount a different kind of immune response. Cytotoxic T-cells seek out and kill infected or damaged cells, and helper T-cells help activate B-cells so they make antibodies, activate cytotoxic T-cells, and activate macrophages to go eat nasty invaders and infected cells. Memory T-cells also archive information about past infections to mount a rapid, strong response the next time your body sees it.
That’s a simplified by hopefully digestible explanation of immunity and the major players (there are other immune cells, but APCs, B-cells, and T-cells are the biggies). Memory is key to protection, and memory is built by exposure to pathogens.
But what if there was a way to expose your body to pathogens without making you sick? That’s where vaccines come in!
The way vaccines work is to tap into this process and activate the adaptive immune response using an artificial antigen supplied by the vaccine, getting your immune response geared up and, importantly, building those archival memory B- and T-cells that will recognize the real infection when your body encounters it so it can rapidly fight it. Types of vaccines include: Live-attenuated vaccines; Inactivated vaccines; Subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines; Toxoid vaccines.
Live-attenuated means using a weakened form of the virus to initiate an immune response—examples include measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) and chickenpox vaccines. Inactivated means using a dead version of the virus that cannot infect cells but contains antigens that can be used to activate adaptive immunity—examples include flu, hepatitis A, and rabies vaccines. Subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide, and conjugate vaccines use pieces of the virus that act as antigens, like proteins and sugars—examples include HPV, hepatitis B, and shingles vaccines. Toxoid vaccines use toxins produced by the pathogen to mount an immune response against the toxic protein—examples include tetanus and diphtheria vaccines.
What the heck are these (Covid-19) vaccines?
The current FDA approved (for emergency use) Covid vaccines from Pfizer and Moderna belong to a newer class called mRNA vaccines. See my previous post on DNA to mRNA to protein (Central Dogma of Molecular Biology) for a refresher on mRNA. This is really just a modification of the subunit, recombinant, polysaccharide conjugate vaccine approach in that it delivers messenger RNA coding for the SARS-CoV-2 spike protein, which the virus uses to enter a cell, instead of delivering the spike protein itself. See my previous post on SARS-CoV-2 for information about the spike protein. The cells in your body that take up the mRNA make spike proteins themselves, which in turn activates your immune system and provides protection.
Are they safe and effective?
Since these are new vaccines approved for emergency use, and since due to the accelerated nature of their development and approval, some people are understandably wary of their safety and ability to protect against Covid.
While they may be new, a lot of the groundwork for these vaccines started in in 2002 with the emergence of the first SARS virus (SARS-CoV) and continued with study of the related MERS-CoV virus. SARS-CoV uses the same spike protein to enter target cells through angiotensin-converting enzyme 2 (ACE2). Scientists learned a great deal about coronaviruses by studying SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, including how to develop vaccines.
Let’s look at safety first. Clinical trials involving tens of thousands of healthy volunteers have been performed. Safety concerns include allergic reactions to the vaccine or components of the vaccine. Providers who deliver the vaccine are equipped to deal with anaphylaxis on site, which is why you’ll be asked to hang around for 15 minutes after your shot just in case. You might feel feverish, fatigued, and generally yucky the day after one or both shots (the first activates the immune system and the second gives it a signal boost), which is NOT a sign that you have Covid. It actually means your immune system is working, building memory and its arsenal of weapons to fight Covid if you encounter the real virus.
The FDA is continuing to monitor those who received the vaccines in clinical trials, as well as those who received the vaccines after emergency approval. So far, they appear to be safe.
As far as effectiveness, data from trials looking at the number of Covid-19 cases in trial participants relative to the total number of participants revealed that the Pfizer vaccine is 52% effective after the first shot (39 cases of covid-19 in the vaccine group and 82 cases in the placebo group) and 95% effective after the second shot (8 covid-19 cases in the vaccine group and 162 cases in the placebo group; 43,448 trial participants) – New England Journal of Medicine (NEJM). Similar efficacy was reported for the Moderna Vaccine in NEJM.
There’s still a lot we don’t know – most importantly, we don’t know how long immunity produced by these vaccines will last. Some experts hypothesize they might provide a year or two of immunity, after which you’ll need more shots, but we won’t know until we see in real time as we track vaccinated people.
Should you get the vaccine?
The more people who are vaccinated against this virus, the better. Vaccines will slow the spread of the virus by preventing infections in vaccinated people. Along with mask wearing and social distancing, the vaccines are a vital tool in stopping this pandemic. As a cancer survivor, I’m in a high risk category, meaning Covid-19 could kill or debilitate me. The same is true for people with diabetes and other underlying medical conditions.
