About this blog

I was diagnosed with breast cancer on June 11, 2010. As a result of my treatment, I have lymphedema in my left arm. I draw my strength from the Lord, as well as my family's Scots-Irish heritage. Our Graham's were a tough and scrappy bunch of fighters on the Scottish/English border. They came to America and continued to fight when necessary: in the American Revolution; the Civil War; and my brother is a Captain in the U.S. Army. My ancestors settled this country against all odds. My great-grandmothers on both sides of the family were pioneer women who settled the West. Along with that heritage, and the full armor of God, I am walking the walk and fighting the good fight.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

My all and all

I love worship time at our church, Calvary Chapel of Escondido.  I've always enjoyed singing, even as a kid. I wasn't ever a soloist type of singer, but I could keep my own in a chorus.  But there is something even more special about being part of a chorus of  raised voices to the Lord.

On Sundays, the service usually starts out with a couple of songs, then we pause for announcements and a few minutes to greet the people sitting near you.  Yesterday, during the "meet and greet" a friend asked me if I was all over the lymphedema. I explained that it never really goes away, you just learn to live with it, recognize swelling, and treat it yourself. She made a comment about it being like the "stones of remembrance"  and we both turned to greet others. But the comment kind of stuck in my head for a few minutes.  At first I didn't get it.  In the Old Testament, the prophet Samuel used stones as a physical way to remind the children of Israel about God's faithfulness and goodness.It says in First Samuel 7:12 says that when God enabled the Israelites to defeat the Philistines, the Prophet Samuel “took a stone and … named it Ebenezer, saying, ‘Thus far has the Lord helped us.’”  Okay, that's all well and good for the ancient Israelites. But what does that have to do with me?

I started thinking about the other physical "stones" of remembrance that I have as a result of the past 13 months. The physical is the most obvious. My short and increasingly unruly curly hair regrowth.  Or the two huge scars on my chest, a smaller vertical one near my right armpit.

After announcements, there is a longer stretch of worship.  It starts out as just singing.  I can let it stay that way, just me singing words that are projected onto a screen.  It is easy to let the mind wander to other things and just go through the motions.  Or set up mental walls that prevent the Holy Spirit from really ministering to you.  Sometimes, it turns into something much more. Something that I can't even really describe in words.  This past Sunday, any mental walls or walls that I had built up around my heart were completely obliterated by the Holy Spirit.  

We were singing a song that was new to me, called "My All and All"  by Frank Hernandez & Sherry Saunders Powell

These are the words:

My All In All

You are my strength, O God
You are my help, O God
You are the One on Whom I call
You are my shield, O God
My life I yield, O God
For You will ever be my All in All


But as I sang it, a tear or two started to roll.  Now, that is not unusual for me during worship.  But as I started reflecting on the various "stones of remembrance" that I have (both physical and experientially), I just lost it.  God has been SO good to me through this journey.  During my scariest moments, He was there with me. He did not leave me forsaken and alone. 

Just a few examples:

I have such a vivid memory (a "stone," if you will), of the double biopsy I had. I wasn't expecting to be biopsied that morning. I just thought I'd go in for an ultrasound and be told it was just a cyst and dense tissue. After all, I had a "clear" mammogram the month before. Except this time, the doctor couldn't figure out what she was seeing on my left breast.  By God's timing, she just happened to have time that morning to biopsy both the breast and the lump under my arm. As I waited outside while they prepped the room, my Aunt Meg posted a verse on Facebook from John 16:33: In this world you will have much trouble, but have no fear, I have overcome the world. Perfect timing.  God's timing.  As I lay with a huge needle probing my flesh, I did not feel pain.  Instead, I remembered God's promise from Jeremiah 29:11: For I know the plans I have for you you. Plans for good and not for evil. Plans to give you a future and a hope.  A future and a hope. I was not alone.

When I was waiting to see my oncologist for the first time, I was playing around with an app on my iPhone that "randomly" spits out a verse. I set the spinner on the topic of "fear" and pushed the button. The verse "You will not die" popped up.  I can't remember exactly where that came from in Scripture, but it was a message given to me that day. 

These are just a few examples.  

