Breast Cancer’s Longest-Lasting Side Effect

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When I was asked to contribute a piece for Huffington Post’s series in recognition of Breast Cancer Awareness month, I thought about the myriad ways I could address the topic. I have tried to find the levity in the situation and have a running list of “Top Ten” this and thats regarding what it’s like to have had the disease and to have been treated for it.

I feel like it is important to highlight parts of the breast cancer life that others might not get to see or appreciate without someone else revealing it. I struggle with my own fear about the impact of cancer nearly every day in one sense or another.

Attached is the piece I wrote for Huffington Post. I hope that it may serve as an explanation for some, about the ongoing nature of what it feels like to wear these genes.

I Survived Breast Cancer, But Now I’m Afraid For My Kids

The One Vehicle I Never Wanted to Drive

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I don’t recall my first views of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s pink stucco exterior, or its halls lined with huge photos alternating between patient success testimonials, physician quotes of confidence about research and facility innovation, and picturesque beaches from across the globe. Salty tears and deathly fears quickly washed away any initial impressions.

What I do remember is feeling completely overwhelmed with the responsibility of keeping my husband, George, alive. That, the lobby, and feeling like all I saw around me was death and wheelchairs.

George is a doctor, a really good one. But when he was diagnosed with recurrent metastatic melanoma, he needed to disconnect from the reality of what he faced and allow me to vet the medical options available. He just wanted to play golf and escape, to bury his head in the sand pit.

He had been initially diagnosed with stage IIIA disease five years earlier and had done quite well on a drug called Interferon. It was a treatment meant to utilize his immune system to seek out and destroy any remaining, floating cancer cells in his system that weren’t cut out during surgery. He made it five years without incident, but there must have been a few crafty ones left that evaded the Interferon and took up residence because the cancer came raging back.

Melanoma is unlike any other cancer I know. You can never, ever relax your guard once you have been unlucky enough to be diagnosed with an advanced stage. It can resurface at any time, in any place and often, just when you think you are in the clear, it rears its head and proves just how silly and naïve you were to imagine you had any control at all. If cancer is evil, which I believe it is, melanoma may in fact be the devil.

Breast cancer, on the other hand, is like the minivan of the disease. It tends to be obvious and follow a relatively predictable pattern; there are lots of the same kinds and they’re pretty easy to spot. Sometimes breast cancer can fool you and stealthily hide a super-charged motor under the hood. Or it can occasionally house lots of friends behind its tempered glass, waiting to unload and create havoc in multiple parts of your body, but because breast cancer is so common, there are lots of places to have it treated and many options to try.

It may not be an accident that, as a breast cancer patient myself, I own an Odyssey. I guess it also might not be a coincidence that, as a notorious lead-foot, my cancer turned out to be pretty aggressive.

I certainly consulted MD Anderson (which is based in Houston, Texas) when I was diagnosed, especially given George’s successful experience there. But my case didn’t warrant traveling half way across the country to get the same treatment I could receive in my own backyard.

People can be directed to a place like MD Anderson because their case is highly unusual, but most often it’s because they have run out of options; their disease won’t allow them time to take more than one shot at killing it before it kills them.

These individuals need the best medicine our country has to offer, and they get it there every single day. But the initial walk through the place can make your stomach turn from the sight of so much discomfort, sickness and pain.

When George and I arrived for our first visit we had no idea what to expect. Our only hospital experiences to that point had been in rural or regional settings, and we knew no one else our age with cancer.

We were terrified of what we might hear, but also hopeful that the doctors there were ones who would be able to provide the options we were so desperately seeking. After a prognosis from another very reputable institution of approximately six weeks of life for George, I knew that this was our first (and last) stop.

I remember nothing about the drive to the hospital on the first day of our first visit; my recollection begins after handing the keys to the valet in front of the main lobby. It was a particularly hot early summer day, even by Texas standards, and getting into the building felt good after standing outside for just the few minutes it took to hand over the keys and a tip.

George and I walked toward the information desk, past the multiple seating areas filled with oversized upholstered chairs in muted blues and purples, with clusters of individuals in hushed, intimate conversation.

Some people had smiles, but most dotted their bloodshot, glassy eyes with tissues.

Streams of bubbles worked their way from the bottom up in straight lines in several floor-to-ceiling tanks of water the length of the wall, creating a watery, white noise backdrop I would come to count on. The air was a mix of fragrance over alcohol, no doubt from the hand sanitizing stations at every corner, replete with signs encouraging all visitors to use them regularly.

As George and I tried to get our bearings, wheelchairs rolled in a constant flow from one end of the lobby to the other. I couldn’t help thinking, as I looked on, that those patients carried in these shiny, chrome vessels could only be classified as passengers, not participants, in life.

