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I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Laxmi Kondapalli, a reproductive endocrinologist in Denver who specializes in oncofertility (i.e. helping cancer survivors with their fertility options).

As someone who had breast cancer before having any children, fertility concerns are high on my “things-to-worry-about” list. Am I still fertile? What if I’m not? Do I have options? What are they?

I figured if these questions were swimming through my brain, they likely were/are for many other young women as well. So I grabbed Dr. Kondapalli for a quick interview and she kindly agreed to share her wealth of knowledge with me, and all of you. Here’s what I found out:

Tamoxifen puts a cramp in fertility testing. Because of the effects of tamoxifen on messing with the brain’s signals (in order to prevent estrogen in the body), it’s difficult to accurately interpret the results of fertility tests. Dr. Kondapalli doesn’t recommend fertility testing to her patients who are taking tamoxifen, since the results aren’t reliable and could end up causing more stress than necessary. She recommends waiting 3 months after stopping tamoxifen before undergoing any type of testing.

Many young women will be able to get pregnant naturally after breast cancer treatment. Worried that it might not be working for you? Dr. Kondapalli says for women under 35, you don’t necessarily need to stress about fertility testing until you’ve been at it for a year. For women above 35, you may want to talk to a fertility expert if you’ve been trying for 6 months without a successful pregnancy.

However, waiting a year to get pregnant might not be feasible. For young women who are taking a break from tamoxifen with the caveat that they will start it again asap, trying to get pregnant for a full year might be too long. Some oncologists are eager to get their patients back on tamoxifen as quickly as possible. In these cases, Dr. Kondapalli recommends trying for 6 months, and then seeking out a specialist.

Don’t get pregnant while on Tamoxifen! This is a major no-no, as tamoxifen can harm the fetus. Dr. Kondapalli says to wait 3 months before trying to conceive, after stopping tamoxifen.

There are fertility options for women after breast cancer. If you weren’t able to do fertility preservation prior to cancer treatment and are now having difficulties getting pregnant, there are still options available to you such as fertility drugs or IVF. For women who’ve had hormone-sensitive cancer, there are medications you can take while undergoing fertility treatment to minimize the amount of estrogen in your body.

Current data shows fertility treatments are safe for women who have had breast cancer. Disease-free survival has been shown to be equal among pre-menopausal breast cancer survivors who underwent fertility treatments compared to those who did not.

There are many different ways to have a family if it is something you want! If you’re a young woman who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer and you want to start a family (or add to the one you already have), know that you have options. Seek out the advice of a fertility specialist who works with cancer patients and figure out the path that makes the most sense for you.

I found it really helpful to talk with Dr. Kondapalli and I hope her insights can help put other young women’s minds at ease who might having similar concerns. Remember – we’re all in this together.

A big thank-you to Dr. Kondapalli for taking the time to share her knowledge with our audience. Watch my interview with her below for the full conversation.

As I mentioned earlier this week, I will be having surgery this coming Wednesday. Why am I having surgery? Well, to answer that question, we need to go back in time a bit. Let’s take a walk down memory lane, shall we?

On October 19th, I had a bilateral mastectomy. In non-cancer terms, this means that both of my breasts were removed. Which was about as much fun as it sounds. I realize I never wrote about my surgery, since it happened prior to starting my blog. But it was quite a large piece of the fighting cancer puzzle, as this was when my ugly effing tumor was removed.

The decision to have the mastectomy was ultimately mine to make. Many women opt for a “lumpectomy”, where the tumor is surgically removed but the surrounding breast and tissue remain. Every situation is very different, and often complicated.

The period of time spent making this decision was not an easy time in my life. I had just been given this bombshell of a diagnosis, was secretly running back and forth between work and hospital appointments, and had to wrap my head around the idea of losing my breasts, a month after I had celebrated my 28th birthday.

