The Search for a Mantra…

As I sat down to reflect on what I wanted in 2022 and set a new mantra for the year, I struggled to find the right words. When I embarked on 2021, the mantra I’d chosen was “Failure over Fear”. I had committed to work on my perfectionism and the often self-sabotage I engaged in, whenever something didn’t go exactly the way I envisioned it or planned it. Needless to say, my breast cancer diagnosis threw that mantra straight out the window. I spent the year with a different mantra, one that came to me in a dark moment; “Have Faith. Trust God. All Joy”. I leaned hard into that mantra and it served me well while I was undergoing the rollercoaster of cancer treatment.

To be frank, that mantra will probably never leave me. 2021 brought me closer to God. It taught me to find joy in the most inconsequential and terrifying moments. It brought me into a daily gratitude practice that has literally changed my life and my mindset. So while many of us were ready to kick 2021 to the curb, it’s been a little bit of a tough act to follow mantra-wise. My original mantra for 2021 no longer resonates, so I was on this epic search for the right one for 2022.

Several months ago, I thought I had identified this year’s mantra. I scribbled it in the margins of some meeting notes when it popped into my head, sometime in mid-October. I didn’t revisit that mantra until everyone’s “Word of the Year” posts started popping up in my newsfeed. When I went back to it, it sort felt like a half-deflated balloon, slightly wrinkled floating mid-air on it’s descent to the ground. It just didn’t seem like a fit anymore. I started writing down phrases, questions, thoughts on the search for my new 2022 mantra. Each one of them felt true, but none of them felt right.

So I walked away from the mantra search for a little while – and honestly – I walked away from this blog for a bit. A couple days later, my morning bible study brought me a lesson on “battles and blessings”. The devotional shared that life is nothing but a series of battle and blessing, battle and blessing, battle and blessing…(you get the idea). Yet both can live simultaneously in our lives, not distinct nor separate. There are always blessings, but also battles to face. That lesson resonated with me after the 2021 I had. Yet I wasn’t sure that it was the mantra for 2022. So, I walked away from the search for a 2022 mantra again, knowing it would eventually come to me.

Fast-forward (over a week later) to today and “battles and blessings” is a message that keeps showing up in my life…daily. I think that’s the universe’s way of telling me to pick the dang mantra. So, with that, my 2022 Mantra is “Battles and Blessings”.

Battles and Blessings: “Battles” reminds me that challenges are inevitable in life. From seemingly minor things like dropping a trail of socks on your way to the laundry room to big ones like cancer – battles are a part of life. My job in those battles is to not give up, not light everything on fire, but walk through them, knowing that there are blessings on the other side. “Blessings” reminds me to see the blessings all around me, every day, even amidst the battles. It reminds me to practice gratitude for the blessings I do have. It helps me to understand that even when blessings end and battles begin, there are and will be more blessings to come.

I don’t know if my cancer journey is over, yet. I know there will be a lot of battles to face for my business this year as my team and I continue to grow the business. I know the pandemic will continue to challenge our family, our relationships, and our daily life. I see many battles ahead and I know there are more that will reveal themselves this year. Yet, even among all that, I see the blessings I have and I hope for the ones to come. I’ll keep walking.

To 2022: Battles and Blessings.

XOXO – Jess

What’s a Mantra and Why Do You Use It?

In Hinduism and Buddhism, a mantra is a word or sound repeated over and over during meditation to aid in concentration. Outside of those religions, it’s simply a word or phrase repeated regularly as a way to motivate, inspire, focus, or redirect oneself or a group of people.

Each year, I set a mantra. A lot of people use a single word in the same fashion, but I found a single word somewhat limiting. I use a phrase or a simple quote each year as my mantra to help focus me, redirect me, motivate me, and inspire me in my personal and professional life. I put that mantra on my computer, on my phone, on my desk, and I repeat it to myself regularly – I even use it in my prayer, yoga, and meditation practices.

While this might seem a little “crunchy granola”, I find it very useful when working through challenges and goal-setting at work, not just in my personal life. It helps focus me in whatever I am facing. You can use to help you make decisions, to help you set goals, to keep you focused on those goals, or to merely inspire you to be better at something.

The mantra should be something that comes naturally to you. Ask yourself, “What is the word, phrase, or quote that I want to use to center/focus me this year?” It shouldn’t require a lot of effort to find. If it’s difficult to think of something, walk away from the search for a bit. It will come to you. Once you find it, define what it means to you and grow your clarity around it. Then post it every where. Say it to yourself five times each morning, as you begin your day. Use it to focus you, inspire you, motivate you, and make your 2022 something you are proud of.

Good luck!

When the Cancer’s Maybe Not Gone

I finished radiation almost a month ago and in most circumstances this should be the end of my journey. I should be moving onto recovery and survivorship, but this is not the end for me.