As we repeated this simple and beautiful song a couple of times, I just had to stop singing. I couldn't anymore because I was literally sobbing. I couldn't help it.  It was such an amazing moment of God's love coming down and piercing my heart.  Showing me how good He is, even by allowing me to go through breast cancer.  How much He loves me, and making me feel it.  Palpably. Even though I haven't been as faithful to my daily devotions during this time, He did not leave me. He was there the whole time, whether I sought Him out or not. Waiting for me, giving me strength, helping me get through this ordeal. I didn't care if anyone saw me.  It was as if God and I were alone in His throne room and He was wrapping his arms around me, soothing me.  Even when I didn't realize I needed it, He did. Abba. Words don't even really do the moment justice. 

Wouldn't you know it, I didn't have a tissue and neglected to grab one as I entered the sanctuary. 

I can't say that I am happy to be someone who has had cancer.  I still have moments of sheer terror and a sinking feeling in my gut that it might come back.  Or I'll feel a pain in my body somewhere...oh no...is "it" back having moved to the liver or bones?  I think most cancer survivors have those thoughts and I'm no exception. 

But I can be joyful in the situation because the Lord is my all and all.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

The other side

A year ago tonight, I was preparing myself in all sorts of ways for my bilateral mastectomy surgery.  I remember shortly after my diagnosis a friend from church telling me something. Her sister had been diagnosed almost exactly a year earlier than me.  She said that, "things look a lot better a year later." She was so right.

I just went and re-read the posts to remind myself of all of the details. Strange how some things fade from memory.  Or maybe it's just chemo-brain in action?

July 22, 2010

July 17, 2011-Nearly a year later

What struck me from reading my pre-operative posts is how uncertain I was about things. Understandably so.  Everything I did with the feeling that it was a "last" time for doing it. My "last" workout at the gym.  My "last" trip to the beach.  My "last" time cuddiling with Jean-Marc in the morning.  It was a scary time.  I'm a big believer in preparing for the worst, and hoping for the best. I was mentally prepared for weeks of being bedridden and in pain.  I had not even considered chemo and radiation at that point. It was all about the harsh and brutal reality of having body parts removed. Ugh.

I don't do "sick" very well.  And by God's grace, I didn't have to.  In fact, I probably pushed it a bit too much to get back on my feet.  In the early days, I needed help with the drains and such.  It was also difficult to face myself in the mirror for the first time.  I'll confess that sometimes, I still start at my scarred reflection.

For the most part, I can say that those things that I was afraid that I would not be able to do again, I have done. This is not a brag list-it is a praise report and testimony to the faithfulness, mercy and grace of God:

  • Cuddling/holding Jean-Marc?  Check! He's quite the love bug, and it's wonderful. 
  • Running?  Check!  Ran a 10k in under an hour earlier this month. Less than a year out of surgery, less than 5 months after the end of radiation treatment.  
  • Jillian circuits workouts?  Check!  I'm back to my level 3 Jillian circuit workouts.  I've definitely lost some of my upper body strength, particularly on the left shoulder and pectoral area. There is nerve damage there where things were cut. I'm permanently numb on my left tricep and across my chest where the scars are.  BUT-I can do push ups, just not as many.  I keep at it, and am able to do a little more each time.  My body will never be the same, but it is strong nonetheless. 
  • The beach? Check!  I just went yesterday with the kids, my sister in law, niece, nephews and mom. I wore a bikini with my foobies in it.  
There have been some unexpected things as well. First on the list would be my lymphedema. Not all breast cancer patients get it. I'm one of the lucky ones.  But I am so thankful that Kaiser was very proactive in educating me on the signs of the disease, and even had me go see a physical therapist before the fact.  That way, when I did get it, I knew right away what to do and was able to learn to control it early. 

My friend was right. Things do look and feel a lot better a year later. Things will never be the same, to be sure. My family and I have been on a journey that has opened our eyes and changed us all, in many ways for the better. It has made us stronger.  Looking back and seeing how God has sustained me has increased my faith tremendously.  I thank you all for your support and prayer over the past year. It has been a blessing.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Life as I know it

I've been dealing with something over the past several days that I realized today illustrates how life is with the incurable and chronic condition of lymphedema.