To say I was overwhelmed would be an understatement. Looking back, I’m not even sure how I slept, or how I got dressed, or how I got up each day, without completely losing my shit. Every time I would go to the restroom while at work, I would touch my chest and feel the tumor. Yep, still there. It was real. And I wanted it out, as soon as possible.

After some thoughtful deliberation and research, and a bit of soul-searching, I decided I wanted to remove the entire breast on the tumor side. And if I was giving up one, I would send the other one packing as well. Although it was upsetting, I didn’t feel any great attachment to my breasts at that point. They were trying to kill me, after all. And I don’t respond too kindly to anything that threatens my life. So, bye bye boobies it was.

I’m not going to get overly detailed about the intricacies of the actual surgery or the weeks that followed. Waking up from that surgery was not easy. Breasts gone. Giant scars in their place. Surgical drains protruding from my skin. Lots of pain. I spent several days in the hospital, completely loopy and nauseous from the constant flow of pain meds through my veins.

I can remember how angry I was that first week. When I was lucid enough to feel any emotion, it was anger. Accepting that I had been diagnosed with cancer was still new to me. And now I had no breasts and couldn’t get to the bathroom without help and couldn’t raise my arms. Nothing about any of it felt right.

When a young resident came to check on me and we mentioned that the drugs they were giving me did not seem to be helping enough with the pain, she remarked in a condescending tone that it was not ‘normal’ to be in as much pain as I was in. You might guess that I did not respond well to this type of comment, and you would be correct.

I did not appreciate this doctor making me feel guilty for the pain I was feeling. Let me cut your boobs off and see how you like it, I might have said if I’d had any strength to even open my mouth at that point. I wanted to tear her blonde ponytail right off.

It has been six months, and I still feel anger towards this woman, this stranger, for making me feel inadequate and weak a day after I had lost part of my body. She was a doctor. And a woman. A bit of compassion would have gone a very long way.

Luckily, however, there were many other people who helped me get through it all, such as my husband, who slept on the hospital floor next to me for three nights. Not exactly the getaway we had hoped for as we approached our first wedding anniversary, but at least we were together. Nothing says romance like having your wife high on morphine and hearing screams coming from the rooms down the hall all night.

The weeks after were difficult, with many challenges (oh the irony of not being able to shave or wash my hair while I still actually had hair) but things got much easier as the days went by, and I healed well. Eventually I was raising my arms and getting back my strength and feeling almost normal again. Just in time to start chemo. And we all know how much fun that was!

This week, I go under the knife again for my reconstruction surgery. In other words, I’m getting some new boobs. For the past six months, I have had “expanders” that were placed under my chest muscles at the same time my breast tissue was removed. Over the months, they were slowly “expanded”, like a balloon, with saline from a giant syringe needle. This was to stretch the skin to make room for the permanent implant.

Although I have adjusted to having these weird turtle shells sitting on my chest, they are uncomfortable and tight and push on my ribs, and I won’t be sad to see them go. The implants should be more natural and more comfortable, which would be a welcome relief. (And if you’re wondering if I viewed this as my opportunity to have huge boobs, the answer is… No. Sorry to disappoint.)

I’m not sure how I feel about this upcoming surgery. I don’t really feel scared. I have been through so much. I don’t like the idea of being put to sleep again, and being cut again, and waking up in pain again. I would prefer not to be having surgery again and to get to enjoy the week and just have a break from it all, for a bit. That is what I’d like right now. But these days, I am not calling the shots. So I’ll get dressed in yet another hideous hospital gown, do what they tell me to do, and let them “reconstruct” me and put me back together. As much as they can, that is.

No new breasts will ever be able to replace the ones I lost.

All that I’ve lost.

But it’s a start.

Here’s the buzz from this week we think you should know about!

Ophira Ginsburg to help women with cancer in developing countries

Dr. Ophira Ginsburg, an oncologist and researcher at Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, has been appointed by the World Health Organization to help create programming and guidelines for women with cancer in developing countries. Dr. Ginsburg is aiming to help and improve outcomes for the many women in these countries who have a higher risk of dying from breast or cervical cancers, due to stigma and poor healthcare infrastructure. Congrats and good luck to Dr. Ginsburg as she takes on this very important new role!

