Check it: part 3

I met Tammy through one of my prayer warriors, Leigh.  And I met Leigh through my amazing friend, Laura, who passed away in 2013 from this dreaded disease.  Sometimes it’s hard to believe that Laura is gone.  I still see her signature symbol (rainbows!) all over the place and I notice her love of people, her legacy, really, lives on as great people continue to connect because of her.

Tammy’s story is much like the rest of ours – an unexpected cancer diagnosis for a young woman.  But I especially relate to her as a mother.  The news of a cancer diagnosis rips right through you, no matter what, but for a mother, there is this additional second terror that hits you What is going to happen?  What if I’m not ok?  Who will cut the itchy tags from their little shirt collars if I die???
I’m pleased to share Tammy’s story with you.  I wish she never had to go through any of this stuff, but because she did and shared her story, it strengthens and galvanizes me in my own fight.  (5 chemo rounds down.  7 to go!)
What I want you to know is that Tammy’s is a story of hope and current good health.  She is here today, in part, because she FOUND SOMETHING and she CHECKED IT!  Please let this be your weekly reminder that getting anything that concerns you checked out is your first punch in fighting cancer.  Earlier is always better and easier!  
Here is Tammy’s story in her own words:
Im sorry. You have cancer.”
You are never prepared to hear those words. My cancer story began in the summer of 2010.  We planned a quick getaway with friends to Deep Creek for a weekend of boating, bonfires and board games.  It led me to discover a small lump on my chest wall. After taking a nasty spill off the tube, my life jacket pulled and I felt a pop.  I made my way back to the boat and could feel a small lump or something. It never changed in size like it would if it was swollen from the fall and no bruising, so my friend insisted that I call my doctor just to be safe. 
Normally I avoid the doctor at all cost but something just stayed with me to get checked; after all it couldn’t be cancer because I was only 38.  
I did what we all do and I googled the symptoms of breast cancer other than this small bump which was obviously totally related to the life jacket.  I didn’t  have any symptoms. 
I met with my doctor after the initial exam things moved at a quick pace. Initially they led me to believe it might be a cyst so that day we did an ultrasound but the location was tricky.  They felt it best we should do a mammogram and a stereotactic biopsy just to cover all the bases. Great! My lump was not in my breast – it was about 1/2 inch below my collar bone (the life jacket pulled so part of the tumor could be felt beneath the muscle.)  About a week later I had the testing and a week after that which was July 19, 2010.  I received that call and no matter how sympathetically it is delivered, the words “you have cancer,”STOPS YOUR WORLD. 
The future is never given but now it is dark, scary and fast.  As hard as it is to hear it is even harder to say. In the moments after the call I had to call my husband and I just cried on the phone.  The words just stuck in my throat. Finally, I said it and it was even worse saying it than hearing it. 
I had to leave work. Fortunately I work with amazing people and they were quickly learning of my meltdown and as I exited my office I saw the fear on their faces as i shared my news.  As the hours of that day past and my house filled with family and friends I needed a few minutes to myself.  
I was out of tears – you can only cry so much – so I prayed for God to take my worry.  I prayed that I would do whatever the doctors wanted, see, do, take whatever, just carry my worry, God. In that instance I was at peace and was overwhelmed with love and strength which slowly built to hope. It’s with that hope I carried to my many doctor appointments and it’s that hope I kept in my heart. 
It made hearing Stage 3, multiple types of cancer discovered, 8 rounds dense dose chemo, port,  hospital stays, radiation, BRCA 2 gene, mastectomy, prophylactic oophorectory (sounds like a Dr. Seuss word but it’s  removal of ovaries and the Fallopian  tubes), bone treatments not just manageable to survivable. Hope and holding hope high in your heart allows you to not only survive but thrive.
When I began treatment my daughters were 6 and 3 my hair was falling out so I armed them with safety scissors and they gave me the most beautiful haircut ever.  The fear disappeared from their faces and I gave them the power of hope.  And hope is like magic – it changes your attitude when the power of God intersects with your soul. The power of prayer and hope were my “secret” weapons in my cancer fight. And if it wasn’t for that life jacket pulling the muscle I may have never detected the tumor which secretly was growing under the my chest muscle.  Miracles happen every day. I am forever grateful for my prayer warriors, family, friends, Dr. Keenan, Dr. Rubino and Dr. Analo of West Penn great cancer care.