My tumor still showed active cancer cells at removal (during my mastectomy). One would think that merely removing it would eliminate it from my body, however that’s not how triple negative breast cancer works. The tumor actually sheds cancer cells into the bloodstream. In theory, chemotherapy should have killed all the cancer (triple negative typically responds really well to chemo), however I did not have what they call a “complete response” (cancer all gone). As a result, there is not way for them to know if the cancer is actually all gone.

So, my cancer is maybe not gone. Yet, maybe it is. Historically there’s no way of knowing until is shows up somewhere else.

Triple negative breast cancer is notorious for metastasizing in places like the lung, liver, brain, or bone – usually in the first five years. Because the chemo didn’t kill all the cancer in my tumor it’s possible that it didn’t kill all of it floating in my blood either. That means I could still have cancer floating in my bloodstream looking for an organ to hook up with. The normal treatment course at this point is symptom management and regular check-ups. No regular scanning protocol, no standard next steps. Ya’ll know that’s not good enough for me.

I’ve decided to enter a clinical trial for triple negative breast cancer patients with residual disease (active cancer cells in surgery biopsy). The trial will test my blood to determine if I have cancer cells circulating in my blood, called ctDNA (circulating tumor DNA) . If I am positive for ctDNA, they will genome sequence my tumor to determine the genetic mutation that caused the cancer. If I have one of the genomic markers that has a targeted treatment, I will receive that treatment (chemo, immunotherapy, or a mix). If I do not have one of the known markers with a targeted treatment, I will receive the “standard of care” or a chemo pill called Xeloda that I’ll take for 6-months. If I test negative for ctDNA, I’ll receive the standard of care (Xeloda), as well.

Hopefully, whatever treatment I receive would eliminate any remaining ctDNA in my blood, preventing it from metastasizing. A best-case outcome is that I am negative for ctDNA. Fire up your prayers, warriors.

I’ll do my bloodwork this coming Friday and should have results in three weeks. Radiation pushed my reconstructive surgery back to mid-summer, so I’ll be living with tissue expanders until then. On the surface that doesn’t sound that bad, but the expanders have no “give” in them so it’s like wearing rocks under your skin. Next time you hug me, you’ll know. So for now, I get to heal my body, rest, and enjoy the holidays with family.

All-in-all I remain very positive and hopeful about my prognosis and the road that lies ahead. I obviously didn’t choose this journey, but it’s mine nonetheless. I’m determined to be joyful, learn the lessons God needs me to learn, and discover the direction He’s steering me toward. More than anything I am grateful for the jolt awake. I’ve already learned so much (that blog coming soon)…

XOXO – Jess

You Can Have Faith and a Panic Attack

Care Warning: In this blog I discuss my anxiety, panic related incidents, and death.

Yesterday was the first time I pulled into the Cancer Center since June 30th. I went for a quick injection at the lab for a medicine that’s used to manage my endometriosis during my treatment (called Lupron). It was almost like an out of body experience. I have spent so much time there since March, that it felt weird not being there for almost a month.

It’s honestly been nice to not have chemo these last four weeks. I feel more myself. I still wear out pretty quickly and often require rest late in the afternoon. I still can’t feel my toes or finger tips, the rest of my fingernails are starting to pull up, and to my dismay, my hair hasn’t started growing back (and probably won’t for another couple months).

The real truth, however, is that my anxiety has been at an all-time high and I’ve had a number of panic attacks in the last week. About two weeks ago, I was due for my Lupron shot, but insurance had to pre-authorize it and they weren’t responding. I was starting to have bad pain (from the endo) and stressing about what the next steps were. The last thing I want to do is finish cancer treatment and then have to deal with endometriosis that has gone untreated.

Then, about three days later, I got a letter in the mail from my insurance. It was a copy of something they sent to my oncologist, asking her for more information so that their third-party partner could review if my “chemotherapy was medically necessary”. That might have been what sent me over the edge.

So there I was, impending surgery, chemotherapy may not be “medically necessary,” and no answer on my Lupron. I was a ball of anxiety, standing in our bathroom trying to teach my six-year-old how to wash her own hair in our shower. She wasn’t listening and mostly screaming about the shampoo suds washing over her face – something she’s not used to in taking a bath. That’s when it hit. It always starts with shortness of breath and then the room starts to spin. I looked down at my Apple watch and quickly flipped to the heart rate monitor as I sat down on the edge of the tub. My heart rate quickly jumped from 78 to 210. Deep breaths, Jessica, deep breaths.

It happened again two days later standing at the kitchen counter in the morning as the kids were arguing about sitting too close to each other. I flipped to my heart monitor again and my pulse was 141, just standing there.