They appeared so close to death already, their faces gaunt, skin gray with illness. Most were bald and wrapped in blankets or sweatshirts, while just outside the sliding glass doors the mid-June sun blazed so hot and so high it created a shimmer just above the sidewalk surface. Some wore masks, guarding them against any airborne infection that could prove too much for their weakened immune system.

I would later learn that, for those who went to a place like MD Anderson, a common cold could mean the difference between an ordinary interval between chemotherapy treatments and a delay; a luxury no longer afforded to patients this ill.

Time is, perhaps, the most valuable drug major cancer hospitals have to offer. Time and hope. Many people would pay any price, tolerate any discomfort and sacrifice everything in their personal lives to get both.

I guiltily avoided any eye contact with those riding in the wheelchairs. It went beyond wouldn’t—I couldn’t look at them in their eyes because, in their deathly gaze, I saw George’s future.

Up until then, cancer had been simply a term in the ether, a concept. The minute we stepped into that lobby it became an actual disease capable of killing my partner in life and in love. Even as George walked in pace and step next to me, the picture of health and vigor, I knew under his skin and within his organs with every passing moment his cells were dividing and spreading, attempting to take over.

As the months passed, I learned how to spot the veteran wheelchair “drivers,” the ones who can manage to simultaneously push both handles of the chair, drag an IV pole and avoid crashing into furniture or other people.

I would also get smacked with the reality that those who looked closest to death were often the ones fighting the hardest to avoid it. And that those sitting in the chairs weren’t hollow shells of their former selves, they had simply been leveled by the grind of disease, surgeries and treatments.

I discovered all of this because, eventually, George became the gaunt, gray passenger, and I became the veteran driver.

Boy Oh Boy

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When George and I found out we were expecting our first child, we decided to let the gender be a surprise at the delivery. To be honest, for nearly the entire 9 months we waited, I was pretty sure it would be a boy. Why? Because God would know better than to give me a daughter.

I had been destined since childhood to have sons. The aunt I resembled most in my very large family? She had four sons. All of my favorite cousins? Boys. Growing up? Total tomboy. Most of my best friends in high school and college? Guys. Most of my best girlfriends? Girls who acted like guys. I was a “guy’s girl,” what on earth did I know about raising girls?

Well, take one look at our family photo and you can see that fortune telling is not my gift. Our daughter Emily was born more than 13 years ago and after some initial tears of terror, convinced I would get it all wrong, I am pleased to say that, so far, I think we are doing okay. She has developed into an amazing young lady who is far cooler than her mother ever was at her age.

Thankfully though, God found it fitting for me to have a couple of boys to round out the picture, so now I am blessed with what I had envisioned and dreamed of for so long. I have that distinct boy energy, that boy enthusiasm, that boy zest for life around me all the time. All. The. Time. I now know I was meant to have boys in my life. I also now know God was meant to invent noise-canceling headphones.

Our boys are very different in temperament. Liam is gentle, subdued, and calm. Jackson is chatty, bouncy, and funny. But there is one thing these boys share in common: Noise. Lots and lots of noise.

I am by no means silent, but these boys are l-o-u-d. I mean, they give new meaning to the word. I never knew one child weighing in at fifty pounds could sound like 14 people, in army boots, each carrying a rucksack weighing 27 pounds, coming down the steps, backward. Every door, cupboard, or drawer closing can give me a coronary from any room in the house. We thought we had the perfect solution when we bought Jackson a dresser with drawers that magically shut, softly. Obviously we took the fun out of actually closing them because this is what we now find.

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But it isn’t just being rough that creates the volume. If our boys can’t make noise with the object itself, they will create a soundtrack with their mouths. Actually, allow me to clarify, they will create a soundtrack with any body part available, but most often it ends up being with their mouths. Gunshot blasts, explosions, machete slices, you name it. ANY activity can generate an accompaniment worthy of the Boston Pops.

One evening Jackson, five at the time, came running over to the dinner table looking like he had seen a rocket ship land in his backyard. “Guys, I have GREAT news,” he said. “I just learned how to fart with my armpit! Listen and learn.” At which point he entertained us with his armpit concerto.

And then of course, there is the yelling at one another. For some reason Jackson has decided that he who screams the loudest, wins. Unfortunately, he’s the only one in on that plan so it takes his older brother and sister approximately 2.8 seconds to needle him enough to elicit the loudest “STOOOOOOOOOP!” he can manage, usually before 7am.