Remember…if it concerns you, CHECK IT.  And if your friend tells you about some bump or lump or weird thing, tell them to CHECK IT.

Check it. Part 2.

When I was growing up, my parents had this huge group of friends.  We would all go to the beach together.  The children would play in the ocean and the adults would do adult things that involved drinking beer, dancing and a theme that included costumes and songs and choreographed routines.  It was a lot of fun, and I miss those days.  One of the wonderful people who was a part of my life back then is Mary.  Through the glories of social media, we’ve reconnected, and I was dismayed to hear about her battle with cancer.  Until I, myself, was diagnosed at 35.  While I was still troubled by her illness, I found an encourager, a friend and fellow warrior in Mary.

I am profiling people in my life who have been diagnosed with cancer in an effort to remind all of my friends and family and anyone else reading this that cancer can hit anyone at anytime.  You don’t have to be afraid of that – because so many cancers are so treatable if you would just check out anything unusual and advocate for yourself so these cases can be caught early.

Here, Mary, who discovered her cancer through PAYING ATTENTION TO HER BODY and CHECKING IT shares her story in her own words:

My cancer was found by accident. In August of 2011, I went to MedExpress for some discomfort in my upper rib cage that I assumed was my gallbladder. I was 48 at the time and I just assumed body parts would start to give me trouble.  They sent me for some blood work and a scan of my gallbladder, liver and pancreas. That, my friends, is how it began. My liver enzymes were high and the scan of my liver showed something very bad.  After seeing a liver specialist, a battery of tests ensued in the next few weeks including a liver biopsy where it was determined I had breast cancer that spread to my liver. Now to find it in my breast, I kept feeling for lumps, pressing, pushing, nothing. I went for yearly mammograms and was about 3 months late in getting my annual exam. How could this be?  Soon thereafter, I met with my Oncologist, Dr. Lembersky at UPMC. he wasn’t convinced it was breast cancer since we couldn’t feel the lump so he sent me for a mammogram. Upon having my mammogram, they scanned and saw nothing, I showed the technician what I thought may be something – it was a thickening on my breast, sort of like having a hive. It wasn’t very hard, it wasn’t a lump, but a thickening.  Sure enough, a biopsy determined that was it. He confirmed that I had Stage IV metastatic  breast cancer that spread to my liver.  I was Her2 positive which is an aggressive type of breast cancer that tends to grow faster and is more likely to spread and come back. It’s also fueled by hormones so they threw me into Menopause to shut it down.  Dr. Lembersky was stern, said there’d be no surgery, just chemo and that they’d hit me hard. I said “listen, I have a 16 year old who needs me and a 401K that I want to spend. You do whatever you need to to make sure I stay here.” He said he’d do his best, but I could tell, he was very concerned as we were too. 

So the chemo began every 3 weeks for 6 months. My body was in shock, I never get sick, not a cold, the flu anything and my body was feeling the ill effects of chemo pretty quickly.  After my 2nd treatment, I ended up in Shadyside Hospital as my white blood cells were dangerously low. I became Neutropenic and they thought I had an infection. No infection, but the chemo was wracking my body. They brought me back after 3 days in the hospital. Along the way, I lost my hair, and had terrible side effects from the chemo that got worse with each treatment. By the time I was done, I was cooked and I’m not sure I could have gone on any longer. But with the presence of family and friends, I was able to push through.

Luckily for me, the chemo worked beautifully. It was squashing the cancer and my Oncologist was thrilled. I continue my cancer fight with an IV infused drug of Herceptin every 3 weeks and a pill called Tamoxifin daily.  This will continue for the rest of my life or until we need to do something differently. I began post-chemo scans every 3 months and now I’m out to every 6 months. It’s been 4 years since my diagnosis, I’m in remission and to this day, Dr. Lembersky calls me his “miracle patient.” I don’t consider myself a miracle, just lucky this time around.