Then it happened again the next day. After doing some research on recurrence rates of triple-negative breast cancer and complications related to reconstruction surgery after radiation, it was back. I texted one of my best friends, Meghan, “I’m having a panic attack. I don’t want to die and for the first time, dying from cancer feels real.” as tears streamed down my face. She replied, “Stick your head in the freezer,” as I walked upstairs to take some medicine.

The truth is, as each of these moments were happening, I was trying to breathe deep while chanting my mantra, “Have Faith, Trust God, All Joy”. I’ve been doing my daily bible study and writing in my gratitude journal. I have medication I’m taking and I’m talking regularly to the 8 doctors on my care team.

Yet, I’m still afraid. My surgery is the last known thing on my treatment plan – after it – everything is a question mark. In fact, after my surgery, my treatment plan is blank. That gives me great anxiety, in addition to insurance, medication, and big decisions I have to make about my treatment, surgery and reconstruction – and all of it not knowing if its the right decision. There’s about six different possibilities after my surgery of what could come next and the lack of a clear plan gives my Type A-control freak self even more anxiety.

I don’t tell you all this for sympathy or for attention, honestly. I tell you this because this is the real truth of cancer. I know I have been strong through this journey – and many of you have shared with me how inspiring that is. I appreciate all of those messages so much, but I also want you to see that “superwoman” (as some of you have called me) is scared, tired, and feeling a little afraid. That’s the truth of it all.

I know fear is a liar. I still believe that God has my back and this journey I am on is for a reason, but there are moments when it is really really hard and really really scary. I know that I’m not in control and that I have to just take a deep breath and try to find peace and joy in the journey. But, as it turns out you can have faith and still have a panic attack.

Have Faith. Trust God. All Joy.

You’re My Favorite.

Authenticity is a popular topic. It seems that everyone has an opinion on it and practically everyone is searching for it. There was even a time in my life where I, myself, taught authenticity to young men and women on a daily basis.

What I love about the topic of authenticity is that it attempts to pull us away from the illusion of “perfect” and can teach us that we are enough, just as we are. I’m on board with that. I believe that society, social media, instagram filters, influencers, and the readily available feed of filtered, perfected comparisons has made so many of us feel perpetually inadequate. So we pump people with counterpoint messages of “be authentic,” and “you are enough just the way you are!”

Don’t get me wrong, those messages are so important. There’s a point however when messages about authenticity can become toxic, too. There was a point in my life, where I was regularly talking about authenticity – and in particular – being the “best version of yourself”. I often struggled to describe what it meant to truly be the best version of you and differentiate that from the attempt to achieve perfection.

In fact, I couldn’t really tell the difference between the two in myself, let alone describe it to others.

The best version of me often looked like someone who was trying to look perfect, dress perfect, be a perfect leader, say the perfect things, achieve the perfect outcomes – and what I thought was the best version of me, was really a perfection attempt in disguise. To be honest, I struggled a lot with the concept, with teaching it, and with defining what the best version of me really was.

It’s taken me years to figure that out – and to figure out what I really believe about authenticity. What I believe is that the “best version” of ourselves is often defined by others and their expectations of us. That’s not authenticity. Authenticity cannot be defined by anyone but you. We need to stop holding on to how others define us and start defining ourselves.

Our lives are more meaningful and we as people are more powerful when we seek to live authentically – as our favorite version of ourselves.

The favorite version is defined by you and only you. It allows you to decide what authenticity truly is. It also allows for us to give ourselves some grace. It lets us be messy, broken, and imperfect. It allows us to be fully make-uped or fresh-skinned, Nike shorts or dresses. It lets us to be our own definition of authentic – and for it to be the version we like the most in ourselves.

I feel lucky to be on a path of discovery to the favorite version of myself during my cancer journey. It’s helped me see pieces of myself that were hiding and discover new things about myself that I never knew. I feel more myself than I’ve ever felt in my entire life – and it’s because I’ve discovered the version of me that I like the best.

The favorite version of me is joyful and practices gratitude on a daily basis. I reflect on scripture and work daily to strengthen my relationship with Christ. I love wearing make-up and secretly love drawing on my eyebrows, but I am not afraid to walk out the door fresh-faced anymore. I secretly love being bald because it saves a solid 30 minutes of time on a daily basis. The favorite version of me loves being a mom, a business owner, a boss, and a crazy dog lady. I love the me that is honest, transparent, and open. The person that shares my experiences, stories, and journey in hopes that it helps others. More than anything, I love the me that fights for others – those in crisis, starting new careers, stepping boldly into new opportunities, facing bias or discrimination, or kiddos that need someone to be their voice. Most of all, my favorite version of me isn’t afraid to make mistakes, face disappointment, or screw things up.

That’s my favorite version of me.

I hope you’ll join me in defining yours.

XOXO

Mammograms, Protocols, and Radiation: Oh My!

Listen to the Blog instead of READ!