A glass of wine a day can increase breast cancer risk

Evidence continues to mount showing a link between alcohol and breast cancer – even in small amounts. New research says that one glass of wine a day increases the risk of breast cancer for women, for both smokers and non-smokers. You can read the full study here. As always, try your best to limit your alcohol intake whenever possible.

Yvonne Craig dies of breast cancer

One of the first female superheroes has sadly passed away from breast cancer. Yvonne Craig, who originated the role of Batgirl, died this week at the age of 78. As an actress who demanded to perform her own stunts and also stood up for women’s rights, we think Yvonne Craig was pretty badass. Check out this PSA she did in the 70’s for equal pay for women.

Shannen Doherty diagnosed with breast cancer

And in other celebrity news, actress Shannen Doherty of 90210 fame confirmed she has been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. It has been revealed that the actress is in a legal battle with her former business manager who she claims did not pay her insurance premiums – thus preventing her from getting proper care and receiving an earlier diagnosis.

Rethink releases new video from ‘The Comeback’ series

This week we introduced the second video in our new LiveLaughLearn series for living post-cancer diagnosis. This video deals with returning to work after cancer, offering expert tips on how to deal with the challenges of this step. We also created a short video for some comedic relief, illustrating some of the (not so great) things people sometimes say to someone with cancer who’s just returned to the office. We hope it makes you laugh!

Movie trailer alert! A new film starring Toni Collette and Drew Barrymore is on its way, about two best friends and… breast cancer.

Miss You Already is about lifelong friends Milly (Collette) and Jess (Barrymore).  Milly is suddenly diagnosed with breast cancer, while Jess is struggling to get pregnant, putting their friendship to the test.

The story is about the bonds of friendship and the challenges and obstacles that pop up along the way. We’ll definitely be checking it out (with some kleenex in tow). Watch the trailer and let us know what you think!

I always took it for granted that I would, someday, have children.

I never grappled with the decision of whether or not motherhood was for me, or thought of what my life might be like without kids. I made mental notes of my favourite baby names, and imagined what they might look like. After meeting and marrying my husband, the desire to start a family grew stronger. Maybe she’ll have his eyes and my mouth, I thought. I hope he gets my husband’s athletic ability, and not mine. I dreamed and planned and let my mind wander to a future that I thought was secure.

I made an appointment with my doctor, thinking maybe we’d broach the subject of stopping my birth control pill. I felt nervous and giddy at the thought. How did I get here? Was I really ready for this? What if there was a problem?

And then, there was a problem.

A week before my doctor’s appointment, I found a lump in my breast.

I changed the purpose of the appointment to talk about boobs instead of babies. And after several tests and a couple weeks of waiting, I received the diagnosis. Breast cancer. I had just celebrated my 28th birthday and had been married for less than a year. And, ironically, I did end up coming off my pill, but not for the reason I had intended; rather, the breast cancer I had was fueled by estrogen (a main ingredient of the birth control pill), so I was told to immediately stop taking it. No more pill. But no baby either. To say things were not going according to plan would be a massive understatement.

In the same conversation where I learned I had an invasive, aggressive breast cancer, I also learned that the chemotherapy I’d need to undergo could cause fertility issues. Major double whammy.

At first anything other than the fact that I might die seemed inconsequential. But after taking some time to process everything and meeting with a fertility specialist, the reality set in that there was now a possibility I’d never have children. I was devastated.

I considered undergoing fertility preservation treatment and went through the initial steps, but ultimately pulled out at the eleventh hour due to timing factors, enrolling myself in a clinical trial, and not being comfortable at that point with injecting hormones into my body. We decided to accept the risks, and hope for the best.

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Now I am two and a half years past my diagnosis, and my baby-making clock is ticking once again. Time to get a move on, right?

