Category Archives: Herceptin

Life After Treatment

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Life after treatment is all about being a survivor.  Just recently I was able to embrace being a survivor.  I guess it was easier to pretend things didn’t happen but I’m reminded every day when I look in the mirror.  I have 11 physical scars that I have learned to embrace.  My scars do not define me but I have used them to refine me.  Almost every day I am asked, ” How did you do it?”  The honest answer to that is…I have a strong faith in God and I refused to become a victim.  Does that mean I was never sad or never had a bad day? Oh no! I had my moments but then I focused my attention on the fact that I was still standing. My girls were at pivotal transitions in their lives and I was at an important place in my career.  I had goals to attain and I certainly wasn’t going to let cancer keep me from achieving my goals.

Even today, there are difficult moments.  One is during the week before my mammogram and even while I’m sitting in the Woman’s Center. I’m fidgety like a race horse about to be put in the starting gate.  There are so many memories associated with the Women’s Center, surgical center, hospital and chemo lab.

Since my initial treatment, I’ve had a couple of biopsies that thankfully have been benign. I had a tricky lymph node in the left axilla, which was not the original area, that kept lighting up on the PET Scan.  So, I had a partial lymph node dissection on the left axilla as a precaution.

The most important message I want to tell you is that life is a gift.  Am I breathing? Yes! Then, I have a purpose and responsibility to go on.  Life goes on!  I have a responsibility to live every day with a smile on my face because I am a survivor.  Generations before me went through clinical trials so that I could benefit from Red Devil Chemo, Taxol, Herceptin, Arimidex and Femara.

Life goes on and I choose to be happy and …LIVE!

I invite you to follow me @ http://www.facebook.com/laurasjourneyofhope.

Be Blessed.

Laura

 

July 2009…A Wonderful Time

Surgical Drains Removed

The surgical drains were finally removed on July 1, 2009.  To put it in perspective, my first surgery was June 3, 2009 and my second surgery, margin revision, was June 16, 2009. So for almost a full month, I had surgical drains.  I was so glad to be done with the drains! Goodbye drains…Hello radiation!  During July 2009, I continued Herceptin weekly and asked to be changed to a treatment plan of once every three weeks because I would return to school at the end of July. As an Assistant Principal, I had to report to work a couple of weeks before the teachers.

Wedding Plans Continued

Wedding plans continued during July.  I was trying to get all of the details together such as: programs, invitations, wedding favors and menu cards created or ordered because my eldest daughter was going to be married the following January.

 Kelsey Goes to UF

July 2009 was also full of preparation to send Kelsey, my youngest daughter, off to college. She was preparing to join the Gator Nation at The University of Florida (UF) in August, 2009.  In retrospect, July 2009 was the last month that we were all in the same house as a family unit and yet excitement for the girls future was the focus.

Kelsey at UF Orientation...Go Gators!
Kelsey at UF Orientation…Go Gators!

Radiation

I met with the radiologist who was also a female doctor along with all the doctors on my team. As she reviewed my chart, she said something along the lines of…you should do well. You had a ‘complete response to chemo’ to which I replied, “I call it my miracle”.  She smiled politely and went on to tell me that’s when the chemotherapy completely attacks the cancer cells.  Then we discussed the radiation plan.  I would have 35 rounds of radiation. That ends up to be 7 weeks, 5 times a week, give or take a holiday with the center closed.

I was scheduled for radiotherapy.  At that appointment I got two small pencil dot tatoos.  Those markings would be used to line me up under the machine so that the radiation would most effectively target the right area. The next day, I came back for a walk-through so that the technicians could set the machines and the following day radiation began.  I will admit that I was scared but as I drove there and laid there, I prayed continuously that it would work.

Once the preliminary visits were completed, it took me longer to drive there than it did to receive the treatment.  I was back at work and the Cancer Center scheduled me at 6 AM or 6 PM. I drove myself to and from radiation.  If it was the early morning appointment, I went straight to work from radiation.  I would joke every now and then that I was ‘glowing’ to ease the awkwardness in the office. When I was about 3/4 into treatment, I started to get sensitive skin but they gave me some cream and it was not a significant problem. I was a little tired but as a school administrator in August and September, it is expected.  I could not differentiate if it was caused by radiation.  I just kept going…one day at a time.

