Friday, February 28, 2014

When Cancer Camp Gets Real

Dave and I have been jokingly calling our stay here at Angeles Hospital "cancer camp" because the doctors have been so positive about my prognosis, the entire staff has been so overwhelmingly kind and compassionate and we've been enjoying so much downtime lounging about.  Frankly, it's been much easier to cope with reality of a three-week hospital stay for cancer treatments by keeping our sense of humor in tact.

We recognize, however, the seriousness of the situation, and there have been a number of moments when cancer camp has gotten very real.  Post surgery, for example. Outside of childbirth, I've never experienced that much pain and discomfort, so there was no pretending we were just hanging out, having s'mores around the campfire during the first few days of my recovery.  But each day, as the pain eases and I get more of my mobility back, I have been better able put the reality of surgery behind me.

The one reality that can't be ignored is that many of the other patients in the program here are very sick.  We've had the pleasure of getting to know a number of them, and most are stage 4, some with serious complications.  Our next-door neighbor was here for a month to treat lung and liver cancer.  We saw her out of her room only a few times, but I'd wake each night to hear her racking coughs, sad that the only thing I could do was send her blessings for the relief of her pain.

There's another breast cancer patient here whose cancer came back in her bones.  She'd unfortunately received some pretty terrible care back in the states, with negligent and uncaring doctors who for many months ignored her reports of pain despite her earlier diagnosis.  Needless to say, her spirits were low when she arrived and her belief in this process seemed skeptical at best.  Fortunately, over the past week, we've seen her outlook become more positive and she seems encouraged by her progress here.

But by far the hardest journey to witness was that of our neighbor from across the hall, a nice man who checked in with late stage pancreatic cancer and a number of complications that made it difficult for the medical team here to treat his cancer.  Over the past two weeks, we got to know him and his lovely wife, sharing their hope and encouragement that they were in the best possible place, as the doctors at home had given up.  Every night, Dave and I prayed that he would get his miracle.   

Sadly, we woke this morning to an empty room across the hall; our kind neighbor had passed away during the night.  The miracle he received was not meant to be the one for which we had prayed.  His two sons had come down from southern California to be with him and their mother, so we know he had the comfort of family at the end, but our hearts are breaking for them all.

This morning has been a somber one, as each of us here again confronts the reality that not all patients can be saved, despite the efforts of even the best physicians.  We are continuing to pray for the family in their time of loss, and also for each of us who remain, that we may continue to focus our positive energy on our own journeys ahead.

I know the heaviness of this day will ease and I will soon bear witness to yet another reminder of the hope, beauty and grace that is life.  For now, I will continue to focus on making the most of my journey and receiving the benefits of the rest of my treatments while I'm here.

Blessings and love to you all.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Meet My Cancer-Fighting Army

I'm now five days post-op and feeling great.  Each day is getting better. 

The surgeon said the procedure went perfectly and he was able to take out everything he wanted with clear margins. I'm still a bit sore where the lymph nodes were removed (amazingly, the breast itself doesn't hurt because they took the nerve endings along with the tissue, but there are still plenty of nerve endings in my armpit). I've been using my right arm as directed and we've been up and about since Monday, walking the corridor and courtyard outside. They took my drain out last night and let me just say that was a relief. 

While I've been recovering from the surgery, my treatments have continued to work their magic on any left over cells floating around my body. Frankly, I have to believe all of this work to boost my immune system has helped me heal from the surgery as well, as several of the doctors and other patients have remaked on how quickly I seem to be improving. 

Here's a brief rundown on the various therapies I've be receiving, with links to the full technical explanations from Angeles Hospital's functional oncology program site.

Ozone (
I've had two types of ozone therapies: 

1. Systemic ozone therapy, which involves oxidating the blood because cancer cells cannot survive in high oxygen concentrations, and 

2. Transdermal ozone, which serves as a detox.  

With the systemic ozone, the doctor slowly introduces ozone (O3) to my blood, carefully mixing it in a  syringe for several minutes, then injecting it back into my blood stream via the catheter. The ozone weakens and kills the cancer cells by inhibiting their metabolism and creating a peroxide imbalance, effectively breaking down the outer layer and destroying the malignant cells through cell lysis. When I'm finished, I'll have had a total of six systemic ozone treatments, all painless and about 30 minutes each. 

The transdermal ozone is basically a mini sauna that looks like a turtle shell.  You sit in it with just your head poking out while they pump hot steam and ozone into it so you sweat out the toxins for about a half hour.  I've had two of these treatments and am due for one more.  It's a little intense, and I'm glad I'm not claustrophobic, but really no big deal. 

Hyperthermia (
The hyperthermia treatment is a three-hour process over which all five liters of my blood are slowly run through a machine that heats it up to 108 degrees Fahrenheit and reintroduces it via the catheter.   They also put a heated blanket they over me to help raise my body temperature. It is painless, though very warm.  The high blood and body temperature negatively affects the cancer cells' ability to function and helps reduce blood flow to any tumors. While the high blood temperature is damaging to the rogue cells, it is safe for the rest of the body because unlike a 108 degree fever, there's no infection involved. I've had one hyperthermia treatment and will have a second tomorrow. 

High Dose Vitamin C
As I mentioned in a previous blog post, there have been a number of studies that have proven the effectiveness of high doses of vitamin C when administered intravenously in annihilating cancer cells. 

Bio-Immune Cell Therapy (
Meet my very own cancer fighting army. These immune system super heroes have been recruited and trained specifically for this battle. Basically, the cell therapy works to super charge my immune system's ability to seek and destroy malignant cells.

Last week they drew blood and sent it to a lab where my natural killer (NK) cells, lymphocites and dendritic cells were cultivated and specifically programmed to track down and annihilate the cancer cells in my body.  The activated lymphocites and natural killer cells are the soldiers that hunt and kill cancer cells and the dendritic cells are the generals that tell them how to recognize which cells to attack.

In the lab, technicians grow the patient's dendritic cells in an incubator with the actual tumor antigens, so that when the new dendritic cells are put back in the blood stream, they wave around the tumor antigens like a flag, signaling that those are the cells the immune cell fighters should eliminate.  I love picturing this powerful army taking charge (and taking no prisoners).  

The lymphocites were reintroduced to my bloodstream via IV on Monday and the dendritic cells were injected to the tissue of my leg over three days, the last of which I received today. I was told I might experience some fever-like symptoms as the immune system was fully activated, but I only experienced a little tiredness on Monday and took a great nap. Overall, I continue to feel great and definitely think my immune system is firing on all cylinders. 

We are on target to check out on Saturday and will spend another couple of nights with our friends in San Diego before flying home on Monday.  As wonderful and life-changing as our stay here has been, we can't wait to get home to see all of our dear ones, most of all little Charlie, who has been living it up with this grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins at home.  He has been thriving while we've been here, though we foresee a little culture shock in his future when the current chapter of being spoiled rotten comes to a close (this actually applies to Dave and me as well; it's amazing how accustomed one can become to being catered to). 

For now, I'll be enjoying the home stretch of cancer camp and the wonderful people it has brought into our lives. I am thrilled that I will finish treatment on my actual birthday and then get to celebrate the beginning of the rest of my healthy and long life in the company of dear friends and my true love.  We will surely toast my cancer-fighting army and the full battalion of our supporters!


Thursday, February 20, 2014

The One Where I Break Up with My Boob

Dear Right Breast,

As we prepare to go our separate ways tomorrow morning, there are a few things I want to say about our relationship:

1. It's not me, it's you.  Look, I don't blame you for trying to kill me.  It's not your fault things went a little haywire in there.  I'm sure it wasn't malicious.  Everyone makes mistakes, but this relationship isn't working for me any longer, and I think it's best to make a clean break.

2.  Despite everything, I'm grateful for our time together.  We both know you were never going to get me any modeling contracts or movie deals, but you did serve nature's purpose until this point, holding up strapless dresses and feeding our child.  So that was pretty cool of you. 

3.  I'm not going to miss you.  I don't mean to be harsh, and please don't take this personally.  It's just that I don't feel my femininity is tied to your presence, and frankly, after how you've been behaving lately, all I've been doing is obsessing about what's gone wrong.  We both know that's not healthy for either of us.  

4.  I won't be looking back.  Strange as it will be to get on the plane and return home without you, I realize that leaving you behind is a necessary step for my own well being.  Sometimes a girl just has to be a little selfish, right?

5.  I fully intend to replace you.  I swear it isn't to make you jealous.  It's just that since we clearly aren't compatible for the long term, I figure it's only fair that I seek out something better.  After all you've put me through, it's time to focus on me.  I'm sure you understand. 

As we come to the end of our time together, I thank you for your service and for all that you've taught me.  Frankly, without your little transgression, I might not have come to recognize just how strong I am.  I certainly wouldn't have been humbled to tears by the outpouring of support from a vast network of beautiful people lifting me up in their hearts and prayers.  For each friendship that has been strengthened, rekindled or started anew though this journey, my very DNA has been changed for the better, and for that I am so incredibly honored and grateful.  

I also have to acknowledge what a powerful kick in the pants you've delivered in the past few months. If you hadn't gone off the deep end, I probably wouldn't have been shocked into submission to live the healthiest version of myself, and I might not have gained such a deep appreciation for good health or fully accepted my responsibility to care for the body I've been given.  

So while it isn't going to work out for the two of us, please know I don't wish you any ill will.  You, like all things in my life, were put here for a reason and I appreciate all you've done.  

Now please pack up all of your dysfunction and be on your way, my friend.  

God bless.

Leaving Mexico with One Less Maraca

I have some more great news to share:  I'll offiicially be in remission by the time I check out of the hospital and will be leaving my tumors here in Mexico!

Over the course of the past week, we've been talking to the doctors about the possibilty of having my mastectomy while I'm here.  They feel it's the most effective way to remove the cancer "load" posed by the tumors and then allow the various therapies I'm receiving while I'm here, coupled with my at home protocol, to clean up any remaining cancer cells.  In short, as soon as the tumors are removed, I'll be in remission, and I'll stay that way by continuing my at-home protocol, nutrition plan, supplements and healthy lifestyle.

I knew from the time of my diagnosis that surgery would happen at some point, so I'm frankly very happy to be doing it at this stage of the game.  I did not want radiation, which my conventional U.S. doctors were remcommending post-chemo and operation, and my doctors here agree radiation won't be necessary with their therapies.  I trust the surgeon completely, and all the research we've done confirms he's the best of the best in Mexico.  There are even cancer patients who come to him from the states because he's able to successfully perform complex surgeries their doctors can't.

The oncologist told me yesterday that based on what I'm reporting, we know the treatments are very likely already shrinking the tumors and reducing any inflammation, as well as cleaning up any unhealthy cells that may be floating around.  He and all of the doctors - including the surgeon and internist who examined me a couple of days ago - agree the surgery will be low risk and complication-free.  Once again, I thank God for my overall good health in making this all possible.

As for the details of the surgery itself, on Saturday they will do a single mastectomy and remove the first and second branches of my lymph nodes, leaving the third branch in tact, which prevents any risk of lymphodema or uncontrolled bleeding on that side.  The surgeon will put in a tissue expander that will be used in the reconstruction process, which we'll do at home since insurance will cover 100% of that process (I suppose that's the one benefit of maxing out your deductible in the first month of the year, though it's insane to me that they will cover not a dime toward my original mammogram because I'm not 40 and they don't consider it "preventive;" they will, however, pick up the entire bill for my new rack.  Bizarre, but I digress).  

The medical team is confident I'll have plenty of time to recover fully before we travel home, and I feel good about healing here under the care of the top-knotch doctors and nurses (and their readily available IV pain medication, if needed).  I'm frankly far more comfortable with the surgeon here than I was with the one I saw at home.  I know I am in the very best of hands.

It's refreshing to know that when I turn 36 next week here at Angeles, it will be minus those pesky tumors and that I will be on my way to a new start and a lifetime of cancer-free living.   My healing journey here in Mexcico has been nothing short of incredible, so I'm more than happy to leave those unhealthy cells behind.  I may be down one original maraca when I get home, but I know the band will be even stronger.  I'll just start auditions for its replacement soon. 

In the meatime, I can daydream about the new rack the universe has apparently decided I should have.  Happy birthday to me!

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Monday, February 17, 2014

Pac Man and Gummy Bears

Today was my third round of IPT, the low-dose, targeted chemo.  Once again, there were no side effects, just what's become the familiar woozy and warm feeling of low blood sugar induced by the insulin that quickly abates once my sugar levels return to normal.

During the treatment, the oncologist, Dr. Donato Perez - with whom I've been joking that the absence of nausea is 50% his expertise and cutting-edge treatment and 50% my sheer stubborness - asked whether I'd noticed any changes in my breast tissue.  In fact, I told him what I had relayed to the attending doctor on Friday: That the inflammation seems greatly reduced and the tumors feel a bit softer and smaller.  In fact, I now have a hard time finding the smaller mass at all.

When I informed the oncologist of this, he smiled and said, "Great news, our partnership is working.  If your tumors start to feel softer, like gummy bears, and are less tender or the overall inflammation is going down, it's a sign that you're feeling the success of the treatment already."  

While I'd originally wondered whether I had perhaps been reading too much into changes I no doubt have been wanting to find, Dr. Perez assured me that the combined treatments can very well have such an effect at this stage.  I can't tell you how gratifying it is to feel progress after just one week, knowing there are still a number of amazing healing treatments ahead.

As I type this, I'm hooked up to an IV of high dose Vitamin C, noted for its cancer-fighting properties and I'm picturing my t-cells as happy little Pac Men systematically gobbling up all of the funky cells.  Chomp, chomp, little buddies!  Go get 'em.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Where the Magic Happens

"This where the magic happens."  These words have been swirling around in my head since the moment we landed in San Diego last Saturday.  I give full credit to a lovely friend (you know who you are, you wonderful lady) who told me how proud she was that we were willing to listen to our instincts and pursue the treatment that felt right, and for being brave enough to step outside the societal norm.  As she so sagely put it, that's where the magic happens.  I am so very grateful for the surge of light and confidence I feel every time I feel these words.  

During our brief visit with my dear college friend in San Diego, she drove us to the mountains where we picked wild oranges and ate them fresh off the tree, then took us to see the sunset over the Pacific...where the magic happens.  

Upon arrival at Angeles Hospital, the staff and physicians have been the perfect blend of competence and cheerful kindness, working to set my cells straight and offering me confidence that I'm going to be a great patient with remission so close in my sights...where the magic happens.  

With each of the treatments I've received so far, I can feel they are doing their part to either weaken those confused, useless cells or mobilize my immune system to do its job, all without making me sick or weak...where the magic happens.

I can't believe it's been nearly five days since our arrival, and I'm happy to say that the hospital is spotless, with an extremely attentive staff, and we haven't wanted for anything.  Each treatment has gone well with no complications.  The only discomfort has been from the catheter they needed to install into my main artery for the IVs and blood draws, but that's starting to feel better already.

So far I've had two of four doses of Insulin Potentiated Therapy (IPT), a targeted low-dose chemo therapy. The oncologist used my tumor chemistry to determine which chemo drugs would have the best effect and introduces it with insulin to lower my blood sugar, effectively making the cancer cells - and only the cancer cells because they thrive on sugar - hungry so they gobble up the chemo. This has the benefit of going straight to the cells we want to remove and prevents the healthy cells from taking on the toxins.  

The analogy the doctor used was this: Think of your cells as living behind the doors of the rooms in this hospital corridor.  The rooms with cancer cells in them have several locks on them, where the normal cells may only have one lock.  Conventional chemo floods the entire hospital cooridor from the floor to the ceiling, wall-to-wall, betting on the high dose either breaking down the locks or the eventuality that the cancer cells will get hungry enough to open their doors and partake of the little toxin picnic.  Unfortunately, the normal cells get hungry in that time too, and they also take in the toxins, with what's left over still floating around in the body.  This is what results in the side effects, ranging from hair loss to nausea and vomiting to numbness and aching and so on.  

With IPT, they're able to use only 10% of the drug levels, reducing the toxicity.  Further, by coupling the chemo with the insulin, the cancer cells become so starved they rush out to get it, amplifying the effectiveness of the drug and leaving the healthy cells unharmed.  And all of this happens in about 30 minutes from start to finish for each treatment.  

Those who know me well are aware that one of my life goals is to avoid vomiting at all costs (sometimes it truly is a matter of my stubborness, but I'll do whatever it takes; even Charlie was willed into submission during his nine month stay at Hotel Kelly), so you can imagine how thrilled I am to have had no side effects from the IPT.  In the meantime, I'm picturing the "happy juice" swooshing about melting the miscreant cells away while my immune system gets pumped up and ready for its own Battle Royale.

In addition to the IPT, I've had IVs of selenium and tracefusin, which are immune boosters.  I've also had the first of several systemic ozone therapies, a process designed by Dr. Perez himself to introduce ozone and oxygen into my blood stream to break down the cancer cells.  This too was a simple IV procedure using my own blood mixed with the compounds and reintroduced through my catheter.  Another lovely short procedure with no side effects.

In addition to the doctors leading my protocol and the oncologist, we've seen a surgeon and the nutritionist.  The good news is that the restrictive diet I've been following at home has been extremely close to what they recommend (I'm sure some of you are cringing at my use of the words "good news" and "restrictive diet" in the same sentence, but the overachiever in me is relieved to already have the protocol down.  It's like getting an A on the pre-test, and yes, I'm a total nerd).  

In essence, they recommend an all-organic very low sugar, gluten-free, dairy-free, low-carbohydrate (whole grain) diet with plenty of vegetables and lean protein (wild caught fish and and hormone-free chicken, which are my preference anyway).  I can still have fruit, but given the love affair cancer cells have with sugar, even fruits are rather limited.  Unfortunately, my own life-long love affair with sweets appears to be at an end.  While it makes me a little sad to think of a lifetime without much of the sweet stuff, I'm trying to think of it as if I'm walking away from something (or someone) that was a good time but that I always knew wasn't really good for me anyway so I can focus on everything that is truly best for me.

All of the doctors have been clear that making these changes part of my lifestyle for the long run will give me optimal health and wellness, but that I do need to live a normal life.  As they put it, it's good to have a glass of wine on my birthday (though not this year, as I'll be getting IVs instead) or cake at our son's birthday party.  The key is to maintain the healthy lifestyle and not let the treats become the norm.

In practice, the nutrition plan has meant for mostly very good meals (aside from the fact that they served me salad for breakfast today; I mean, I love my veggies and all, but salad? For breakfast?).  I've had fish with asparagus and wild rice, tuna over veggies and greens, lentil soups, a veggie omelet and even a turkey sandwich on gluten-free bread. They bring me three squares a day with three snacks (one of which is a rather unpleasant drink consisting of grainy protein powder mixed with water and a couple of berries, but down the hatch in the name of good health).  Other snacks have included guacamole with whole grain gluten-free chips, celery with almond butter, roasted nuts and green juices. 

Dave - who by the way has been the best cancer camp buddy and Waterboy I could ever ask for, always making sure I'm comfortable and have everything I could possibly need - also has been fed very well.  While he's not getting my special organic cancer diet, the regular hospital food they've been serving him is leaps and bounds above anything we've ever seen served in a hospital back home.  He's getting fresh fruits and veggies, lean proteins and whole grains too.

To fill our time during and between treatments, we've been doing a lot of reading, working on crosswords and watching some Netflix, which has suited me well the past few days, as I have been taking it easy while the catheter soreness subsides.  We have, however, been able to get out to enjoy some sunshine in the hospital's courtyard, and after the brutal winter we've had up north, it is luxurious. Frankly, something as simple as feeling the sun on my face and catching a whiff of the sunblock on my skin is pretty intoxicating after feeling like my nose hairs were frozen for most of the month of January.

All around, I am just so incredibly blessed to be here and am confident we are in the right place for my treatment.  The magic is happening, people. I can feel it.

So Happy Valentines Day to all of you, my lovies!  My gift this year is the love I know you're sending me from near and far away.  It fills my heart near to bursting.

Much love and magic to you all!

Friday, February 7, 2014

My Warrior Specs

You may recall the part of my story where I credited my amazing (and merciless) personal trainer Karen for my early detection. It was she who designed the punishing workout with the insane push ups (seriously, Karen, what was with those?!) that left me sore for so long that I got nervous and started obsessively checking my girls for a problem.  Fast forward a few weeks and here I am with a couple of lumps, some confused cells and plans to go South of the Border to have them escorted out of my body.  

Well, as if Karen wasn't already awesome enough, she surprised me after this morning's cardio yoga class with a little care package including these beauties. I am so in love. 

She tells me they'll be great for when I have visitors and don't have time to put on makeup, but I'm thinking I may wear them the whole time.  I wonder what the Mexican doctors will think about my choice of accessories.

Regardless of the reception I get, they are my sassy kick cancer in the you-know-what specs and I intend to rock them. 

Bon voyage!

(By the way, that puny weight is Karen's idea of a "travel and recovery weight."  If only she'd let us use something so light in one of her real workouts!)

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Tiny Sparkles of Healing Light

When I go to my "happy place," I'm so often drawn to Puerto Rico, where memories of basking on the island's beautiful beaches, hiking in the clouds of the El Yunke rainforest and sipping pina coladas bring back feelings of calm and joy.

One of the most incredible experiences we had during our visits to Puerto Rico was kayaking in one of its two bioluminscent bays, where the water glows in the dark.  In this amazingly balanced ecosystem live tiny organisms called dinoflagellates, oceanic plankton that generate a glow when the water is physically disturbed (think microscopic aquatic fireflies).  In your kayak you navigate a watery maze of mangrove trees in the dark of night (the best time to witness the "phosphorescence of the sea").  Eventually the narrow mangrove opens up to this beautiful, wide-open and tranquil bay, where you spend time swirling your oars around, filled with awe as you create glowing ribbons in the water.  It's the kind of place where you can't question that God put such beauty on earth as a gift to His children.

While people can no longer swim in the bay due to the danger posed to the dinoflagellates by the chemicals in our sunscreen, lotions and cosmetics, lately I've been imagining myself floating in the warm water of the bay.  I'm surrounded by tiny sparkles of healing light twinkling as my white cells wash the confused cells away.

It's not hard to imagine that my body is like the dinoflagellates, which need a pure, clean environment to thrive.  I know I am doing great things for my immune system by eliminating the toxins from my food, water and household and beauty products.  I'm focused on the fact that I'm playing an active role in my health and healing and am confident we've found the right team of experts to give my tiny healing sparkles what they need to return my own ecosystem to its purest, healthiest form.

As we get ready to leave for Mexico this weekend, we are excited to begin this journey to complete wellness.  Many thanks to each of our loved ones who have stepped in with offers of support while we're away and to those who are sending us positive, healing energy.  Where I would normally have anxiety about leaving Charlie to spend three weeks in a hospital, instead I feel calm and centered.  I know this is thanks to your prayers and good vibes, and for that I am immensely grateful.

We will post periodic updates on our stay at Angeles Hospital on this blog (you can sign up for email alerts using the button on the right navigation) and will have WiFi access, so we should be able to email and Skype.  We will also use Facetime for iPhone users and the free smartphone app Viber, which you can find on iTunes and Google Play.

Love, light and tiny sparkles to you all!