Not so fast.

Because my cancer was hormone-sensitive, I need to take a drug called Tamoxifen that is proven to reduce the risk of the cancer returning and possibly spreading to another part of my body. The newest recommendation is to stay on this drug for 10 years. Great news, right? A drug that could actually help keep me alive. I am lucky to have that option.

Unfortunately, hormonal therapy for cancer comes with a whack of side effects. The biggest one for me is that I’ve been told not to get pregnant while taking it, due to its potential to cause birth defects.

I am 30 years old now and have been taking Tamoxifen for almost two years. If I stay the course of 5-10 years, and take into account my chemo-aged ovaries… well, you can do the math.

So now I find myself again in a sticky situation, forced to make another difficult decision on top of the ones I’ve already had to face. (Fertility presevation? Double or single mastectomy? Radiation? Reconstruction? Cancer has a way of forcing you to be decisive.)

The way I usually make my decisions is to do read up on all the research and literature I can possibly find. But in this case, there are no studies assessing the risk of pausing hormonal therapy to get pregnant. Zilch! As Dr. Susan Love writes, “We are frequently asked what would happen if a woman stopped taking tamoxifen between two years and five years, and the truth is that we just don’t know because we have no studies that have looked at that question. …Because there is no data to support stopping early, this has to be a personal decision, and it is undoubtedly not an easy decision for many women to make.”

I constantly toss scenarios around in my head, playing out the various possibilities. What if I continue treatment, and by the time I’m done, I’ve missed my window to get pregnant? What if I stop taking my pill, get pregnant, and I end up dying and not being able to raise the kid I just had? What if I take a break, get pregnant, go back on Tamoxifen and we all live happily ever after? (Obviously this third scenario is the one I cross my fingers for.)

In my case, these are the cards I’ve been dealt, and I won’t be able to get the answers I need by the time I need them. But the really good news is that young women with breast cancer in the future will have the data they need to make an informed decision.

The POSITIVE ‘Baby Time’ trial will investigate if interrupting hormonal (endocrine) therapy to get pregnant increases the risk of breast cancer recurrence. This is the exact study that, had it been done ten years ago, I might not find myself in the situation I’m in right now.

I’m so excited and proud that Rethink Breast Cancer is committing to funding the Canadian arm of this international trial. They need to raise a lot of money to make this happen, so please give generously! Your contribution will make a huge difference to so many young women who one day may be walking the same path I’m on. And let me tell you, anything that can make that journey even a little bit easier, is worth doing.

And as for me, I’m not sure where my choices might lead me, or how this story will end. But I have hope. Hope that I’ll have the family I wanted, hope that I’ll live to see that family grow, and hope that pregnancy will be a possibility for all those young women who follow behind me in the years to come.

There is always hope.

** We are excited to announce that Steph is expecting in 2016! For updates check out her blog Pass Me Another Cupcake HERE.

Last Friday, Alison (Rethink’s marketing + communications director) and I headed down to Denver for CancerCon, a conference created by the organization Stupid Cancer to bring the young adult cancer community together.

Our weekend was split between manning the Rethink booth and attending breakout sessions led by experts in the AYA cancer field (and in the evening hours, exploring Denver’s burgeoning dining scene. To say we were well-fed would be an understatement — I am still dreaming about some of the delicious bites we stumbled upon).

Our time at CancerCon was inspiring, thought-provoking, and educational. It also left me with a few key takeaways:

Young adults with cancer want to give back 

A common theme throughout the conference was using one’s cancer experience to help others. Throughout the sessions, I heard many young survivors express the satisfaction they felt from being public with their stories, which provided hope and support for other people going through a similar situation. Some also chose to give back by getting involved with organizations and becoming patient advocates, bringing a voice to the young adult cancer community.

Ethan Zohn, cancer survivor (and reality TV star!), shares his story and discusses how cancer has had an effect on his relationships.