May 3rd was my last dose of Adriamycin (the “red devil”) chemotherapy and marked the alleged halfway point of my chemo treatments. At that point, my surgeon ordered more imagining to check in on how the chemotherapy was impacting my two cancer spots – the tumor and the calcifications. So, on May 10th, I went in for more imaging with an appointment immediately following with my surgeon, Dr. Nate.

As I walked back into the breast imaging center, I was teleported back to the day I found out I had cancer. What was supposed to be a routine diagnostic mammogram to confirm a cyst, turned into an almost 5-hour experience ending with the words, “this is going to come back as cancer.” That was almost four months ago now, but walking into the office still put a chill down my spine.

Per usual, I was escorted back to an imaging room and handed a sexy 1985 mauve crop-top front-opening breast exam gown to change into. My technician quickly got a couple of images on the mammogram machine. Thankfully, there are titanium markers left in my breast that make it easier for them to see the exact spots where the cancer biopsies were taken – so the mammograms and ultrasounds are much quicker. We then walked down to the ultrasound room and waited for the radiologist to come in and take a look at the tumor (the tumor can’t be seen on a mammogram machine because its so close to my chest wall). She did some measuring, took some more pictures, and confirmed that she still doesn’t see any lymph-node inclusion. She said, “I’ll type up the report and send it to Dr. Nate right now.”

I got dressed and headed down the hall to Dr. Nate’s office. Dr. Nate’s nurse Laurie greeted me after I checked in. She is probably one of my favorite care providers. She is like a bright ray of sunshine. She is kind, compassionate, and laughs at my jokes. She hands me a new breast exam gown – a longer, newer, maroon number – and I make a joke about how much nicer their gowns are. She chuckles and leaves the room so that I can change. I lay back on the table, close my eyes, breathe, and chant, “Trust God. Have Faith. All Joy.”

About 5 minutes later Dr. Nate walks in. I love him. He is warm and personable and you can tell how much he cares about his patients. He begins pulling up my images from before treatment and from today. He says, “We don’t expect to see any changes in the calcifications. They don’t really change with chemo. We’re really looking to see if we have changes in the size of the tumor. Anything other than growth is good.”

Then he said something incredible. “Your tumor has shrunk about 30%. We will stay the course on your chemotherapy treatment. I’ll order more imaging for the end of chemo and we’ve got your surgery scheduled for August.”

I was on cloud nine.

Then Dr. Nate said something I wasn’t expecting. “I do want you to meet with Dr. Graybill, the Radiation Oncologist, just to confirm that she doesn’t think you’ll need radiation after surgery. Some protocols are changing.”

A week later, I was headed to see Dr. Graybill, with a sick sense in my stomach that radiation was in my future. I was hopeful that I wouldn’t have to have it. My tumor wasn’t big enough or advanced enough to immediately qualify me for radiation at diagnosis, so it really wasn’t a part of the conversation…until now.

I was escorted into a meeting room, adjacent to an exam room. Dr. Graybill and her NP entered, asked some questions and then had me put on another sweet breast exam gown for a quick exam. We then went back into the meeting room where Dr. Graybill said:

“I recommend 6 weeks of radiation post-operation.”

My heart just sank.

Dr. Graybill then proceeded, the research on breast cancer is ever evolving and changing constantly. They once believed that radiation was really only for women with large tumors or who did lumpectomies without chemotherapy. Now they are realizing that the patients that actually need the radiation the most are the younger ones, with the most aggressive breast cancer (triple negative) to ensure that there is absolutely no recurrence of the cancer again. In the last 2 months the recommendations have started to change that women under 40 with triple negative breast cancers should have radiation post-op.

I trust my doctors. They are all trained and certified my M.D. Anderson Cancer Hospital in Houston. I know they are working with the most cutting-edge information and the best protocols available when it comes to treating cancer. The fact that Dr. Nate knew the protocol changed and referred me to radiation gives me so much confidence in my care.

Dr. Graybill recommends that my radiation be 5 days a week for 6-weeks, 15 minutes a day, post-mastectomy.

Obviously this was not the news that I wanted, but I looked at the doctor and said, “Well, I’d rather not get cancer again. If this gives me the best chance at being cancer free, I want that chance.”

Trust God. Have Faith. All Joy.

Dr. Graybill said, “You have the absolute right attitude about it.”

As I got back into my car to head home, I was upset. I went home and had ice cream for dinner – no shame. I called every girlfriend I could to complain and sulk. Then I reminded myself that I am being walked through is journey for a reason. I have to Trust God. Have Faith, and find the Joy in this journey.

The radiation does push my reconstruction out a bit – and as it turns out – that might be right around Christmas. So hey, new boobs for Christmas? #alljoy.

XOXO

PS. Another blog coming this week about my new chemo drug, side-effects, and a project that I may be helping with in the Indiana legislature.