Fortunately for me, right now it is under control.  But because I have had flare ups in the past, I continue to keep a very close eye on the size of my hand and arm.  I do manual lymphatic drainage most nights, sleep in 5 layers of bandages around my arm, and wear a compression sleeve and gauntlet when I work out.  I also measure my hand and arm at 5 c.m. intervals from time to time to make sure there isn't any swelling that is creeping up on me.

I have to be very careful about trauma to the left arm and hand. Anything could trigger swelling: sunburn; insect bite; cut; high altitude; heat; and burns. You don't realize how much your lymphatic system works all the time to heal your body of the little insults that attack it daily.

Anyway, it was the latter that had the potential to get me recently.  I was in the kitchen cooking up a squash casserole. I wasn't very careful when I was sliding it into the oven and ended up burning my left hand.  I put it under some water right away and treated it with aloe vera. The burn is about 1 inch long.  It didn't really bother me that much at the time-I was busy trying to get dinner on the table.

I realized I could have a problem started when I unwrapped my arm the next morning.  The first layer of bandaging stuck a bit to the scab and pulled it off a little. That hurt, but I told myself to be more careful next time.  After my workout that day, the wound had oozed onto the gauntlet I wear on my hand. Gross, but its washable.  I decided to start wearing a band-aid in between the wound and the gauntlet.

During the day, the wound would look like it was getting better. But after a night under the bandages and band aid, it would be all moist and oozy again. This had been going on for nearly a week.

Two days ago, I had Eric help me measure my arm to see if there was any swelling.  One measurement (10 c.m. from the wrist) was borderline, but not that far different from the last time we had measured it. So it didn't seem like the burn was triggering any swelling. Thank you, Jesus!

My latest approach is to just go bare for a few days until it is healed up.  Last night, I didn't wrap it in the bandage.  I'll confess that I was really tired last night and didn't even do my manual drainage before turning out the lights!  This morning, I went for a training walk and didn't wear the compression sleeve. About half way through, I bent my arm up to keep my hand above my heart and reduce any walking-related swelling.

The bottom line is that I think that the wound is now finally starting to heal.  Keeping it wrapped up was like taking one step forward and two steps backward.  Hopefully a couple days of this will heal the wound without letting the arm swell.  I'll keep any eye on it and definitely will be doing the manual massage tonight.

I realized on my walk that this situation is now a part of my life.  It isn't going away like the cancer went away.  It is a balancing act.  Stay active and live life.  But don't injure the arm.  If I do, then I have to try different approaches (or a combination of them), to keep the arm from swelling. It's not life threatening for me, but it does add a slight burden to day to day living.

I just thought I'd share this aspect of live post-breast cancer as I know it. As always, I appreciate your prayers that this lymphedema stay under control. This is my first summer season with it, and with our upcoming travel and the heat, it could easily swell up.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Not quite a walk in the park

I've started training for the 3-Day walk. I have until November 18th to get my body ready to walk 60 miles in 3 days. That is roughly 19 weeks from now.

I'll admit that I was putting off the training.  Considering all the running and other exercise that I've been doing, I was thinking that I could delay it. Now that the 10k is behind me, I printed out the 24 week suggested training program on the 3-Day website.  It starts pretty easy-just walking 3 miles at a time. They schedule 4 walks a week, with two of them being back to back.  That is, walking 2 days in a row with longer mileage. It gets your body ready for walking 3 long days in a row.  Now we are in week 19, so the walks are a little longer-3, 5 and 6 miles.  The program works you up to doing back to back walks of 18 and 15 miles by the end.

Anyway, I was taking it in stride. I was thinking, heck, I can run a 10k.  I can do Jillian's advanced circuit training. I've been walking all my life. I don't want to scale back the activity and slow down to just....walk.

But last week reality hit.  Mom and I did a 6.6 mile walk last Friday. No biggie, we thought. We had done a 10k on Monday. This would be the same. If I could do it running, walking it would be a snap. We took a route that I had run a few times in training for the 10k. Easy breezy, right?