In one particular session called Making Your Survivorship Count, the presenters stressed that young survivors should consider sharing their cancer stories as a means of empowering others and preventing isolation within the young adult community. They also mentioned the healing effect that results from sharing your experience with others. Going public might not be the right choice for everyone, but for many, it can be an important coping tool.

Young adults with cancer need to connect with each other

As someone who has experienced cancer as a young adult, I know the importance of meeting other young people in the same boat. Looking around at CancerCon, I saw how this rang true for everyone there who had experienced cancer. Friendships were forming almost instantaneously, regardless of where someone was from, how old they were, or what type of cancer they had. There is a unique understanding that young adults with cancer have of each other. I saw countless heads nodding in unison in response to comments made during the sessions, symbolizing the shared experiences and emotions among the group.

Connecting with other young women dealing with breast cancer at CancerCon.
Connecting with other young women dealing with breast cancer at CancerCon.

I often asked people who stopped by our booth in groups how they knew each other, assuming they were siblings or long-time friends. But the response I received most often was: We just met today.

The cancer world is going digital

Matthew Zachary, CEO of Stupid Cancer, introduced their new app called ‘Instapeer’ during the closing ceremonies. The app connects patients, survivors and caregivers impacted by young adult cancer. Matthew said it is his hope that all young adults will be told about the app immediately upon diagnosis, in order to prevent the isolation that young people with cancer so often experience.

Matthew Zachary talking about his new Instapeer app.
Matthew Zachary talking about his new Instapeer app.

I also noticed how the entire conference was inundated with social media: attendees had their twitter handles on their name tags and were encouraged to post and share online using the #CancerCon hashtag (and, naturally, we jumped right on that bandwagon, tweeting up a storm and making some new friends in the process). People were also encouraged to send questions via Twitter to television star Italia Ricci, who responded live during her interview at the closing ceremonies.

Closing ceremonies with Italia Ricci, star of ABC Familys "Chasing Life."
Closing ceremonies with Italia Ricci, star of ABC Family’s “Chasing Life.”

None of this is surprising, considering that young adults are attached to their smartphones and social media networks, regardless of cancer status. As an organization that serves young women, we have a pretty solid understanding of this ourselves, which is why we have been ramping up our own digital resources, such as our new LiveLaughLearn videos. Which leads me to my final takeaway…

People are excited about the work Rethink is doing

Over the course of the weekend, hundreds of people stopped by Rethink’s table in the exhibition hall, which displayed our various resources and educational tools. The widespread reaction was overly positive, from both young cancer survivors, and those who work with them. Comments ranged from “OMG I love this so much!” (in reference to our Your Man Reminder app) to “This will be such a helpful resource to my patients” (when looking through our resources for young mothers). Continually hearing, “Thank you for the incredible work you do” from cancer survivors, caregivers, and peers made me feel extremely proud of our efforts to rethink breast cancer, and the impact our work is making on the cancer community.

Me and Alison saying goodbye to CancerCon. We had a blast!
Me and Alison saying goodbye to CancerCon. We had a blast!

Our experience at CancerCon was definitely an unforgettable one and a great way to immerse ourselves in the AYA cancer community. I was blown away by the amount of resources and support that exists for young people dealing with cancer, considering it wasn’t that long ago that this age group’s unique needs were almost completely ignored. Clearly, we’ve come a long way. But let’s not spend too much time patting ourselves on the back just yet. Many CancerCon patients and survivors spoke of the numerous issues they continue to face, from isolation, to ongoing physical effects, to relationship struggles. Despite how far we’ve come, there’s still a lot of work to do.

Time to get to it.

Did you know that many women who have breast cancer cannot properly identify the characteristics of their disease? A new study showed that only 20% to 58% of women surveyed could correctly report the characteristics of their tumours (stage, grade, HER2 status, and hormone status). Although this lack of knowledge was lower in minority women, knowledge was generally poor across all the women.