That’s why I got my vaccine! Had the second shot a few days ago, which gives me peace of mind as I prepare to return to work after reconstruction surgery. I’m with Dr. Fauci on this one, and I encourage everyone to talk to their healthcare providers about getting vaccinated.
First off, HUGE news! My amazing literary agent, Barbara Collins Rosenberg, landed a publishing deal for me with Rowman & Littlefield!!! I’m honored, thrilled, and still squee-ing! So, stay tuned for Talking to My Tatas: A Breast Cancer Researcher’s Adventure With The Disease And What You Can Learn From It.
Here’s the Working Blurb – it will likely change based on guidance from my amazing editor, Suzanne Staszak-Silva, but it will give you a taste of what I intend to share (my story) and spread (scientifically sound information) with this book:
Can I talk to you about my personal relationship with my breasts?
I’ve spent twenty years working as a biomedical breast cancer researcher. Then, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I thought I knew breast cancer before it whacked me upside my left boob and left me bleeding on the curb of uncertainty. Turns out, I had a lot to learn. The purpose of this book is to share my personal adventure with breast cancer, from the laboratory bench to my own bedside, and to provide accessible information about breast cancer biology for non-scientists. I say adventure, because I’d rather think of it as an action movie with some really cool side quests instead of another tragedy-to-triumph saga. I’m not big on sagas. I am big on kickass intellectual badassery, pathological nerdiness, and talking about my sweet, sweet rack.
Why do we need another cancer memoir? In a sea of inspirational stories, celebrity survivor stories, and physician memoirs that bring a clinical perspective, nothing I’ve found in the current market tackles breast cancer through the lens of a breast cancer researcher who became a survivor. We live in an age of fake news and pseudoscience, made worse by the pervasive anti-intellectual and anti-science political culture gripping the United States and much of the world. The Internet and social media are plagued by scammers selling “alternative medicine” and woo woo “cures” for cancer. Through Talking to My Tatas: A Breast Cancer Researcher’s Adventure With Breast Cancer And What You Can Learn From It, I offer accurate, evidence-based science that is accessible to laypersons, including the more than three hundred thousand individuals diagnosed with breast cancer every year*, their caregivers, and their loved ones.
Knowledge is power, and lack of it can lead to overtreatment, unnecessary pain and suffering, and can even be deadly. By demystifying the process from mammograms, biopsies, pathology and diagnostics, surgical options, tumor genomic testing, and new treatment options, I aim to offer hope in a story intended to blend the humor and delivery style of Jenny Lawson’sLet’s Pretend This Never Happened (A Mostly True Memoir) with the integrity and scientifically sound beauty of Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer.
*American Cancer Society Facts & Figures 2020
I’ve got some work to do! In addition to writing and fleshing out chapters for my editor to review (and work her magic on), I’ve been busy working on figures and visuals for the book, cover art forms, marketing and promo plans, and getting a new headshot! The one I currently have on this page and all over the Internet is absolutely gorgeous, fun, and from 2012. A LOT has happened in 8 years, and I have aged. I’d like to think I’ve aged gracefully, but at any rate, it was time to update the image.
Lillian Boeskool is MAGIC! She made me look so good and captured the essence of my personality in a series of amazing headshots (If you’re in the greater Nashville area and need headshots or other photography, HIRE HER). I have two favorite images and I cannot decide which one to use for this page and the book. I invite y’all to enable my decision-making disorder vote for your favorite!
This one on the left is super fun and catches me trying not to laugh at something funny Lillian said and/or did. It captures my mischief, my sense of humor, and really makes my face look nice.
And, unlike the previous headshot for which I straightened my hair, this one highlights my popping natural curls!
I’m almost 48 years old. Anything that makes my face look nice is gold.
Told you she was MAGIC!
There’s just something about this next one on the right that speaks to me.
I think it captures my sass and tells my readers that I’m going to take them on a really funny adventure that will make them a smidge uncomfortable but will ultimately leave them laughing and glad they went along for the ride.
That’s me in a nutshell.
I can’t decide between the two!
And…just to throw a monkey wrench into this whole program…
This one is my husband’s favorite.
It’s nice, too.
I’m glad he thinks I look good in all of these photographs and still thinks I’m beautiful in spite of time marching across my face and body and in spite of cancer leaving me with a janky left breast-in-progress*.
He’s pretty awesome!
I think I’ll keep him.
*Janky left breast-in-progress on display in the first two photos as the line of discoloration just above my shirt collar. Lillian asked if I wanted to Photoshop it out, but I said no. It’s where I am right now. It’s why I’m blogging, writing this book, and becoming a breast cancer patient/survivor advocate as well as a breast cancer researcher. It’s a badge of fucking honor and it stays!