It definitely was a wake up for us both. Mom has been walking faithfully for several years, but only 3-4 miles at a time. For me, it was a lot harder than I had anticipated. It took us 2 hours and we were ready to finish by the time we got done.  So this is definitely going to require sticking to the training program as much as possible. It also is going to require some creative child care on my part.  Right now, I can leave the kids at home. The older 2 can watch Jean-Marc.  Eric is at home in case they have any trouble. They actually are making quite a bit of money doing that for me this summer!  But if 6.6 miles took us 2 hours, when we get to 10, 11, 12 miles at a time it is going to take all morning. Yikes.

I am a little disappointed that in the 2 hours we walked, my Garmin said I only burned 291 calories. Not a lot of bang for the buck.  I like to try and burn 500 calories a day through exercise.  I guess I should enjoy these "easy" days because I'll be burning plenty when I'm walking half the day!

I did a little 3.45 mile easy walk today in my neighborhood.  It didn't really feel like a workout, though. (Confession: I came home and did Jillian's "No More Trouble Zones" DVD)  As I walked, I realized something.  Walking 20 miles 3 days in a row is nearly doing 3 marathons back to back.  Not quite, but almost.  Not quite a walk in the park!

If you would like to support the Pink and Plaid Warriors with a donation, you can click here to see my page at the 3 Day site. I realize some people have issues with Komen. I definitely am going to stay out of the debates for now.  I signed up for the walk as a way to challenge myself physically. It was a goal I set while going through treatment last year, and I'm going to see it through. I'll give folks with Komen issues a chance to support the American Cancer Society later on this year when I participate in the "Making Strides Against Breast Cancer" walk in October.  Stay tuned!

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Jillian knows I exist!

As followers of my blog already know, I'm a big fan of Jillian Michaels. It was the exercise and diet program from her website that helped me lose 50 pounds over the past 2 years.  I also subscribe to a daily e-mail from her that is filled with tips, success stories, and interesting articles. 

My mom called me today to ask me if I had read the e-mail from July 4th. With all of the activities going on that day, I just deleted the message for the day. Luckily, it was held in a "deleted items" folder and I was able to retrieve it. Rather than explain it, I'm just going to cut and paste what Jillian herself said:

"Breast cancer is a terrible disease that affects hundreds of thousands of women (and men) in this country each year. It's so important to regularly see your doctor, do self-exams at home, and get mammograms for this reason alone. Recently, a member on my Message Boards reached out and share what losing weight meant to her — and how it may have helped save her life. No words can really express how I felt after seeing this, but she is definitely in my thoughts during her battle. I hope it opens everyone's eyes about breast cancer and the importance of early detection. 

"I began Jillian's program last November after having lost only 10 pounds on my own in several months. I started at 170 with Jillian and have gotten down to 132. I'm still about 10 pounds away from my goal. So I'm feeling great, enjoying buying smaller clothes and feeling STRONG. Plus, I've been doing Jillian's Level 3 for a few months and feel like I can take on anything....

Along with Jillian's program I went from a bra cup size of D to B. Being a small woman, I was pretty happy in a B.

But being smaller helped me find a lump in my smaller breasts. I had been in for my first mammogram only a month and a half before and was given a clean bill of health. But over Memorial Day weekend, I felt a lump under my arm. I don't think that 50 pounds ago I would have felt it. I went in right away for a biopsy and found out last week that I do indeed have breast cancer. I was shocked, but went upstairs and did my Level 3 workout. It felt so good to have that physical outlet.

So my fitness goals have switched a bit. Losing that last 10 pounds no longer is a priority. I suspect that I will lose it through chemotherapy and a mastectomy. I want to continue working out-now instead of imagining Jillian yelling at me when I want to quit, I imagine myself kicking cancer in the butt. I envision myself now as a fighter or soldier in training for battle. The battle of my life. I want to stay fit through this treatment, although I'm not exactly sure how I'm going to do that. But staying strong is a priority for me. My arms ROCK and I don't want to lose that muscle tone!

I do believe, though, that if it wasn't for Jillian's program and inspiration helping me to lose 50 pounds, I would not have felt that lump. Having been told everything was fine, it would have been AT LEAST another year before I went in for another mammogram, and maybe longer since I'm only 40.
So thank you Jillian! You've helped make me strong and just may have saved my life." – Tonya

Thanks for being so open with your story, Tonya. To begin educating yourself more about self-exams, mammograms, and breast cancer, visit American Cancer Society or Susan G. Komen for the Cure!"