People always ask me…How did you do it…work through chemo, port complications and radiation?  My answer is…I was not alone.  I have a personal relationship with the ‘Great Physician’ who is God.  I trusted God to direct my doctors and to give me strength. Long before cancer my life verse was Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you…

I invite you to follow me on Facebook @ http://www.facebook.com/laurasjourneyofhope.

Be Blessed.

Laura

Just One More Surgery

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About the time I hoped to return to work part time, I was scheduled for a surgery known as a margin revision. In my post-op visit, the breast surgeon explained that there was one cancerous spot on the border of the clean tissue.  The goal of the surgery is to leave a margin of at least 1mm of normal, cancer free tissue.

I arrived that the Surgery Center at 7:00 AM on June 16, 2009.  I went through the usual details: financial responsibilities, Nurse #1 and then back to the holding pen where I changed my clothes and got ready.  I asked the nurse to pull the curtain so everybody couldn’t stare at me.  I was hoping that the surgeon would take the drains out during the surgery.  The breast surgeon stopped by to see me and reassured me that she was going to get clear margins.  She previously asked me if a pathologist could attend the surgery.  She confirmed that the pathologist would be attending the surgery and would be able to examine the tissue immediately.  The breast surgeon would gain access through the 3 incisions in the right breast from the surgery on June 3, 2009.  She explained that the plastic surgeon could not be here and she would do her best to put me back together.  The anesthesiologist also stopped by and I told him that I had past issues with nausea after surgery and he assured me that he would give me something to prevent unnecessary nausea.

I was ready to go back.  Doug kissed me goodbye.  This time it was just Doug in the lobby because this was supposed to be a shorter, uncomplicated surgery.  The nurse took me back to the operating room where everyone greeted me and introduced themselves.  The surgeon came in and I told her, “Let’s do this”.

The next thing I remember was that I was in the recovery area.  I was trying to wake up but it wasn’t working.  I could hear the nurse asking Doug if I opened my eyes yet. The nurse kept saying, “Okay Laura.  It’s done.” The nurse told the doctor as she came by that I wasn’t awake yet. They were standing at my bed and I could hear them but my eyes would not open.   I could hear her talking to me but I couldn’t move. I wasn’t scared, though.  I did tell God that if this was my time to go that I would be okay with it as long as I was going to heaven.  (Obviously, I didn’t speak that but I was praying silently.)

After another surgery, the doctor came by again.  I heard the nurse and doctor talking about my vital signs.  They looked good so the doctor said to give me time.  I was trying to open my eyes and they all told me to relax and take my time.  They assured me that I was okay.  The doctor completed another surgery and came by to check on me and this time I opened my eyes a little and gave her a half smile.

How ironic! After the 6 hour surgery, I was in recovery 30-40 minutes and this surgery was supposed to be so easy (1 hour) and I was in recovery 2-3 hours. Eventually, I walked out of the surgical center and went home to go to bed.

At the post-op visit, the surgeon gave me great news that the pathology report was clear.   the surgical drains had to stay in place until the drainage slowed down.  I started Herceptin, the good chemo, one week later.  Plans for Paige’s wedding would begin soon.

Graduation Celebration Week

My last Taxol/Herceptin chemo was May 5, 2009.  I was going to the chemo lab for weekly Herceptin infusions but at least I could drive myself and schedule those after work. I had three weeks to regain my strength before Kelsey’s graduation week.

The week of May 25th was very busy:

  • Tuesday, May 26th  – Baccalaureate Service
  • Wednesday, May 27th – Cheri, sister-in-law, arrived from New Mexico
  • Thursday, May 28th – Senior Awards
  • Friday, May 29th – Graduation
  • Sunday, May 31st – Kelsey’s Graduation Party

At the Senior Awards, Kelsey received multiple honors:

  • Polk  Education Foundation Scholarship
  • National Honor Society Achievement Award
  • Certificate of Academic Excellence from the Science Department
  • The American Legion Award

WOW! We were all very surprised.  The Science Award was a unanimous vote by all of the teachers in the Science department which was a major accomplishment. Also, she was chosen for the American Legion Award because she possessed high qualities of courage, honor, leadership, patriotism, scholarship and service.  She was having a great culmination to her senior year.  She was on her way to the college of her dreams: The University of Florida. We were so very proud of her and happy for her.