I’ve met and admired many survivor sisters over the years. After my diagnosis, they held me in their arms and lifted me up so I didn’t have to face breast cancer alone. Before I was diagnosed, I got to know a really cool woman named Tanisha Jones. We were represented by the same literary agency at the time, writing romance and urban fantasy* and trying to break into the fiction publishing world in a big way.
*Side note: If you’re a fan of Anne Rice and J.R. Ward, TREAT YOURSELF to Tanisha’s The Fallen Series. This exciting series is full of vampires, Fae, Weres, demons, and other supernatural beings hiding in plain sight in New Orleans. Throw in a hot homicide detective with some supernatural abilities of his own and you’ve got one helluva story!
Like me, Tanisha works in academics (one of her many jobs). She also has a daughter, just a little bit older than mine. She has hopes, dreams, highs, lows, a wicked sense of humor and a drive and work ethic to rival any I’ve seen in my almost 48 years on the planet.
Like me, she has breast cancer. Unlike me, she’s living with metastatic breast cancer (MBC). While there is no cure, she hasn’t allowed MBC to define her life or steal her dreams. She’s still writing – she published Unbound, Book 3 in The Fallen series, this month. She’s still raising her daughter. Due to health issues related to MBC, she isn’t working at the moment but she’s worked since her diagnosis in 2016.
Because America is still balking at the idea that healthcare is a human right rather than a privilege reserved only for the white and wealthy (and healthy), like many Americans, Tanisha is struggling financially due to the cost of her cancer care. I could write an entire rage post on the topics of American healthcare’s failures that include the real possibility of financial ruin, disparities in access and care, and the lack of healthcare equality and equity that is still VERY much a problem in 2020 in this country, and I will.
But right now, what matters is helping my friend who’s struggling with breast cancer.
Tanisha’s family also has a GoFundMe initiative (you know, the largest healthcare “plan” in the United States) to help her. Click here to donate what you can. It helps. It matters.
I have taken the extra book royalties I earned in November plus a small windfall that came to me at just the right time to support Tanisha. I can think of no better person in whom to invest.
I had breast cancer. I didn’t have to have chemo. I’m lucky and benefited from decades of biomedical research that made OncoType DX testing possible (I WILL get around to blogging about this test eventually, I swear), and I happened to have a low score.
I still had cancer. I’ve had three surgeries (and I’m not done), radiation, and I’ve got a ten year sentence with estrogen blockers and medically induced menopause. I’m still lucky. I know and understand that. Very well.
I still had cancer. When someone in or out of the survivor club (it’s always worse when it’s another survivor) tells me I had “baby cancer” or “good cancer,” I get a special kind of homicidal that will probably get me locked up someday when I finally lose my .
Never, ever, EVVVVVVVVVER say that to someone who has had cancer. It’s not a contest. It’s a suck fest and no one, not even fellow survivors, should not presume to understand the level of suffering endured by cancer patients and survivors.
First off, I’m doing GREAT nine days after autologous (fancy term for my surgeon using my own fat and tissue to build a new boob) breast reconstruction! The procedure went very well, and the graft took. My amazing surgeon, Dr. Galen Perdikis (and his team, including the surgeon who assisted with the microvascular attachment work), took muscle and tissue from my right thigh and made a very nice left breast by grafting it under the skin he saved following my mastectomy back in May. The official medical lingo for this type of reconstruction is diagonal upper gracilis (DUG) flap reconstruction. I’ll blog more about the specifics and the experience later, but right now, I want to talk about something else.
I want to talk about a bit of an epiphany I had.
Disclaimer – I have NO scientific or medical data to back me up on this, partly because I couldn’t FIND IT on Google or PubMed. This could be a search strategy issue (the closest thing I did find was Post Intensive Care Syndrome, PICS), and I hope it is, because I’ll be super disappointed if no one has studied the phenomenon I’m experiencing right this very moment—a phenomenon that I’ve decided to call Wounded Animal Asshole Syndrome, or WAAS.
This should TOTALLY be included in the DSM. And I fully expect credit for it.
Here’s the deal. The first time I left the house on my own after surgery, which was yesterday, I was, for lack of a better word, a RAGING asshole. Now anyone who knows me will tell you that I can be a Grade A asshole on any given day under the right set of circumstances, but this was something else. Something visceral and deeply animalistic. I was angry, suspicious, and viewed every other human around me as a potential threat. Like a wounded animal, I gave off a heavy dose of don’t-fuck-with-me vibes that fell just short of low, guttural growls.
By the time I reached the Breast Center for my appointment, I was a little worried about the safety of those around me.
Then, it hit me. I am—quite literally—a wounded animal. Yes, I volunteered to undergo the procedure that left me with the healing surgical incisions I was subconsciously guarding. Yes, my rational mind knew that the arguably weird man in Walgreens wasn’t out to snatch me and throw me in his trunk. And yet, I was experiencing the same level of heightened awareness and suspicion of strangers around me that I felt shortly after the birth of each of my children—a time during which I was still sore, bleeding, and physically vulnerable.
That fed into the horrible postpartum depression (PPD) episodes I experienced, but that’s a story for another time…
I have no idea if this is a common thing or a me thing (I suspect it’s a common thing because I’m not special, no matter what my mom told me growing up), but it is both fascinating and disturbing. It happened again today when I took my son to the zoo and we encountered a crowd at the entrance. In addition to generalized COVID anxiety (note: the Nashville Zoo is SUPER cautious, mandates masks, and limits the number of daily visitors like a responsible organization), I was freaked the fuck out and felt the urge to turn in a circle and hiss to keep people away from me and my cub, er, I mean, son. It was weird. It doesn’t happen when I’m out with my mate (husband) or when I’m in in a small herd (of socially distanced friends)—only when I’m alone or with a child (who is almost as tall as me, which makes it weirder).
The only reason I can think of for this bizarre behavior is that it is a throwback from ancestral human days when we were running from cave lions, saber toothed cats, and wooly rhinos. Hide pain, conceal wounds, show no weakness, and act so aggressive that the big scary predator won’t bother with you and will instead seek an easier meal.
Maybe it’s a manifestation of generalized anxiety disorder (GAD), but honestly, I’ve been managing that very nicely with medication and therapy—or so I thought.
Anyone else out there have this? Drop me a note in the comments. We’ll call it an informal survey.
With so much uncertainty in the world, it’s nice to be fairly certain about one thing: tomorrow, I will get a new left breast. It’s a mixed bag of emotions for me, but the strongest are relief and hope.
When I wake up tomorrow afternoon from anesthesia, Covid will still be ravaging the planet. We may or may not know who will be the next president of the United States. I have no idea whether or not my latest research grant will be funded, nor do I know what will happen to my quest for tenure in 2021. But, if all goes well, cancer’s reshaping of my body will end.
A wise friend once told me that the only certainty in life is uncertainty. I’ve found that to be true in my almost forty eight years of living. For someone who suffers from anxiety, it is a difficult truth to face. I’m the type of person who thrives on stability, on knowing what to expect, and on consistency. There has been precious little of those comforts for me since April 19, 2018, and especially since February 2020. Discovering that I still had residual disease in the form of a 6 mm tumor remaining in my left breast pulled the rug out from under me and stole my illusion of safety.
That’s one lesson I learned from cancer—there is no such thing as safety or certainty.
So how do I cope? How can we as survivors cope? Building Resilience.
For me, one strategy has been to let go of the illusion of control. Or, to really refine the concept, I’ve been working hard to catalog the things I can control, like staying as healthy as possible with diet, exercise, regular health screenings, medication, and yoga/meditation. These measures may or may not prevent a recurrence, but they will help me live a better, healthier life. There’s no downside.
Other things I can control include the effort I put into taking care of my family. I can love them, feed them, create special moments and memories that nothing can take away, not even cancer. I can take pleasure in the small, daily moments that I used to take for granted. For example, I spent about thirty minutes this morning watching birds at my feeders. We have so many birds, from tit mice (snort) to a red-bellied woodpeckers, and chickadees to sparrows! I’ve always found solace in nature. Other small moments like a cup of tea enjoyed sitting on my deck with a chill in the air and the sun caressing my face bring me joy. I’ve had the BEST time cooking with my kids. Potstickers with my daughter and meat and rice bowls with my son have sustained us physically and emotionally. Again, there’s no downside to savoring the small moments of joy in everyday life.
I cannot control whether funding agencies select my research grants for support, but I can control the quality and integrity of my research. Funding is even more uncertain today than when I entered the field, but it is still an exciting and hopeful time to be a scientist! There are many exciting avenues of breast cancer research open for me to pursue, and if I have to leave the field (or, more likely, switch from tenure track to research track) in a few years, I’ll leave behind a body of work that I can take pride in, and I can and will continue to work in other avenues, like education and outreach. I can control how I adapt to career challenges.
The best I or any of us can do is to live every single day to the fullest. We can choose kindness, positivity, and follow our paths to making the world a better place, starting with ourselves and our community. Every day is a gift, and tomorrow’s gifts are yet unknown but so inviting. I look forward to being physically whole. I look forward to getting back to regularly scheduled life with a newly restored body, building strength and resilience.
I look forward to hope, which is something I can rely on.
Strapped for cash? There’s still plenty you can do. If you know someone going through cancer treatments, reach out. Bring food or groceries, Zoom/Skype/FaceTime and chat to give that person a bit of company and sense of normalcy. In these times, believe me, it helps. Everything, even seemingly small things, help.