How cool is that? That is actually from a message that I put on Jillian's message boards about a year ago. Now I'm going to have to find a way to send her an update to let her know how things have turned out so far. I was able to work out throughout my treatment, although I have lost some upper body strength. I'm getting it back, though. However, my left arm/shoulder/chest will never be the same. But considering what my body has been through, I'm not complaining!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

I did it!

I ran my first 10k race yesterday. It was the 4th of July Scripps Ranch "Old Pros" 10k.

It was tough.

I had been training for several weeks, but it still was hard. My goal was to finish in under one hour. My chip time was 59:21. Just under.  There were times that this evil little voice inside my head kept urging me to just walk, that my goal didn't matter. I'll admit that a few times, I listened to that voice and slowed down to a walk. I would say I didn't walk more than an eighth of a mile. Just enough to let my heart rate come back down. I'm annoyed that I listened to "the voice" though.

It was harder than I thought it would be. I've run 6 miles before, even with hills. This course was pretty flat. I did pretty well the first couple of miles. My second mile was my fastest at a pace of 8:55. After that, I started feeling the sun. Even though it was in the 7 a.m. hour, the course was more inland than where I live and the sun was coming out. By mile 4, I was asking myself...."Why exactly are you doing this again?"  Even more piercing was this question...."And you think you can do twice this (a 1/2 marathon) in January??  Are you nuts?"  Then that evil voice taunting me, telling me that my goal didn't matter and that I should just walk.  I've read runners talk about how much of running is mental, and I definitely experienced that for myself.

My brother, Jared, was in town on leave from the Army and he ran it with me. Of course, his time was like 47 minutes. My race was neat at the end, though. He was there about 100 feet from the finish line looking for me. When he saw me, he jumped back in, urging me on and crossed the finish line for a second time with me. I saw the clock was at 59 minutes. That, along with Jared's "gentle" coaching, I was able to dig into some previously unknown source of energy and sprint to the finish.  My parents signed up as well. They had intended to walk it all, but ended up running some of it as well.  I'm so proud of them!

There was a big party in the park at the finish line. There was a tent where a chiropractor was giving free massages. I had to fill out a little questionnaire about my health first. One of the questions was, "What is your primary health concern?"  Hmmm.  Do you REALLY want to know?  My primary health concern is that my cancer does not come back. I decided not to go there.  I didn't want her messing with my arm, so I listed the lymphedema instead.  It was kind of a painful massage, but I usually kind of like it hard like that. She mainly dealt with my back and was able to give my spine some adjustments that felt good. My shoulders, she said, were incredibly tight and tense. Yup.  I'll believe that. I always store up stress there. She kept going on about it afterwards and asked me when the last time I had any kind of massage or chiropractic treatment was.  My last massage was a few days before my bilateral mastectomy-almost a year ago.  I told her that I understood the shoulder tension, since I had been through a lot in the past year. I didn't explain, but thanked her and went with my brother to get my free T-shirt.  (As well as a free beer!)

I did take the lessons learned from my 5k race last April.  I did not let the other runners get me off of my own pace. My plan was to start slow to conserve my energy. I knew there would be some fast starters. In Carlsbad, I let it influence my own pace. I also ran with my iPod. That helped keep my mind off of some of the pain. Not all of it, but some.  I was smarter about my pre-race food as well. This time, I had a protein packed lunch on Sunday, with a light dinner.  My breakfast was 1/2 whole wheat English muffin with almond butter and a banana. I didn't have that belly of lead feeling that I did in April.  I'm glad I was able to improve my approach. Next time, (did I say that?), I'm not going to have any wine the day before. I had some at lunch on Sunday, and it may have affected me. Maybe not, but next time I'll go dry.

I may not have finished first in my age class, but I was 33rd out of 92 for women 40-44. That's not bad. And considering that I have only been out of cancer treatment less than 5 months, I'm pretty grateful that I was able to do what I did. In fact, my radiation oncologist told me a portion of my left lung was going to get zapped and be permanently damaged.  Take that, cancer!

Yes, I'll do it again. Now I have a PR to beat.
Jared, my dad, and I at the start of the race.