Even worse than lots of noise? None. Any parent of boys can tell you this. Imagine, you are home; boys are upstairs with friends, and then…silence. Not good. The last time I experienced this I walked down the hall in time to see Jackson hurling his lithe little body from one end of our den to the other, between the sofa and the ottoman. But since all that was viewable was the door frame, I just saw Jackson — flying. It was only because these two pieces of furniture were padded and he hadn’t hit the floor (yet), that I heard nothing. Or there was the time I walked upstairs to find a collection of neighborhood kids trying REALLY hard to throw their Legos up into the ceiling fan 10ft. above them. It was their intense concentration on timing their throws just right that kept them so quiet. Luckily we managed to walk away from that one with only a few chips in the paint and not broken windows. Or broken teeth.

Whether it’s the loud or quiet variety, boys bring with them a noise and energy all their own and I wouldn’t trade it. They are unbridled, eager, and full of spice — they are alive. And nobody sleeps harder than a tired boy after a long day of play, except maybe their mother. But today I, for one, will still be picking up the trail of socks, toys, books, and paper airplanes my boys have cast aside, all in a day’s work. Because boys have one other thing in common: Messes.

Don’t even get me STARTED about the messes.

Caring for Those Who Care

Recently I was asked to contribute as a blogger for the website Agingcare.com. The editor came across one of my Huffington Post articles and felt the topics and style of my writing would appeal to her audience.  1936123_1224187157146_7861387_n

I have focused so much of my time and attention, not to mention my writing, reflecting on aspects of my breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. To go back and begin reliving moments in my mind of what it felt to be a caregiver to George has been both painful and rewarding.

Watching a loved one suffer or deteriorate is absolutely brutal, yet spouses, parents, same-sex partners, siblings, friends, and countless other supporters put their own lives on hold to take care of another. Caregivers are a largely neglected, but essential piece of the healthcare puzzle, and as insurance providers look for areas in which to cut costs no doubt this group will be called upon in an even greater capacity.

I look forward to helping bring some attention to this segment who deserves more recognition than they currently receive. After living that life, and not for very long, I can say I have never had more respect for those who do it day in and day out. They are champions.

Seeking Sanctuary In the Shower

 

Summer Fasting

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How are we already into July? I would say it wasn’t possible, but my youngest son’s hair is green from chlorine, we’ve gone through about 27 rash guards, and I don’t recognize half of the pool towels in our collection so it must be true.

For so many years it felt like the summer dragged more than my dogs’ feet on their way into the vet. The weather was so hot, and there were only so many things to do around town, so most often we ended up at the pool where every day was exhausting. I had to be constantly on alert, one minute saving my child from drowning, the next playing referee over toys, goggles, a blade of grass, whatever. I chased my kids across cement pool decks, convinced they would rearrange their teeth with a single misstep. And just when one child was finally old enough to understand the rules, the next was ripe and ready to give me a workout.

I have taught swimming for 25 years and the pool has always been my happy place, at least when dealing with a child under the age of four who isn’t my own. I adore the laughter, freedom, and sense of accomplishment that comes along with learning to swim. But mix the struggle and unpredictability of a toddler with the dangers of water and I think any country club could make a mint in Xanax prescriptions alone.

As a seasoned swim instructor I assumed I’d have otters for children who’d swirl around in the water without a care and be my shining-star pupils. Not a chance. My oldest and youngest were pretty straightforward, but my middle child, Liam, decided to keep things spicy.

I swear I can still see the dents in my shoulders from his fingers, gripping and digging into me with sheer terror at the mere suggestion that he put his face in the water. And this was no toddler, he was six.

For years I held him, patiently coaxing, reciting all of the phrases that had been successful with the hundreds of other children I had taught to swim. “It’s just like Nemo under there! Now you can see everyone’s toes! You can do it” All the while Liam howled at the top of his lungs “Don’t make me DO it, Mommy! PLEASE!!” Other mothers looked on in horror assuming that I was stealthily pinching him under the surface. Suffice it to say, I’m thankful for all of my early successes since my own kid did little to promote my reputation.

I kept my cool, calmly reassuring him until at last Liam let go of me and made his first, brave, independent swim to the wall. I’m still not sure if the tears I cried that day were more out of relief for me or pride for him, but now at age 10, the same little guy who refused to let go of my neck glides effortlessly through the water earning ribbons in summer swim meets.

After 13 straight years of panic, vigilance, and threats of going home if they jumped off the side of the pool backward one more time, all three of my kids are officially water safe and my life has changed. I can sit and read if I feel like it, or even finish an entire sentence without having to stop and explain how impolite it is to interrupt mommy when she is trying to talk. My biggest responsibilities now are reapplying sunscreen and making sure my kids don’t spend their inheritance on Airheads and cheeseburgers at the snack bar.

