It was three years ago this week that I heard the words, “You have breast cancer.”
One simple phone call turned my world upside-down as words like lumpectomy, mastectomy, radiation, and chemotherapy forced their way into my well-ordered world.
My cancer was caught early on a routine mammogram. If you’re one of my female readers, I implore you to do a breast self-exam. If breast cancer runs in the family or if you’re over the age of 40, schedule your mammogram. Today. Right now. Before you even finish reading this post.
Yes, it’s that important.
You may be walking through a tough cancer journey yourself or you may know someone who is so today I’m posting 10 links to some of the most popular blog posts written during my cancer journey.
I’m often asked how to help a friend who’s received a cancer diagnosis. The “Jesus With Skin On” post (above) offers very practical, tangible ways to help. But more important than anything else is simply being present. No fixes. Just sitting in the middle of the muddle together.
Today I’m celebrating three years of being cancer free. If my pain, my experience, and my transparency can help someone else, God will have surely redeemed it for His purposes.
Several years ago when we were hosting a young man from Poland, he wanted to make a traditional Polish meal for our family. I took him to the grocery store to pick up the ingredients he needed and he asked me where the leek’s were.
This leek came straight out of my garden.
I had no idea. I’d never heard of a leek.
Fast forward five years and my post-cancer change in cooking. I’ve been reading about the nutritional value of whole foods and leeks jumped to the front of the list for antioxidants, Vitamin C, Vitamin K, and Vitamin A. They also contain small amounts of iron, calcium, magnesium, and zinc.
What is a leek? It’s a member of the onion family. Think of it as a big green onion.
Simply wash off the dirt, peel a couple of the outer thin layers away, cut off the roots and you’re ready to roll!
This year I chose to grow leeks in my garden and have been using them anytime I would use an onion. They are not nearly as strong smelling as onions. You won’t cry when cutting them up.
When you buy leeks in the store, they still have their thick green leaves on them. You simply cut those off and discard.
Then you use primarily the white and a little of the green above the white to chop and use in any recipe that calls for onions.
I use them in soups, stir fry, sauteeing vegetables, and more! You can even throw them into salads raw.
Slice, chop, and enjoy!
What about you? Have you ever used leeks? How do you prepare them and what recipes do you use them in?
I know your world has recently been turned upside down. You can hardly breathe and you’re worried about your future and your family’s future.
It’s possibly you’ve come to grips with your diagnosis but are recovering from surgery, or going through chemotherapy or radiation.
Regardless of where you are in the journey, this letter is for you.
Today marks two years since I first heard the four words no woman wants to hear: You have breast cancer.
In the cancer world, that makes me a two-year survivor.
During my six months of treatment, there were many breast cancer survivors who had served as my “cancer coaches” along the journey. They shared their experiences, wisdom, and knowledge.
Over the past two years, I’ve had the privilege of doing the same for those coming behind me. Today I want to share some words of encouragement from one survivor to another:
1) This too shall pass. As devastated as you feel right now, I promise this will pass. Your priorities will change and you’ll gain clarity on what’s really important in life. Take one day at a time and when that is too much, take one hour or even one minute at a time. Close your eyes, breathe deeply, and calm your anxious heart.
2) You are more than your breasts and your hair. It’s hard for anyone to lose any part of their body, but losing two parts of our body that define our femininity make it double hard. No matter what you choose: lumpectomy, mastectomy, double mastectomy, reconstruction or no reconstruction, you will survive and become accustomed to your “new normal.” If your treatment includes hair loss, it’s not the end of the world. Choose to handle this however YOU want to handle it: wig, scarves, hats, or simply embracing bald.
3) Advocate for yourself. Ask questions. Request tests. Communicate about side effects. This is not the time to be the martyr. I suffered terrible side effects from my first chemo treatment until my doctor said, “Jill, you have to let us know if the meds we give you are working or not. If they’re not, I have a dozen more options I can give you.” I learned to speak up early and not “push through” the tough days. Now more than ever there resources available online to help you understand what your treatment options are – Cure Forward is a platform that can inform you about your treatment options and help you connect with a clinical trial administrator.