In the beginning, I felt that cancer was controlling my life and would do so forever.  And in a sense it is a bit controlling, which I absolutely hate. As I continue treatments, there’s a constant reminder when I visit the Hillman Cancer Center and see so many people young and old suffering at different stages of this awful disease. There’s times I “room” with another patient and try to be their cheerleader, giving them my bleak story and telling them there’s a chance, to fight hard, to stay strong and that makes me happy.  Then there’s times that I break down because it’s so scary that I’m not in control and I hate to see people suffering. I’m truly traumatized by the whole event and when I talk about my chemo days, often times I break down because it brings back so many memories of pain and suffering.  But the one thing I can say is a cancer diagnosis to me meant that I needed to make some lifestyle changes. This was where I was going to be a little more in control.  After reading some books and educating myself on the disease, I truly believe cancer can be fueled by what we eat. I am trying to do everything I can so that my cancer does not return. I work with a nutritionist, try to eat clean, have an Integrative Medicine doctor that I see for the lasting side affects of chemo and continue follow-ups with my Oncologist. I had genetic testing done for my family (yes, even though I have a son, it matters) and I don’t carry the gene, nor can they find a genetic reason for the history of cancer in my family. My mom has ovarian cancer for the 2nd time (does not carry the gene) and her sister passed from the same disease. There’s something there, they just haven’t discovered it yet.  

I do look at life differently since my diagnosis in both good ways and bad. Unfortunately, I don’t have much sympathy when someone is sick with a cold or something minor and whines about it – now that’s bad. But then there’s the good – this has opened my eyes to how strong I actually am, to all the blessings in my life – my husband and son, my family and friends and the simple things in life. I pay it forward however and whenever I can. I don’t sweat the small stuff and try to put things into perspective.  I think Jim Valvano captured it when he said “”Cancer can take away all of my physical abilities. It cannot touch my mind, it cannot touch my heart, and it cannot touch my soul.”  I think that sums it up.  

Mary’s story has encouraged me greatly.  She fought hard and continues to fight to keep that pesky cancer at bay.  And she’s making it.  She looks great, travels for fun, and recently married her sweetheart, Harry.  Mary has been an example to me of a fighter and a person who has figured out how to enjoy life even when it’s really hard.

In addition to encouraging me, she introduced me to Chef Colombe.  Chef is part nutritionist, part life coach.  She had cancer, herself, 20 years ago, and though she went through treatment, she also believes in our ability to help heal ourselves through healthy foods, clean eating and other lifestyle changes.  Mary has been working with her for a while, and I started as well.  Though I have studied and researched a lot that is out there, regarding different opinions on what foods contribute to cancer and what foods fight cancer, Chef Colombe has significantly deeper knowledge.  And my favorite part of her approach is that she knows there are no one-size-fits-all answers.  Every body is different.  Every cancer is different.  Every chemo protocol hits each person differently.  She asks a lot of very good questions and takes your entire health situation into consideration.  She works with people facing all kinds of issues from cancer to celiac’s disease to general low energy.  She can be found at