I am finally beyond considering it a major accomplishment to make it to the end of a day without: A) Visiting an ER, B) Football-carrying a screaming child out of the pool who is simply not ready to call it a day, or C) Someone football-carrying a screaming ME out of the pool, because I was ready to call it a day approximately 17 minutes after we arrived. At last I get to enjoy some days with my kids, feel secure in their safety, minus the need to cart them to umpteen soccer practices and battle over math homework. Heaven.

Another bonus is now that my children are older our entire family can linger later into the evening at the pool. My husband and I can sit swapping jokes and stories with our friends, while kids of every age hang out together within earshot of their parents.

I remember feeling like my sister and I were getting away with something big the first few times we stayed late at the pool. We kept out of sight of our parents in hopes they would forget about us and lose track of time so that we could stay even later. As the sun went down and lights under the water came on, the whole look and feel of the place changed.

Sometimes the nighttime air got cold and a haze would form just above the surface. We kept our whole bodies submerged to keep warm, coming up just long enough to grab quick breaths of air with our noses like hippos, and we cast shimmering shadows on the bottom of the pool from the lights. For some reason even jumping off the same diving board at 2pm felt different than it did at 9, like an amusement park after dark: same rides, totally different experience.

So many of my wonderful memories of childhood were made during the summers at our neighborhood pool: first sport, first kiss, and first love. All to the soundtrack of lifeguard whistles, FM radio, and cannonball splashes. My challenge now is to find a way to taffy out these months and make them last a little longer for my own kids. I want them to look back on their summers and have that same experience.

Now that I am no longer so anxious and am finally able to relax, I want to enjoy this time as much as I want to create an enjoyable time for them. That is, of course, until 2 years and 10 months from now when my daughter gets her license.

What It’s Really Like After Breast Cancer Treatment

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This is a pretty raw and honest look at what many women face after finishing all of the treatment and surgery following a breast cancer diagnosis. What remains physically can be daunting psychologically.

As time passes I am feeling better and more like myself, and for that I am very grateful. And not to worry, I continue to laugh and joke my way through most of it, but not all days are afforded that levity.

I have decided to be as open about my experience as possible so that others going through it may feel they aren’t alone, and those who are in the support role may get some insight and a better understanding about what their loved one may be experiencing.

Health and Love,

–b

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/betsy-hnath/after-breast-cancer-treatment_b_5473713.html?utm_hp_ref=women&ir=Women

San Fransisco Got A Little Bit Hnath-ty

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I can claim victory! I made it all the way through May-hem without having to cry May-day! Woohoo! Part of what helped me push through the final week was the promise of a family vacation.

After a week of exploring the San Fransisco, California territory, we will head back home. Ancient Redwoods, hippie beach towns, seaside aquariums, and nationally ranked college campuses, Team Hnath has managed to cram more in than a Survivor contestant winning a food challenge on day 36.

We stayed with our good friend the kids call Cantina. (Our youngest couldn’t pronounce Cristina and, as all best ones do, the nickname just stuck.) We are fortunate that her home can accommodate the circus we bring anywhere we go, and more fortunate that she is willing to tolerate it.

With two young boys in particular, the loud factor cannot be understated. They. Are. L-O-U-D. If they aren’t blowing fart noises out of the sides of their cheeks, you hear crashing, booming, or cheering with every soccer kick, iPad play, or basketball shot. Shutting a cabinet door can sound like the 4th of July. But with some planning and lots of sideways if-you-aren’t-quiet-I-will-totally-send-you-to-Alcatraz-I’m-not-even-kidding-you Mom looks, we managed to keep the activities rolling, the kids entertained, and everyone sane, for the most part.

In particular, I loved watching the three kids interact together in a way only possible when you get out of town. My daughter is now 13 and her interests have drifted increasingly further from those of her brothers. Gender is certainly not the only reason to blame here; age is also a major factor to this growing divide. When we are home, Emily has her group of friends with whom she spends time, so aside from soccer, the sport the children share in common, it is tough for all three kids to connect. When we are on vacation, they are forced to hang together and the results are great. I get to see my daughter giggle. Really giggle, without caring if anyone is watching, a rarity these days. And I relish every bit of it.

Jackson, our youngest, keeps us all entertained with his one-liners and keen observations. His is the most unique mind and sense of humor I have come across and I always look forward to hearing what he will think up next. The only consistent thing about him is the fact that he will make some kind of goofy face in EVERY SINGLE photo we take along the way.

So overall the experience has been great and I am sad to see it end tomorrow as we hop on a flight and get back to our lives in VA. There were only a few squabbles over seats, tears over toys, and fights over food. Oh, and the kids have been pretty good, too.