So why is this important? The authors of the study state: “For cancer patients, understanding the characteristics of their own cancer, such as stage and receptor status, is also likely important. Such tumor-specific knowledge may lead to a better understanding of treatment rationale (eg, endocrine therapy for hormone receptor-positive tumors), enhanced decision making, better treatment adherence, and more empowered patients.” In other words, education is key in ensuring patients understand why certain treatment options are presented and allowing them to feel empowered in making decisions about their health.

As a young woman who was diagnosed with breast cancer at 28 years old, I can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed with information. In those early days after the diagnosis, there’s a natural tendency to want to put on blinders and ignore the reality of what lies ahead of you. The more facts you have, the more real it becomes – which can be scary.

But as that cheesy poster hanging on your classroom wall used to say: knowledge is power. Seriously. The only way you can advocate for yourself is to know what you’re advocating for. Because I have all the facts about my own disease and its many characteristics, I’m able to ask my oncologist about new treatment options that may benefit me, and better understand what my risks are and what decisions need to be made. Of course, it’s good to have faith in your medical team. But the fact is that the person who is most invested in your health is you, so if you don’t feel you have a solid awareness of the basics of your disease – it’s time to get educated!

The study authors presented the women with 4 survey questions about their breast cancer:

1 – What was the stage of your breast cancer?

The stage of breast cancer refers to how advanced your cancer is in terms of its ability to spread throughout your body. It is determined based on the size of the tumour, the number of lymph nodes affected, whether it has invaded the surrounding tissue, and if it has spread to other parts of the body. Breast cancer can be staged from 0 to 4, with various sub-stages in between. Breast cancer stage can help your doctor determine your prognosis. Although it tends to be the factor that is most discussed and understood when referring to a breast cancer diagnosis, it is not the only characteristic you should know… there’s more to the story!

2 – What was the grade of your cancer?

Tumour grade looks at how abnormal the cells appear in your tumour – the more wonky the cells look, the more your tumour is thought to be “poorly-differentiated” and higher grade. Higher grade tumours tend to grow faster and be more aggressive. In breast cancer, your cancer is given a grade of 1, 2, or 3. Tumour grade can be very important in determining your treatment plan, as lower grade tumours tend to need less aggressive treatment. In my case, my cancer was high-grade, which was an indicator that I might benefit from a more intense treatment regimen, such as doing chemotherapy. Unfortunately, breast cancer in younger women tends to be higher-grade, and more aggressive than it is in older women… as if us gals didn’t already have enough to deal with.

3 – Was your cancer type HER2-positive?

If you are HER2-positive, this means your cancer cells make an excess of a type of protein that promotes the growth of cancer cells. HER2 status was something I had never heard of in my life, previous to being diagnosed with it. When I first learned I had HER2+ breast cancer, I flew into a state of panic, as it’s known as having a poorer prognosis than other types of breast cancer. Google was not my friend that day. However, upon doing more research and educating myself, I learned about all the amazing breakthroughs for HER2+ cancer, particularly with a drug called Herceptin that has been shown to significantly improve survival rates for women with HER2+ breast cancer. Although HER2+ can be seen as a negative prognostic factor, scientists have also figured out how to target it, and personalize your treatment to attack those pesky cells. Pretty cool, right? Thank you, science!

4 – Was your breast cancer estrogen receptor-positive?

Estrogen receptor-positive (ER+) breast cancer has cancer cells that may receive signals from estrogen that will promote cell growth. Knowing your breast cancer hormone status is a critical factor in planning your treatment, as there are various drugs and methods that can help manage the estrogen in your body and its ability to activate cancer cells. A common drug that many ER+ women take to prevent recurrence is called Tamoxifen, which is taken orally in pill form. These medications or other treatment options such as ovarian suppression can have side effects that may affect your quality of life. It’s important to understand your ER+ status so you can better understand your risk of recurrence and discuss your options with your oncologist. There are ways to help with unpleasant side effects and there may be alternatives to help deal with the ER+ side of your cancer. So make sure to speak up if you have questions or concerns.