Young Women Get Cancer

I mentioned casually to a friend recently that I have several
friends who are either currently fighting cancer, in remission or have passed
away from cancer.  She looked at me,
shocked.  She wanted to know how many
people we were talking about.  2?  4?  I
thought about it and realized that I have way more than that.  She acted as though this was quite surprising.  I don’t think it is anymore.  Young women get cancer. 
My cancer was discovered much later than it should have
been.  My presenting symptom (TMI ahead!)
was blood in my stool.  But I had seen three
doctors about it over ten years (TEN YEARS!!) and until I was diagnosed, was
basically told to eat more fiber.  I knew
something was wronger than that, and I honestly put off pushing for diagnosis out
of fear and embarassment.  (You haven’t
lived until a doctor is closely inspecting that area of your anatomy – bucket list
alert!)  I don’t live in the space of
blame, but I deeply regret not advocating more for myself, and wish I hadn’t
been so embarrassed to discuss a little blood in my poop. 
That regret and deep desire to help others avoid my mistakes,
I believe, is part of the significance of my adventure with cancer.  Those feelings are difficult to live with,
but I feel propelled by them in a positive way. I think I can make a difference
by broadening the scope of topics that are ok to discuss.  Think of it this way.  20 years ago the term “breast cancer” was
whispered shamefully.  We didn’t talk
about diseases that kill us and we didn’t talk about our boobs!  Now, you have NFL players sporting pink shoes
and there is a line of products with the phrase FEEL YOUR BOOBIES splashed
across them.  It’s ok to talk about
breast cancer.  Say what you want about
Susan G. Komen (many survivors do not love this organization) but they nailed
it in terms of social marketing.  They changed
the game. 
I want to change the game, too.  I want to help people do three things:
1.      Be more aware of your body – are you having
symptoms?  What are they?  Where are they?  How long do they last?  I want to end this mentality of “If I ignore
it, it will go away.”  That’s how people
die.  Early detection is KEY.  Cancer treatment is changing.  Sooner is better.  Waiting gets you a big fat NOTHING. So…CHECK IT.  
2.      Get over the fear of bad news.  Look.  “Bad
news” is a DIAGNOSIS.
  A diagnosis is
  Does anyone want to hear they have
  Nope!  But right now, if I could go backwards in
time to 2005 and get a Stage 1 cancer diagnosis instead of what has become a
Stage 4 diagnosis, I would be thrilled to be told I have early stage
  Overjoyed.  You can’t fight what you don’t know.  So…CHECK IT.  

3.   Get thee to thy doctor!  Scared of your doctor?  Find a new one.  I went through many crappy doctors before I found
my guy.
  Dr. Martin Seltman at Metro
Family Health Center in Edgewood/Regeant Sq.
He treats me with respect and dignity and as a partner in my care.  If it wasn’t for him, my PCP, I would never
have gotten to a specialist who diagnosed me.
He’s my hero because he was a safe enough person during routine sinus
infection visits for me to finally whisper my terrible secret.
 I recently wrote him a note because I thought
I should tell him how much his kindness and professionalism have impacted my
 So…get a good doc NOW and CHECK IT.  

Check your boobs.  Check your butt.  That weird bump?  Check it.  Checkity check check check.

I’m featuring some friends in coming blog entries who are
fellow cancer fighters.  Warriors.  Bad Asses.  Diligent checkers.  First up is Katy Ursta.  
Katy is a
mom of two, wife of a great guy (who I happened to babysit many moons ago!) and
a top notch Beach Body coach.  She has
created a business that allows her to share her passion for fitness, transformation
and helping others, and allows her to work from home.  Katy was in great shape, active, happy and
enjoying a busy, productive life when she noticed a couple of odd
symptoms.  Her lymph nodes were enlarged
and her legs were dry and itchy.  She was also weaning her son and had some issues that presented as mastitis in her breast.  Smart
lady that she is, she went to her doctor and it was quickly discovered that she
had Stage 4 Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, a blood cancer that causes tumors throughout
the body.

Katy wasn’t about to take this lying down.  She went straight into chemo and continued
working out daily, dedicating her workouts to fellow fighters.  Example: 
“Today, we’re sweating for Jessi.” 
What an inspiration!  I know that
while we were in the chemo trenches together, she would spur me on to get
active even when I felt my worst.  Katy
has used her unique position and experience to develop a platform for speaking
and helping others get in shape.  She is
partnering with me in raising awareness among young people to not ignore those
symptoms, not fear diagnosis and get to the doctor.  Katy is a beautiful spirit who I am proud to
know.  She is generous, fun, friendly and
full of energy.  If she doesn’t inspire
you, no one will.  I encourage you to
check out her blog.  If you are looking
for a compassionate, supportive person to guide you in an effort toward better
health, she’s your girl.  Check it: