The Tight Squeeze

I’ve always cherished a good hug but this last trip to Denver as I hug my friends hello and hug them goodbye I noticed we squeezed each other tighter. I lived in Denver for eight fabulous years, found my best friends and the greatest group of friends I’ll ever know. I left the life I built in Colorado to be closer to my sister as she battled breast cancer. I made a promise to myself and my friends I’d visit Denver every chance I got. Over the last nine months I didn’t make that trip as I literally found myself fighting for my life. They sent cards, texts, flowers and all the love they could bottle up. Many even came to visit to help me battle the best I knew how. Once I was fortunate enough to feel as though I could put it behind me as well as healed enough to appreciate a good squeeze, I came to Denver for a 48 hour trip to celebrate life…a life I get to keep living. No time will be enough to spend with my friends that I so wish I got to see more. But the time we spend together was precious. As I hugged them each goodbye I felt them hold me tighter and longer as my battle reminded us all that life is not infinite and we never know what is around the corner. To my friends in Colorado may you know you have a special place in my heart. I felt your extra long hug, a hug that we both didn’t want to end, full of love and uncertainty as to when we will get to see each other again. Life is short…hug those you love longer and tighter unless of course their new boobs haven’t fully healed.


Perspective – the nightmare and the dream


Perspective, appreciation and an experience of a story harder than your own will enlighten a positive attitude, a stronger will and a determination to fight harder.

My story of breast cancer has never failed to glisten a listener’s eyes as I tell them about my experience which is a nightmare for many. I was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was young, strong, happy and healthy. As I explain my situation, I never fail to  acknowledge my beautiful sister who also battled breast cancer. My sister, Jill is my inspiration every day. She was my role model all my life then became my best friend. Her ability to fight with a big smile on her face, a cheery voice and a heart always more concerned with others than herself are cemented in my mind. I wake up daily knowing the day ahead is a day Jill would appreciate, no matter the challenge. At the end of her battle, she made me promise, to never take for granted the ability to eat, breath, walk and think…four things that are taken for granted until they are gone. She lost her ability to do all of these things but she never lost the ability to love and inspire. Her battle with breast cancer was a nightmare. An absolute nightmare. My experience with breast cancer has been a dream in comparison. My sister was diagnosed when she was 7 months pregnant whereas I had just finished my summer trips. Jill was diagnosed with Stage III breast cancer and because of Jill I was diagnosed with Stage I. Jill’s doctor and her discussed the risk to her unborn baby as well as her own life. My doctors and I discussed how I was keeping my hair. Jill had a baby that deserved to be her priority and my health was mine. Jill’s health insurance was inconsistent as an occupational therapist in public schools transitioning to private practice and I have the best health insurance working for Amazon. Jill shaved her head not just once but twice and I learned to save my own hair as well as others. Jill recovered from her mastectomy unable to hold her newborn and I had a 15 night sleep over at a best friend’s. Every part of my journey I was able to reflect on the challenges Jill faced and the ease of my journey compared to hers.

Many have asked how I keep a positive attitude amidst a cancer diagnosis and my answer is…perspective. There is always someone who has a more challenging road ahead. For me, it was my sister and her journey was in the past. Jill is now my guardian angel, walking alongside me on this journey. We experienced the nightmare. And now we get to appreciate the dream.


Chemo’s not for me

Cancer was my greatest fear but second to cancer was undergoing chemotherapy! Chemo wrecked my dad and sister. The chemo made them sick and weak. They were nauseous, exhausted and depleted. They couldn’t keep food down and even when they could their taste buds had changed so it was hard to eat as healthy as they wanted. Their bodies ached making it hard to exercise and do their day to day life. Their neuropathy became so bad that walking and washing the dishes or their hands hurt. To lose the ability to walk, eat healthy foods, cook healthy foods, wash your hands, take baths…neuropathy can make all of these things dreadful. I can’t tell if the chemotherapy or their cancer killed them. I know it was the cancer but the chemotherapy weakened their bodies.

I promised myself I would never do chemotherapy….then I was told I have cancer. The doctors told me I too had breast cancer, the same disease that just three years prior my sister lost her battle to. During Jill’s battle with breast cancer she went through more bull shit than anyone could of imagined. My sister lost her hair twice from chemotherapy….not just once but twice. I aggressively got the quickest surgery date with the tenacity that if they couldn’t remove my breasts ridden with cancer by the end of next week I would go to the city that could. I digested the fact that my breasts had to go. Breasts that I had always thought were the perfect handfuls. Breasts that I never would of gone through surgery to increase their size…now these breasts had the same cancer that killed my sister and I wanted them gone yesterday.

You can take my breasts…but not my hair. Losing my hair legitimately kept me up at night. Imaging myself bald made me feel sick and I couldn’t think of anything that would make me FEEL sicker going through chemotherapy than my bald head. My sisters best friends promised me a wig of my own hair to lighten the blow but the necessity to regrow my hair and have short hair cuts that I never wanted made me sad. I already had to lose my perfect handfuls, the ability to breast feed my babies and most likely the ability to have a “normal” pregnancy….my hair too? It all just felt too much. Not fair.

But…I knew I was blessed. I caught my cancer early. The loss of my sister to breast cancer was the reason I will get to live. I was in a program to detect it early and I caught it at Stage 1 in the right breast and Stage 0 in the left breast. Six months prior to my diagnosis, the cancer was not visible to the doctors’ eyes proving its aggressive nature. I have a powerful guardian angel that knows all too well the ins and outs of breast cancer and won’t allow me to have the same fate. A friend/coworker of mine sent me a news article about cold caps . My tenacity post surgery was to figure out how to keep my hair and make sure that no one else has to lose their hair on top of everything else breast cancer takes from women. Many of the staff at my treatment center were negative to the results of cold caps and thought I was torturing myself and would not be successful. I was determined to prove them wrong. I have received eight treatments of Taxol and have lost NO hair.

My biggest fear

Cancer was something that people got when they were older, or at least that’s what I thought.

My grandfather, Grandpa Larry, battled acute leukemia for years and passed away at the young age of 54. I was nine when he passed away and of his dozen grandchildren, I am one of the only ones who was old enough to remember our wonderful Grandpa Larry. He battled leukemia by spending days and weeks receiving infusions at the hospital…testament to the outstanding progress that has been made to make treatments easier for cancer patients, however, out of terrible necessity. I remember my Grandpa Larry growing his own wheat grass in a green house and juicing it daily. As a cancer diagnosis becomes one’s reality, our health and how to regain our health becomes our focus. Wheat grass is a known healer containing all minerals, vitamins A, B, C, E, I and K along with protein, chlorophyll and 17 amino acids. In my grandpa’s honor, wheat grass is a common food on my grocery list in which I add to my green smoothies.

For decades, cancer in our family was something grandparents battled. My Grandpa Dick and Grandma Lonny on my mom’s side both battled cancers and were able to regain their health. My Grandpa Dick passed away this year (2016) at the age of 85 but not from cancer!

In 2008, my dad was told he had pancreatic cancer at the young age of 48. I watched my dad fight for three years. He had more fight in him than anyone I’d ever known. He was a fighter pilot for the US Air Force until I was 9 when he had a seizure and found out he had a brain tumor. The doctors told him he had 6 months to live. He didn’t just live 6 months, he lived another 16 years! He was medically retired from the US Air Force and became a master in real estate and home remodels. 13 years after his brain tumor, he saw that he was developing jaundice and his skin and eyes were turning yellow. He went to the doctor and was told he had pancreatic cancer. He had a wipple procedure to remove as much of the cancer as possible. He went into remission just in time for my sister’s dream wedding in Maui. Our family danced our hearts out. When the cancer came back, it came back with a vengeance, my dad passed away in 2011.

The most heart wrenching of all my cancer stories is of my beautiful sister, Jill. She wasn’t just a sister. She was the sister you dream of. She was my best friend. I have become a lot like her because I always thought she was incredible and looked up to her my whole life. I wanted to be just like her! I could write a whole book about my sister…which I am doing…stay tuned for “Dear Ricah” coming 2020. Jill, was diagnosed at the young age of 28 with breast cancer in November of 2010. In a blink of an eye her entire world, and ours, changed. She had just finished graduate school, started her career, married the man of her dreams and discovered she was bringing a baby girl into this world. Jill was seven months pregnant when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Imagine…seven months pregnant and hearing those three dreaded words, “You have cancer”. For three years, Jill struggled with many different kinds of chemo therapies, radiation, a double mastectomy and brought a beautiful, baby girl into this world. We watched her fight for her life while pregnant and while caring for a newborn baby who is now 6 years old. We all hoped this nightmare would be behind her. Tests to follow brought results which were hardly what we hoped, prayed and wished for…the breast cancer had spread. She was now Stage IV and battled cancer for the rest of her life. Jill passed away on October 14th, 2013 with dignity, surrounded by love and showing all who loved her the true meaning of life.

In 2016, I faced my biggest fear. Before Jill passed away she made me promise I would figure out how to be screened early for cancers. She didn’t think I would get cancer but she trusted that if I learned how to do it, I would help others in my family to get screened. It took me years to recognize, appreciate and overpower the fear inside me. After receiving genetics testing and genetics counseling, I was finally enrolled in the Reduce Your Risk program at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance (SCCA). In February of 2016, I had my first screening at SCCA. My first meeting was with Heidi Trott where we discussed all the ways I can help to reduce my risk and I received an MRI. I was warned that being young (29 years old) that I might receive a lot of false positives and be requested to undergo biopsies that in the end would not be breast cancer. My MRI came back clear. I was relieved and so was my family and friends. I went back for testing again in September. I received a mammogram, followed by an ultrasound, followed by a follow-up for three biopsies. The biopsies revealed that I had breast cancer…Stage 1 in the right breast and pre-cancerous or Stage 0 in the left breast. They re-examined the MRI from February and still see no signs of the cancer at that point. On September 21, 2016,  I was told I had cancer. My biggest fear became my reality.