A mere 8% of the women surveyed were able to correctly answer all four of these questions. This shows that there’s a definite need for greater education and awareness surrounding one’s own breast cancer diagnosis. It would be great if medical professionals did a better job at explaining the details of a patient’s disease, but the power also exists in your very own hands to ask questions, read up, and get informed. So hop to it!

The holiday season can be an extremely difficult time for someone who is living with cancer. If you know someone with cancer and want to lend them a bit of extra support for the holidays, here are some ways you can help.

Acknowledge their feelings

We all know that there can be a lot of external pressure to be festive and cheery during the holiday season. For those who are dealing with a cancer diagnosis or undergoing treatment, it might be harder than usual to get into the holiday spirit and put on a happy face. It’s important that you acknowledge that they are going through a hard time, and that they are allowed to feel however they feel, without any judgment. In other words, if your friend isn’t in the mood to sing carols and frolic in the snow this year – don’t force it.

Don’t make it all about cancer 

Although it’s important to acknowledge your friend’s cancer diagnosis and allow them to talk openly about it, it can also be helpful to move on to other topics. Talking about cancer all the time can be exhausting for a cancer patient, who is already living it 24/7. Don’t be afraid to talk about other subjects, even though they might seem trivial in comparison with your friend’s illness. Tell a funny anecdote or a story about your kids. They will likely welcome the break and appreciate the much-needed distraction.

Visit

Cancer can be very isolating, and the holidays can have the unfortunate effect of intensifying that loneliness. If you know someone living with cancer, they might appreciate a visit. But don’t forget the cardinal rule whenever planning to visit someone with cancer – Ask first! Never stop by unannounced. Call ahead and see if they’re up for a visit and adapt to their schedule. Other best practices for visiting someone with cancer: Don’t go to their house if you have a cold or flu. Don’t bring others with you unless you’ve asked if it’s okay. Don’t expect them to entertain you. Don’t stay long, even if you haven’t been asked to leave.

Ok, that may seem like a lot of “Don’ts” – but DO visit! Just follow the rules.

Offer to help

Getting through your holiday to-do list can be exhausting enough, without the added challenge of undergoing cancer treatment. Side effects like extreme fatigue can create a barrier to getting everything done. If you know someone going through cancer, offer a helping hand. Perhaps you can decorate their Christmas tree while they lounge on the couch, or help bake cookies for their child’s bake sale. Or maybe they need help shopping for gifts for their family and require the service of a friendly elf (i.e. you!). Something that might seem like a small act to you might very well be a huge gift to someone who has cancer.

Bring food!

Cooking can be a huge burden to someone dealing with cancer. Why not spread some joy for the holidays and cook them a meal or two and drop it off? (Pro tip: Offer to leave it at the door if they’re not up for visitors.) It’s possible that their treatment might cause changes in appetite, so check first to see what they feel like. There might be something in particular your friend is craving that will bring some added comfort for the holidays. If they’re having stomach or nausea issues, try to keep the meal relatively bland – think soups, potatoes, and lean meats. Try to avoid anything greasy, fried, or heavily spiced. Meals and food items that can be easily frozen, such as a lasagna or zucchini bread loaf, are also a great idea so that your friend always has something on hand if they aren’t up to cooking. A nutritious home-cooked meal is a great way to show your support and bring a bit of festive cheer into your friend’s home (and stomach!).

Give a thoughtful gift 

If you know someone living with cancer over the holidays, chances are their spirit might need a little bit of a lift. Surprising them with a thoughtful gift might be just the ticket to brighten their day. If you’re stuck for ideas, think cozy and relaxing – a fuzzy bathrobe, warm slippers, a beautiful tea cup, a soft throw blanket – anything that will provide a bit of extra comfort during the holidays. If they’re undergoing chemotherapy, a stylish winter hat or head covering would likely be appreciated as well. If you’re not able to visit or ship your gift, try an e-gift instead, like an iTunes purchase of a movie or TV series they might enjoy. Just showing that you are thinking of them will go a long way. And let’s be honest – who doesn’t love presents?