Graduation L to R Me, Paige, Kelsey, Doug
Graduation
L to R
Me, Paige, Kelsey, Doug
Graduation Kelsey with Meme
Graduation
Kelsey with Meme
Graduation Kelsey with Aunt Cheryll
Graduation
Kelsey with Aunt Cheryll
Graduation L to R Nanny, Kelsey, Aunt Cheri
Graduation
L to R
Nanny, Kelsey, Aunt Cheri

On Sunday afternoon, friends and family gathered at our house to celebrate Kelsey.  Friends, former teachers and family cam from near and far.  She was overwhelmed by the show of support.  the house was full of friends, family, laughter and support.  It had been a long time since we had anyone over.  the party would not have been a success without help from my sister-in-law, Cheri.  She is the ultimate party planner and she worked her magic to make it a special day for all of us.

Kelsey From a Brave to a Gator cake decorated in high school colors and college colors
Kelsey
From a Brave to a Gator
cake decorated in high school colors and college colors

Now the focus would turn to my surgery, which was scheduled for Wednesday, June 3, 2009.

I invite you to follow me on Facebook @ http://www.facebook.com/laurasjourneyofhope

Be Blessed.

Always Hopeful

Blog pic 1120

My spirit had been renewed by some quiet time with God and the hummingbird visit.  I only saw them one more time after that day and haven’t seen them since.  I was moving on to finish my mean chemo by May 5th and then on to surgery.

Final Two Chemotherapy Treatments

I made it through my seventh chemo, 4/21/09, and my eighth and LAST chemo on 5/5/09. I had the same routine where I saw Dr. Wonderful (Hematologist-Oncologist) first and then off to the chemo lab.  My appointments were still on Tuesdays and I tried to work the rest of the week.  By Friday, I needed my pain medication. By the time I was near the end of my chemo, Doug, my husband, drove me to work most Mondays and Fridays.  I was physically weak and exhausted but I made myself go to work because I wanted to keep the same routine.  My last Taxol/Herceptin chemo was on May 5, 2009.  I still went to the chemo lab weekly for Herceptin.

Preparing For Surgery

At the last two appointments with Dr. Wonderful (Hematologist-Oncologist), I was given specific directions to begin taking B6, B12, Vitamin E w/o Selenium, Calcium and Vitamin D.  My vitamin D levels were very low and they needed to increase before I could start radiation.  Over the next 9 months, I still needed an Echocardiogram every 3 months because Herceptin could damage my heart.

After a final consultation with my team of doctors, Breast Surgeon, Plastic Surgeon and Dr. Wonderful, I decided to have the following procedures:

  • partial bilateral mastectomy, to include lumpectomy
  • lymph node dissection, right side
  • port insertion, at which time the PICC would be removed

The surgery was set for June 3, 2009.  There was no negotiation even though that was the last week of school.  The surgery needed to take place in a timely manner. My health was more important than the job.

Encouragement

My morning devotion on May 8, 2009, three days after my last chemo, was just what I needed to hear at the time.

From My Utmost For His Highest by: Oswald Chambers

“Entrust yourself to God’s hands. Is there something in your life for which you need perseverance right now? Maintain your intimate relationship with Jesus Christ through perseverance of faith. Proclaim as Job did,  ‘Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him.’ (Job 13:15) …even when you cannot see Him right now and cannot understand what He is doing, you know Him.”

Those were powerful words of encouragement because I didn’t understand why I was in this situation but I knew God was with me every day.

I invite you to follow me on FB at: http://www.facebook.com/laurasjourneyofhope

Be Blessed.

He Knows My Name

I was between my sixth and seventh chemo treatment.  Only two more to go.  The last chemo hit me hard.  Every muscle and cell in my body hurt.  At the last appointment, Dr. Wonderful (Hematologist-Oncologist) told me to sit outside in the late afternoon to get some vitamin D and it would be good for me.   So, I decided to sit outside for a while.  It was just me and the squirrels in the backyard.  I was looking at the aloe plants because that was the only place in the backyard that gets the sun.