4) Accept help. You don’t have the energy you usually have. Let others grocery shop, cook, clean, and help with kids if they offer. If they don’t offer, ask for what you need. You are not putting people out…you are helping them help you. (Check out www.cleaningforareason.org for complimentary housecleaning for cancer patients).
5) Don’t go to doctor appointments alone. You are hearing terminology you’ve never heard before. You have treatment options to consider. You may be emotional which causes you to miss important information the doctor communicates. Ask a spouse, friend, or family member to accompany you to all your appointments.
6) Set up a free Caring Bridge page for mass communication. This makes life simpler for you so you don’t have to contact friends and family members with test results and health updates. Those who care can subscribe to your page. When you post an update, they get an email notification. My husband even used my Caring Bridge page to provide updates during my surgery. This helped him to be focused on me instead of making dozens of phone calls to update family and friends.
7) Lean into God. We can build our life on sinking sand or on a Solid Rock. God’s word kept me strong even when I felt weak. It gave me footing when it felt like the rug was pulled out from under my feet. Right now, life is changing. You need to focus on an unchanging God who is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. Even when it is not well with your circumstances, it CAN be well with your soul.
8) Find encouragement from those who have gone before you. During my journey, I wrote several blog posts you might find helpful. Here are a few of the most popular ones:
9) Give yourself time. Cancer treatment takes a lot out of you. I’m two years out and most days I feel like myself again. I don’t think about cancer everyday anymore.Yet, there are times where I just don’t have the stamina quite like a did before cancer. That’s okay and to be expected. Give your body the time it needs to recover.
Right now, you’re in the middle of the muddle. Most likely, this time next year, cancer will be in the rearview mirror of your life. Until then, let yourself heal. Accept help when it’s offered. Draw close to those around you. Allow yourself to be loved…by your family and by God.
You’ve got this, girlfriend, and you’re going to be okay.
Tomorrow marks two years since my breast cancer diagnosis. Today I’m sharing my heart with you in hopes that you’ll take care of yourself and do all you can to prevent cancer and detect it early if it shows up in your life.
Tomorrow I’m sharing my heart with any woman who is walking through breast cancer. If you know someone who is on that journey, would you please share tomorrow’s post with them?
For today, however, I’m asking you to:
1) Do a monthly self-exam. If you’re old enough to have breasts, you’re old enough to check them! Know your body and check yourself every month.
2) If you’re 40 or older, get your annual mammogram scheduled NOW. Do not put it off. My cancer was discovered on a routine mammogram. I never felt it. My doctors never felt it.
3) If you have risk factors like family history, confer with your doctor on when to begin mammograms. My daughters’ doctors are recommending they begin mammograms at age 30 because my cancer was discovered before I turned 50.
4) If you find a lump or the appearance of your breasts change, follow up with your doctor immediately. Do not wait. Don’t tell yourself you’re too busy to go to the doctor. Don’t put your head in the sand and tell yourself it will go away. Early detection is key for curing breast cancer.
5) Maintain a Healthy Weight. Women who are overweight are at a greater risk for developing breast cancer. Not only that, but you’ll feel better and have more energy!
6) Exercise. Women who exercise have a lower risk of developing breast cancer. Aim for four to seven hours of exercise a week. A daily walk can make a big difference!
7) Eat Nutritionally. Avoid processed foods and meats. Choose hormone free meats and dairy when you can. Eat whole grains and limit refined sugar to special occasions. Read labels and put products back on the shelf that have unpronounceable ingredients in them.
8) Limit contact with environmental risks. Start using glass over plastic containers. NEVER use plastic in the microwave. Choose non-toxic cleaning products like vinegar and baking soda. Limit contact with pesticides. Buy organic options for fruits and vegetables listed on the Dirty Dozen list (these are the fruits and vegetables that absorb the highest level of pesticides).
In 2015, the International Agency for Cancer Research reported that five factors account for 1/3 of all cancers: high body mass index, low fruit and vegetable intake, lack of physical activity, tobacco use, and alcohol use. The American Institute for Cancer Research estimates that 33% of all breast cancer cases in the US could be prevented by dietary changes and exercise. (source: www.beyondboobs.org)
YOU can make a difference in you and your family’s risk factors! I wish I’d really understood that years ago. Now I know and I’m making necessary changes. I hope you will too.
So what will you do today to reduce your risk? Pick one or two of these and get started today!
After all, today’s the first day of the rest of your life.
It was one year ago today that I finished six months of treatment for triple-negative breast cancer.
Twelve months later, my hair has returned, my body is no longer swollen from steroids, I’m declared cancer-free, and I’m able to bring encouragement to others who are on the same journey I’ve been on.
A couple of months ago I dropped something off at the home of a friend who was facing a similar treatment plan. Her children, all grade school age and older, assembled in the living room, seemingly eager to meet someone who understands their now-new world of mom being sick. “I cried when I saw my mom’s drains after her surgery.” “What’s it like when you lose your hair?” “I don’t like needles, do the needles hurt?” Their questions rolled out faster than I could answer them.
When mom is sick, especially for the long haul, it’s hard on the family.
It’s especially hard on the kids.
In a blog post he wrote several months into my treatment, my 17-year-old son said his first thoughts after we received my diagnosis was, “How’s this going to affect my life?” He wasn’t particularly proud that was his first thought, but he shared honestly that it was. I appreciated his authenticity.
Even my older kids, who were out of the home experienced fear, worry, uncertainty, and especially for my girls, the long-term consideration of what this means for their own health.
Illness affects more than the person being treated. Four steps that can be remembered by the acronym CARE can help you help a child process a parent’s illness.
Chat—Talk freely about the realities of mom or dad’s illness but also talk about their life outside of sickness. They need to know it’s okay to talk about what’s happening at home but they also need to know that what’s going on in their life is important, too!
Affirm—Acknowledge their feelings, or help them identify them. Let them know those are normal feelings for what they are experiencing.
Reassure—Reassure them that life will return to normal at some time. It may be a new normal, depending on the reality of the illness, but it will not always feel like it does now.
Encourage—Encourage them to be helpful during this time, but to remember to talk about their feelings rather than keeping them inside. Offer to listen whenever they need it.
One of the best gifts to give a child when a parent is sick is one-on-one time where they can talk, vent, and just know that someone cares.
What about you? Would you add any other wisdom to help kids when their parent is dealing with a serious illness?
Most people who have received a diagnosis that changes their life remember the date the news was delivered. And the time. And the circumstances.
I was headed to the Hearts at Home office for a meeting I was supposed to lead. With my bluetooth earbud, I answered the call from my doctor’s office as I was driving. The moment she said, “Jill, are you alone?” I knew what she had to tell me.
I pulled over to the side of the road and told her that I was alone, but I needed her to tell me what she needed to tell me. The words, “you have breast cancer” reverberated in my ear. I don’t remember anything she said after that.
I never made it to the Hearts at Home office that day. Instead I called my husband who rushed towards home, and I promptly deposited myself on my friend, Crystal’s, doorstep. The minute she opened the door I melted into a puddle of tears.
The doctor’s office called back with more info, I told them to tell Crystal whatever I needed to know and handed the phone to her.
I was numb.
It’s been 365 days since that day. I’ve had a lumpectomy, chemotherapy, and radiation. I’ve been through genetic testing and my mom has researched the medical history of our extended family. My daughters will now be watched carefully by their doctors because of my diagnosis before the age of 50. Due to our genetic history (my aunt, mother, and grandmother are all survivors), one of my sisters has chosen to have a prophylactic double mastectomy and my other sister is considering the same. (My lumpectomy, chemo, and radiation reduced my chance of recurrence to 7% and my sister’s double mastectomy reduced her chance of occurrence to 7%.)
I’m one of the lucky ones who caught their cancer at stage 1. No lymph node involvement. If I would not have had triple negative breast cancer which is a rarer and more aggressive breast cancer, I would have been given a pass on the chemotherapy. However, I had to have the chemo because of my triple negative diagnosis. It’s the only way to treat triple negative breast cancer.
My cancer was found on my annual mammogram. I felt no lump. Never did. Nor did my doctor.
No matter how cancer is found, early detection makes all the difference in the world when it comes to prognosis. The earlier the better.
If you are not doing monthly breast self exams, you need to start today.
If you have not made your “annual female appointment,” please do that today.
If you are 40 or older and you don’t have your annual mammogram scheduled, I’m asking you to do that now. Not in five minutes because you’ll be interrupted by kids in five minutes and you’ll forget to do it (yes, mommy ADHD does exist!)!
Early detection saves lives. No matter whether its a mammogram, a pap smear, or any other kind of screening. I’m now 50 and I have my colonoscopy scheduled for next month!
You have to be proactive. You have to take your health seriously. No one else can do that for you.
Think of it as a stewardship principle. God gave you this body and He asks you to take care of it.
Do it for yourself. Do it for your husband. Do it for your kids.
In as much as it depends upon you, this holiday give yourself and your loved ones the gift of a chance.
When I met with my oncologist after my last treatment he told me that I now have three jobs:
1) Exercise Regularly
2) Eat Right
3) Keep my weight down
As he explained, lifestyle changes can make a difference in “turning on” the cancer cells in our body. There’s nothing we can do that will 100% remove the cancer risk, but there are things we can do to lower the risk as much as possible.
So I’m changing the way I’m shopping, how we’re eating, and my exercise plan. I’m determined to do what I can do to stay cancer-free.
The Cancer Center offers the services of a dietitian, so I’ve been taking advantage of that and meeting with her to discuss food choices and nutritional improvements.
Here are some things that are now appearing in the Savage household. I’d love to hear about any changes you are making to pursue healthy choices!
Berries…filled with antioxidants. We’re eating alot of fresh fruits and veggies these days.
Dried plantains have replaced chips in our house! They are so yummy!
I hesitated using coconut oil because I don’t like the taste of coconut, but it doesn’t taste like coconut at all!
Rather than fish oil capsules, I’m taking liquid fish oil as recommended by my doctor and my dietitian.
We’re trying to get more healthy oils into our bodies, so the dietitian recommended flax oil. I pour it over our salads. I like it as my only salad dressing.
While I love me some Jif, I’m learning to like natural peanut butter, made with only peanuts. This brand is the creamiest I’ve found.
Aluminum Free Deodorant is all I’m using these days.
Surgery. Chemotherapy. Radiation. 8 months of treatment is now behind me. My oncologist, who I will now see every 3 months for the next two years, said I now have three responsibilities to reduce my chances of recurrence:
1) Exercise 2.5 hours a week
2) Eat well (whole foods, very little sugar, lots of fruits and veggies)
3) Keep my weight down.
My hair is growing back, I have baby eyelashes, my skin is healing, my strength is returning, I’ve finally lost the 12 lbs of chemo weight I gained, and while I’m looking for life to return to normal, it will be a new normal.
I am forever changed because of this journey. Certainly my body bears the scars of surgery and radiation, but it’s my heart that’s seen the most transformation. My compassion for those facing health issues has increased. My understanding of how the body of Christ is supposed to care for one another has deepened. My love for God’s Word has been strengthened.
No one walks a journey like this alone.
I’m grateful to my husband and 17-year-old son, Austin, who have walked this journey with me every single day. It hasn’t been easy for mom to be “out of commission.” Mark shaved his head in solidarity. Austin made me laugh along the way and wrote about his feelings in this raw, honest blog post.
I’m grateful to my adult kids and their families who have stayed the course with me. I’m grateful for complete strangers who became friends along the way.
There’s Christene, Angela, and Judy who I dubbed my chemo coaches. They are women who were just months ahead of me on the journey.
My friend Lisa and both of my daughters helped me shop for wigs.
Crystal put to use her Nurse Practitioner degree and served as my medical consultant.
Jonna kept track of all my tests, treatments, and procedures, praying and touching base every time.
Robin gave me a hug nearly every time I had one of my 33 radiation treatments.
Amy has sent me a scripture and prayer on Facebook every single day since my diagnosis. Every. Single. Day.
Amy sent me scripture and a prayer every single day for 8 months. She says she’s committed for a year.
Dozens of wonderful long-time friends and new friends brought meals. And hundreds, if not thousands of wonderful Hearts at Home, Facebook, and blog friends prayed, encouraged, and shared hope along the way.
Over the past 8 months, I’ve received prayer blankets, hats, cards, texts, letters, gift cards, Facebook messages, flowers….all at just the right time when my heart needed the encouragement.
I am truly humbled by the love that has been shown to me.
The words “thank you” just don’t seem like enough. But they are all I have.