When all is said and done, the best way to support someone with cancer during the holidays is just to be there for him or her. Remind them that they are not alone and that you are willing to step up and help with whatever is needed by lending your ear, your shoulder, or your hand (just make sure to wash and sanitize that hand first, because the gift of your germs is very unlikely to pop up on someone with cancer’s holiday wish list).

If you’d like to show your support for young women living with breast cancer, why not make a donation to Rethink Breast Cancer? Click here to donate now.

 

For my LiveLaughLearn video, I chose to focus on tips for getting through chemotherapy treatments. Although receiving chemo isn’t exactly a walk in the park, I did learn a few little tricks to make the process a bit easier.

Here are my tips for coping with chemo:

1. Comfy Chemo Outfit – Including Herceptin, a targeted therapy for people with HER 2+ breast cancer,  I had twenty-one IV treatments in total. That’s a lot of hours sitting in the chemo chair, and I quickly learned that comfort is key. My “chemo uniform” typically consisted of loose, stretchy clothes – leggings, t-shirt, and hoodie. I’d still accessorize with jewellery and fun patterns and colours, to help boost my mood a bit. But the ultimate goal was to be comfortable. You have a great excuse to wear sweatpants in public – use it

2. Numb Your Port – If you’re having a lot of treatments, or have bad veins, you will likely get a port to receive your chemo infusions. The port is a type of catheter that sits just below the skin, usually near the collarbone, and is accessed with a needle. If you’re like me, you might be nervous the first time your port is accessed and worried about the needle prick. But never fear, EMLA cream is here! EMLA cream is a numbing agent that comes in a tube that you can put on your skin to temporarily numb the area. About 90 minutes to 2 hours before your treatment, squeeze a blob of the cream over your port, using a Q-tip to apply (because you don’t want to numb your fingers, ideally). Cover the area with a Tegaderm transparent dressing (or Press ‘N Seal wrap which is much more affordable and widely available). When the nurse begins your treatment, she/he will wipe off the cream and stick you with the needle, and if all goes well, you shouldn’t feel a thing. Magic! Check with your local pharmacy to see if they carry ELMA cream and Tegaderm dressing as in my experience most do.

3. Minty Fresh – When you have a port, it needs to be flushed before you can start your treatment (and also for blood draws). This causes a weird taste to occur in your mouth. Although it is not horrendous, it’s not the best taste either, so you might want to mask it. This can easily be done by popping a mint, candy, or piece of gum into your mouth before your nurse begins the flushing. Keep the mint pressed tight to your tongue and you shouldn’t get any of the unpleasant taste. Easy peasy.

4. Cool Your Month – Most chemo wards should have popsicles in the freezer, or at the very least, some ice cubes. Sucking on something icy while receiving your chemo is thought to reduce the likelihood of developing nasty mouth sores. I’d pop in a popsicle as soon as my treatment began and munch on ice cubes while I was receiving the drug most likely to cause mouth sores. This doesn’t work for everyone, but it did seem to help me. Worst case scenario, you end up eating a delicious popsicle. I highly recommend chocolate ones.

5. And for one last bonus tipTrash Up – Load your iPad or laptop with trashy TV shows to help make the time go by faster and give you something fun to distract your wandering mind. But don’t forget to bring your headphones – or else you might receive some angry stares from your fellow patients who don’t appreciate overhearing the trials and tribulations of the Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.

Everyone has different ways of coping and getting through chemotherapy treatments, but hopefully these tips come in handy for you, or someone you know. It’s really a “learn-as-you-go” process, so you are likely to figure out what does (and doesn’t) work for you as you go along. And before you know it, it will be over, and you’ll likely have a list of tips to share of your very own making.

Stephanie Gilman was 28 when diagnosed with breast cancer – you can read all about her experience on her blog Pass Me Another Cupcake