A Moment of Weakness

It had been a hard weekend and I was home from a long day of work and I just lost it.  I listed everything for God, as if he didn’t know.  It went like this…

  • Cancer, God?
  • Stage 3a
  • Grade III, aggressive
  • chemo
  • I have no hair
  • my eyelashes and eyebrows are gone
  • I hurt all over
  • my port got infected
  • a week in the hospital
  • neupogen shots
  • a PICC line
  • needle after needle
  • I don’t understand why you let this happen to me.  I’m sorry God.  I know I’m not supposed to question you but I’m your child.  Why?  Why did you let this happen to me?

Then I felt bad.  Many people will read this and think that I was wrong to ever talk to God that way.  I would say to them that God already knew what I was thinking. He’s God.  I knew that I couldn’t stay in that state of mind so I started finding the positive things about my situation. I told God…I am thankful:

  • for my team of doctors
  • for the chemo I could receive
  • for Herceptin developed just for the Her 2 positive cancer
  • for the fact I could still work
  • for Kelsey’s successful senior year
  • for Paige because she could give me the Neupogen shots
  • for my caregivers: Doug, Doug’s mom and my mom
  • that I did not get sick (throw up) with any chemo

I knew in my head that God worked all things for my good.  I didn’t feel it at the time.  I felt all alone.

With tears running down my face, I asked God to be with me and wrap His arms around me like he promised that he would do in His word.  I was broken…I sat in silence…

Renewal of the Soul 

hummingbird

Along came a beautiful hummingbird and then his mate a couple of minutes later. They fluttered around the aloe plants and obtained the nectar from the aloe bloom.  Now, we had lived at that house 14 years and I had worked in the yard at all times of the day and I had never seen a hummingbird, much less a pair of hummingbirds.  Then, I remembered a verse in the Bible about God taking care of the birds of the air.

Matthew 6:26 (NIV)

“Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”

I sat in silence once again but it was a good silence.  The kind of silence and time with God that renews your soul.  I knew God had my back in all of this.  I knew God was in control.  I went inside and began to review notes in my devotional book.  I read the notes from the Sunday that I was in the hospital, March 15, 2009.  In those notes was a phrase…“I know God remembers me.”  If fact, that phrase is listed 73 times in the Bible in reference to God taking care of us.  Then,  I listened to my favorite praise and worship song, “He Knows My Name” by Tommy Walker. Here are the words to the first verse/chorus:

I have a maker

He formed my heart,

before even time began

My life was in His hands

He knows my name

He knows my every thought,

He sees each tear that falls

and hears me when I call

He, my God, remembered me all along.  I just needed to go to the source of strength.

I invite you to follow me on FB @ http://www.facebook.com/laurasjourneyofhope

Be Blessed.

Making Sense of It All

Chemo Education

Before you start chemo, you have to attend Chemo Education.  I had never heard of Chemo Education.  Chemo Education is scheduled with a nurse.  My nurse was the sweet nurse from Dr. Wonderful’s office.  I am going to refer to the Hematologist-Oncologist/Chemo Doctor as Dr. Wonderful. Doug, my husband, went with me to Chemo Education.  The clinic suggests that you bring at least one of your care givers.  I had my calendar with note paper in the back and I was ready to take notes.

The nurse went on to explain…

1. 4 weeks of AC chemo every other week… with this chemo you may experience the following side effects… sores in your mouth, loss of nails, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, body aches and pain and you will lose your hair.  This chemo was known as the red devil.  After each cycle of this chemo, you will need Neupogen shots. (Neupogen shots stimulate the production of white blood cells. The shots will be needed between 5-7 days after each treatment.  It depends on results from lab work.)

2. 4 cycles of Taxol and Herceptin  (No extra shots with this chemo. YAY!)  With this chemo, you will experience the same side effects as the AC chemo.   Your hair will not begin to grow back until this chemo is out of your system.

****Everyone responds differently to chemo. The nurse did say to eat protein and foods that contain potassium.  Also, the acrylic nails must come off immediately.  (I loved my nails.  As an Assistant Principal, I would attend meetings at school and at the district level and I liked for my nails to look nice.)

Information Overload and How to Organize It All

As I returned home with handfuls of information, I realized that I needed to organize all of this information so I could find it as needed.  I had a couple of small piles already…. chemo info, notes from two doctors and my mammogram and CT report. I decided to organize the information in a 3 ring binder.

