One-year Cancerversary!

  • 1 November 2013
Dad and Mom during World War II

Dad and Mom during World War II

It was a year ago that I received the news that no person, whether with a breast cancer history or not, wishes to receive. Oh, I knew it was coming. One of my best friends took a day off work to be with me as I drove to my oncologist’s office for the dreaded appointment. I knew I would need emotional support. And when I saw the oncology nurse enter the examination room before the doctor did, ominously bearing a prayer shawl, I really knew my number was up.

All the warning signs were there: vomiting right after I received some great news about the sale of a house, persistent flu-like symptoms, unbearable left chest discomfort, insomnia, pain too severe to allow me to go to church, near fainting during choir rehearsal, terrible lower back pain when I sat down, and uncharacteristic shortness of breath that prevented me from walking around a beloved lake on a beautiful October day.

This is someone who had perfect attendance for four years of high school and hardly ever got colds, except when her children were small. This was a working mother who ran throughout her thirties and religiously exercised at a fitness club for almost two decades. The bubble of denial in which I encased myself, as a lady who thought she had beaten her cancer, was about to burst. So much for the well-meaning advice of others that God had cured me and I need never worry again about breast cancer. Those words probably comforted the speaker more than they reassured me.

I appreciated the oncologist’s honesty, but also his compassion. He told me the liquid in the pleural effusion (my lung sac) was malignant, with a Halloweeny pathology of HER-2 positivity. For the uninitiated, this is an aggressive type of cancer. But the good news, which the doctor was quick to point out, was that this type of cancer is treatable, though not curable. I could go to Stanford to see if I qualified for a state-0f-the-art clinical trial to treat cancers such as mine, or stay locally and get the standard treatment. I chose the cutting-edge option, intrigued by the idea of a clinical trial that could help others as well as myself, plus happy to know that the manufacturer, Genentech–not my insurance company and myself–would pay for the wonderful, but expensive, targeted therapy (Kadcyla and Perjeta) involved.

It’s been quite the road trip since that life-changing day a year ago as I staggered out of the oncologist’s exam room and into my car, with a written prescription for narcotics and a fresh appointment for a PET scan involving inserting a dye into my fragile veins. Yes, I dreaded the dyes. But I dreaded even more the prospect of discovering just how much and where the cancer had damaged my body. Frankly, the “scanxiety” frightened me out of my October gourd. The thought of entering a clinical trial also scared me, but it seemed more like an adventure than a repeat of the drill to which I was accustomed.

I’ve grown a lot in a year. I’ve learned first-hand the intense worry and then overwhelming relief when someone gets tested and then qualifies for a clinical trial. I know now what it’s like to stay in a hospital five days in a harrowing whirl of tests and narcotics. At least I had a private room with a view, thanks to my condition being labeled “acute”. I understand now what it’s like to be wheeled into the infusion room, with a bucket in my lap where I fully expected to vomit any minute from narcotics. I experienced the adventure of drugs coursing through my veins, attacking the cancer cells with a vengeance, but leaving side effects that literally chilled me to the bone. I learned the meaning of friendship as I, a skeletal shadow of my former healthy frame, stayed with a dear friend who cared for me for three months while I underwent the first phase of this drama. While it has not been easy making these oh-so-frequent trips back and forth to the treatment center, I’ve learned to make the best of it. After all, my life depends on it. Literally.

Oncology nurses vary as much in their personalities as in their skills. Some just seem to know when I need a bit more compassion. Some aren’t paying attention to clinical protocol, while others stick to the rules like an army sergeant with a large platoon. Some are what I would call an officer and a gentlewoman, exuding a reassuring mix of rules and bedside manner. Some are better than others in poking my port to access the veins and in removing the apparatus. Twice I’ve heard the strains of “Hey La, Hey La, You’re Chemo’s Done” to the tune of “My Boyfriend’s Back.” The nurses enjoy doing their choreographed version of this routine to lucky patients who will soon be walking away from all these infusion recliners and hanging bags of toxins, presumably forever. I’ll never get to witness that song and dance for myself unless the chemo isn’t working anymore. I think I’ll pass. Still I smile on. It doesn’t matter which nurse I get or which song is sung, whether a dirge or a number from a beloved musical. I’m alive! And I’m not on a deathbed.

The adventure continues as I struggle with side effects that linger on despite the arsenal of drugs I take and the walks I make. I’m such a picky eater now, and hardly ever finish my meals, as I slowly work my way through mostly unappetizing cuisine. Acupuncture doesn’t seem to do much, nor does healing touch. But social interaction is the best alternative medicine I’ve found to date.

Yesterday my dermatologist informed me that a black spot I’ve had on my face for months that I thought surely was melanoma was nothing more than a blackhead. My pain threshold is so high that I hardly flinched as she applied a pin to it and pried it off with some prodding and poking. I was just thrilled it was not another form of cancer. In a few weeks I undergo a colonoscopy, something I wouldn’t normally look forward to. But if I were headed for hospice anytime soon, my oncologist would not have recommended it. And I will clearly benefit from the new U.S. law banning insurance companies from taking pre-existing conditions into consideration as they determine premiums. Any financial break at all is a break for someone like me on limited income.

My beloved mother would have turned 92 yesterday if she were still alive. She would have been proud of how I have coped. And my Dad? I get my strength from him, as well as my heavenly Father. When my Mom and Dad were going to a restaurant, he in a wheelchair due to his amputated leg and my Mom leaning on her cane weakened by terminal lung cancer, someone asked my Dad why he and his wife were still bothering to go out for a meal. He curtly replied, “Well, I’m not just going to give up, am I?”

After a valiant struggle with recurrent infections, my Dad finally died six years ago. But his words still linger in my mind. I’m not just giving up, either. I intend to do another blog post next year on my two-year cancerversary, with equal stubbornness and verve as I have now.

Dad would want it no other way.

  • Kathie Vaughn

    Jan, congratulations! and thank you so much for sharing your incredible story. You are so brave and a true inspiration to all of us. Keep up your strong battle. Would love to see you sometime. Heading for The Galapagos next week but I will be in touch in early Dec. Love you. Kathie

  • Kathi

    I still remember how heart-broken I felt when you shared this news initially. What a year, Jan! But at the end of it, yes, you are still here, still sharing the gift of your perspective. Where are things at with the clinical trial? I’d be so interested to hear more about it. Big hugs for this, a birthday of sorts, a lifeday, as it were. And a wish for many more. xoxo, Kathi

  • JoAnn

    I love Kathi’s use of lifeday…Happy Lifeday, Jan! Love your stubbornness and tenacity.

  • Heily

    You are an inspiration to me, Jan! Thank you for sharing. Praying for you.

  • Eliza

    Can’t believe it has been a year. Hope the trial drugs are keeping it at bay.Yes, you certainly seem to be your father’s daughter in sharing his grit and determination. May he continue to inspire and encourage you when you need it. E xx

  • jhasak

    Kathie, I just know you will love the Galapagos. Savor all the sights and sounds. Looking forward to hearing from you in Dec. We really should meet up. xo

  • jhasak

    Kathi, it really was heart-breaking to receive that news. I didn’t want to leave the ranks of my fellow bloggers who had experienced breast cancer at earlier stages and had finished their season of infusions. I didn’t relish the idea of being a pioneer of sorts. But, yes, I am still here and still able to communicate and socialize, my favorite things. In a future blog post I’ll get into more details about the clinical trial itself. I hope to celebrate many more lifedays with my friends and family. Thanks as always for your well wishes. xo

  • jhasak

    Thanks so much, JoAnn! Truly these are lifedays and I’m stickin’ to ’em! xo

  • jhasak

    Thank you, Heily. Life is such a miracle and I appreciate your prayers. Keep on keeping on. You’re a marvelous wife and mother. xo

  • jhasak

    The drugs seem to be keeping the cancer at bay so far, Eliza. I’ve had no new symptoms and my oncologist is very optimistic. Only time will tell, and there’s the rub. I should have titled my blog post “True Grit” as I keep looking to Dad for inspiration. Thanks so much for stopping by! xo

  • David Salminen

    Congratulations, Jan – and thanks for all the writing. I have another friend who lives nearby where I am here in Portland now, and who just finished chemo… I’ll have to go sing for him sometime soon, now that I know the words and the tune!

  • jhasak

    Thanks, David, for your encouraging words. Congratulations to your friend for finishing chemo. I know he would enjoy the song. Every time I hear the strains coming from my or another room, I smile. xo

  • http://none karen sutherland

    dear Jan,

    I love the photos you posted of your Mom and Dad – it was great to be able to click on each, and get to see their faces – your Dad, so handsome in his uniform, and your Mom, what a lovely smile she had – made her face look so radiant. I am sure you miss them very much. and they would be so very proud of how you have coped this past year.

    it is always such a pleasure to get to read a new post on your blog. this special cancerversary post was so beautifully written, but I know it must have been painful to recall in retrospect – the troubling symptoms, and what you knew in your heart was most likely causing them, along with the sadness you described in in a comment above about leaving the ranks of your fellow bloggers…that made me cry.

    but here you are, jan, with your inimitable grace and pluck! to have been able to follow you to this milestone has been a privilege filled with so much inspiration to grab onto LIFE. it’s wonderful that you have been able to do all you have done in one year’s time with so much gratitude and fulfillment. finding that socialization and writing to tell your story is what fuel’s your soul and helps you cope is such a gift – both for you and your readers. and, I, too, am so looking forward to hearing more about the clinical trial, especially the part about Stanford studying your particular genetic make up.

    I send you many warm hugs, jan, and wish you continued inspiration from your dear Dad, along with…

    much love and light, XOXOXOXO


  • Nancy’s Point

    Hi Jan,

    It has indeed been quite the road trip this past year for you, figuratively and literally, since you really have had to travel to take part in the clinical trial. And the emotional road, well, I can only imagine how rocky that one’s been. But here you are, still the warm and caring person you’ve always been and we are all grateful that you continue to share your thoughts with us.

    Like Karen said, I love the photos of your dear parents. They would both be proud of you indeed. Hugs to you, dear Jan.

  • Renn

    I can’t believe it has been a year since you shared your devastating news with the blogosphere. I was crushed hearing it. And yet always encouraged by your posts and your attitude. Both your parents would indeed be proud, as I’m sure your children are! If they are reading this, I hope they know what a great influence you are on so many here in bloggyland, as I know you are in your “real” terra firma world. Rock on!

  • jhasak

    Dear Karen, what a beautiful comment with which you have graced me! It made me cry. You have captured the complete essence of my message: one of occasional dread of the future juxtaposed with a cautious optimism about that same future, if that makes any sense. I can definitely feel your warm hugs from cyberspace. Dad’s inspiration will continue to guide me as I plow through each treatment. I’m sure his indomitable spirit (which I hope to have inherited) helped him get through the rigors of WWII with aplumb and dignity. Just in time for Veteran’s Day. Sending you much love, my dear. xox

  • jhasak

    Dear Nancy, thanks a million for your warm and kind comment. I get such strength from my fellow bloggers as we continue to grapple with the physical and emotional toll that cancer seeks to extract from us. But while we all cope in different ways, we share that common bond of understanding. I’m so glad I shared those photos of my parents. They were special people, indeed. Hugs right back to you. xo

  • jhasak

    Renn, that year went by so quickly, it’s hard to believe I survived at all. Left quite underweight and weak from the cancer and side effects of treatment, I wondered if I would ever get to a healthy weight again and enjoy eating. And here I am, living independently and, as Maxwell Smart would say, lovin’ it. Thanks so much for adding to all the kind comments from so many who care. It’s overwhelming to see such support and love, both in cyberspace and on terra firma, as you so wisely put it. Keep on keeping on, and I will do the same. Hugs! xo

  • Pamela Gavette

    I thank God for your blessings!

  • jhasak

    Thanks so very much, Pam! God truly is at work.

  • Beth L. Gainer

    Jan, I’m so very glad you are blogging. Your dad’s attitude was spot-on, and I love your tenacity. You have wonderful friends and strong faith. These will help you so much.

    Sending you much love and hugs,



    Yes, your parents would be proud. I’m sure they smile upon you even now.

  • jhasak

    Beth, thanks so much for your kind sentiments. My friends and faith really do make all the difference. Hugs right back! xo

  • jhasak

    I can just feel their smiles upon me, and the warmth and comfort they bring wipe all tears away. Thanks for your comment, Eileen. xo

  • Catherine

    Wonderful, Jan. It sounds like it’s been a long year – and yet here you are, and I am so glad the clinical study is working for you. I look forward to reading your two year post. You’ve been an inspiration for me, just so you know.

  • jhasak

    Yes, Catherine, it HAS been a long year, but I am hanging in there. In fact, setbacks have been fewer and farther between as time goes on. I love the idea of a two-year post. Now wouldn’t that be spectacular? Glad to know I have inspired you. You are a great source of encouragement to me, too, and I wish all good things for you. Thanks for stopping by with your dear message of hope. xo

  • Elisha

    Amazing story :) loved reading this! I am celebrating my 2nd cancerversary

  • jhasak