I set up the notebook according to the following categories:

1. Meds

2. Doctor’s visits – I took notes at every conversation with each doctor, filed it by date in the notebook and put a copy of the notes and the lab reports in a plastic sleeve.

3. Copies of all Test…CT Scans, PET Scans, MUGA Scan, Pathology Reports, Echocardiogram, etc…

4. Miscellaneous Information

Laura's Journey Notebook

I took my notebook and calendar to every visit.  I had questions written ahead of time so that I didn’t forget anything.  As I sat in the chemo chair receiving the infusion of chemo, I organized my notebook.  When I got my very first chemo, my nurse, Jerry, asked me what my notebook was for and I told him that I take notes at every doctor’s visit and ask for a copy of my chemo orders and all lab results. He replied with something like, that’s a good idea because we aren’t Jesus Christ.  We aren’t perfect.

One more tip about the organization of the notebook. In the front of the notebook, I had a 3 ring pencil pouch so that I would always have my writing tools and a 3 ring business card holder.  I kept a business card from every doctor and everyone affiliated with my treatment.

Most Importantly

The most important thing that I want you to remember is that you are in charge of your health care decisions.  You can research your doctors, be an advocate for yourself or designate an advocate.  You are more than a statistic.  You are so important to God that even the hairs on your head are all numbered. (Matthew 10:30 NIV)

Be Blessed.

The Beginning of Hope

Life saving loofah..now retired
Life saving loofah..now retired

On December 31, 2008, I met with the Hematologist-Oncologist. She worked me in as her last appointment on New Years Eve day.  I did my research on her because choosing the right chemo doctor was a life saving decision.  She completed her fellowship at NYU and there were no sanctions or malpractice claims in the last 14 years.  She sounded perfect on paper.  The real test would come when I met her.

Waiting Room

As I sat there with Doug and my mom, I was prepared for the waiting room.  Once again it was full of people who looked desperate and there was a sense of oppression in the air.  After my last experience at the Oncologist, I went home and loaded praise and worship music on my MP3 player so I could zone out with my earplugs and music. I prayed silent prayers for everyone in the waiting room every time I went to the Cancer Center.  My mom wanted to talk but I just wasn’t in a state of mind for small talk and to be totally honest, I was scared.

HematologistOncologist

Laura Starner…..the nurse called my name.  This time Doug and my mom waited in the waiting room.  I promised Doug that I would take good notes.  I also had questions written out ahead of time. When the doctor entered the room she greeted me with a smile and a firm handshake.  She reviewed my chart and examined me.   She asked me how I found the lump under my arm (right axilla).  I told her the story of the loofah, leaving it across the bathroom and just putting gel on my hand.  She said, “Good job.”

Then she went into a lot of medical jargon stating that we need to get that port in because we need to start chemo ASAP.  Chemo before surgery would kill any cancer cells that may have spread beyond the lymph nodes even if they were not detected by imaging or laboratory tests.   Also, it could increase the chance of long-term survival by preventing a recurrence.

Treatment Plan

Adriamycin/Cyclophosphamide (AC) and Herceptin – 4 cycles …1 dose every two weeks to last a period of 2 months

Taxol and Herceptin – 4 cycles…1 dose every two weeks to last a period of 2 month

Herceptin – to continue for 1 year

Surgery – to be discussed after we see the effects of the chemo

Radiation – 35 rounds… after surgery

More Test

In addition to the PET scan already ordered, I would need a MUGA scan, which is a test to check how well the heart chamber (left ventricle) pumps blood through your body at rest.  It also determines the size and shape of your heart.  You see the AC chemo, affectionately known as the red devil, is very strenuous on the heart.  I would also need an echocardiogram every 3 months to monitor my heart health.

Working Through Chemo

The doctor was positive and confident that we were going to take care of this.  I asked if I could continue to work through chemo and she said that she had many patients who work through chemo and absolutely encouraged me to continue working.  It was my decision.

As I left the exam room and joined Doug and my mom in the waiting room, I was smiling, the exact opposite of the way I felt just two days ago. They looked puzzled.  I said, “She’s wonderful, kind and we have a plan.  Everything is going to be okay.”  I was relieved and confident that God led me to the best doctor.