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Meet the #LobMob of breast cancer

18 Feb
lobular breast cancer patients

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Finally got a chance to write about lobular breast cancer, my particular flavor, and profile rock star patient advocate (and friend) Leigh Pate.

Leigh was diagnosed about the same time as me; she’s also a lobular gal and has already done a bit of advocacy around lymphedema, that really annoying swollen arm thing that breast cancer patients get when surgeons take out some or all of our lymph nodes.

Leigh and I met first over the Interwebs and later over cocktails at The Triple Door in downtown Seattle where we talked about lymphedema (or milk arm, as it used to be known). Because, you know, cancer patients know how to party.

After she recovered from treatment (and took a moment to breathe), Leigh sort of leaned into cancer research, as many of us do. She realized quickly that invasive lobular is lumped in (no pun intended) with invasive ductal and treated identically — mainly because lobular is almost always estrogen receptor positive (ER+ in cancerspeak).

But lobular is a different animal entirely, down to its tiny biological bits. And it’s a hard one to catch early, because it doesn’t image as well as ductal. Particularly if you have dense breasts — that’s where that whole “doublewhammied” thing came from. That and the fact I had two tumors in both breasts. Another weird lobular trait: many women have tumors in both breasts and/or have more than one tumor per breast.

There are other differences. Lobular spreads to oddball places like the GI tract when it metastasizes. The cells travel single file, kind of like deadly little tree branches. This weird growth pattern means it doesn’t always make a lump (mine was a “tuck” that pulled from inside and crumpled in when I raised my left arm).

But again, the cancer has been cast as “just like ductal” for a long time. So not everybody knows these quirky differences. Not even patients or PCPs or sometimes not even oncologists. Women come in with weird abdominal symptoms and they’re told they have irritable bowel syndrome (because hey, don’t ALL women have IBS?). But no, they have stage 4 lobular cancer.

leigh pate - lob mob

Leigh Pate, lobular breast cancer patient/advocate. Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Anyway, tired of the status quo and encouraged by an uptick in scientific interest, Leigh and a bunch of her BC buddies (the #lobmob), put together the Lobular Breast Cancer Alliance to raise its profile — and eventually, they hope, funds for more research. The timing is perfect because there are some cool new  lobular studies being done right now (at Fred Hutch and elsewhere) and we can all help get the word out.

You can read my full story here, which includes some intriguing history regarding combined hormone therapy (HRT increases the risk of lobular, not ductal — I did not know this!). You can also see where scientists are looking, genetically, hormonally and otherwise, in order to shut this shitshow down.

As always, thanks for the read. Enjoy your day, peeps!


Get your geek on – and connect with cancer peeps – at the NW MBC conference

10 Sep

lady scientistBig doins in the world of mets these days. And by mets, I mean metastatic breast cancer, not the baseball team. And by big doins, I mean the upcoming Northwest Metastatic Breast Cancer conference, which is happening Friday and Saturday, September 22 and 23, in Seattle.

This party is being thrown with help from Komen Puget Sound and lots of other orgs. And it’s being held at Amazon Web Services which (for out-of-towners) is in South Lake Union not far from Fred Hutch, the cancer research cancer where I’ve been working these past (nearly) four years. And this thing is going to be the bomb.

Is it weird to be geeking out over a cancer conference? Yes, absolutely. But that’s how it is these days. I’ve gotten sciency, people, which is a pretty strange turn of events considering the bad taste for science my condescending 7th grade teacher Mr. Sargo left in my mouth.

Hmmm … is it too late to switch majors? Does this lab coat make my butt look big? ; )

This is the second annual NW MBC conference and it looks to be even bigger, better and more bad ass than last year’s inaugural event. The force behind it? Dynamic duo Beth Caldwell and Lynda Weatherby, two MBC patient advocates who’ve somehow managed to corral cancer peeps from nearly every MBC advocacy organization in the country to speak at the conference.

And then there are the researchers. There will be a handful of scientists from Fred Hutch; a few folks from Virginia Mason and Swedish, including the onc who treated me (sounds like a movie title, doesn’t it?); people from the Broad Institute/Harvard, birthplace of the Metastatic Breast Cancer Project.  And lots, lots more.

Topics include integrative oncology; inflammation; health disparities; financial toxicity; clinical trials; vaccines; and research, research and more research. There’s even going to a special session on filling in the mets recurrence data that’s currently missing from the SEER Cancer Registry (more on that here).

Breakout sessions will cover mets sites (liver, lung, brain, etc.) and cancer types (triple negative, HER2, etc.). There’s even going to be a session on lobular breast cancer (my particular flavor) with experts from the University of Pittsburgh.

As I always like to say, knowledge is power. Even more powerful? Free knowledge that might save your life — or the life of a friend! And this conference is free, folks. Here’s the full agenda.

Just so you can see what you’re getting into, here’s a link to a piece I wrote last year that talks a bit about the first conference. I’ll be covering it again this year. If you can make it, please come by and say hello (I’ll be the frazzled blonde furiously live tweeting and scribbling notes in a reporter’s notebook).

If you can’t make it, the word on the street is, it will be livestreamed. Check the Komen Puget Sound website and/or FB page for more details on that.

Peace out, peeps. I’m going to go measure my P-values.

The elephant in the bedroom – yeah, I talked about sex after cancer treatment

3 Aug

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Sex after cancer is complicated. You know what else is complicated? Writing about sex after cancer.

I tackled the topic last week in a two-part series for And even though it felt like I was walking around in my underpants when the stories came out (I talked a little bit about my own experience in this realm), I’m glad I covered it because it’s a big issue for cancer patients and it doesn’t get a ton of attention.

As I said in the story, cancer cuts us to our sexual quick. We lose body parts. We lose our libido. Oftentimes, we lose our sexual selves. Men struggle with impotence; women are plunged into menopause decades before they would naturally arrive; and many are left to sort it all out on their own.

Why? Because people often don’t feel comfortable talking about this stuff – not doctors, not patients, not even their partners. Sex after cancer has become the elephant in the bedroom.

Here’s a link to Part 1, which covers the sexual aftermath of cancer treatment and how surgery, chemo, radiation and hormone treatments — all those things they do to keep us alive — can cause all kinds of sexual side effects, from fatigue and body image issues to erectile dysfunction and vaginismus.

And here’s Part 2, which offers a few experts tips and tricks that we as patients can use to hack our post-treatment sex life.

As I said, it’s not easy to write about this stuff or talk about this stuff. So I’d like to give a huge shout out to two amazing patients: stage 4 anal cancer patient Michele Longabaugh and testicular cancer patient Jon Dibblee. Both were kind and courageous enough to talk about the sexual challenges they’ve faced since treatment and I can’t thank them enough for their candor and insights. Many thanks, also, to Nicki Boscia Durlester and her private breast and ovarian cancer Facebook group, Beyond the Pink Moon. It’s so important to have safe, supportive places like this where patients can bond and bare all.

Did your cancer and treatment lead to sexual side effects? Did your doctor downplay the damage or mention it at all? Let me know in the comments section. Still have more to say? Please join me and the folks at Fred Hutch  tomorrow (August 4) at 10 a.m. (Pacific) for a tweetchat on the topic. Use #ChatFredHutch to join the conversation.

tweetchat image.png

Coming to terms with your post-cancer body

7 Mar
Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Once you’re flagged as somebody who might have cancer, you’re basically strapped onto the world’s worst carnival ride.

The ride starts off slowly at first with biopsies and consultations but then once you’re diagnosed, it picks up speed. Then there are scans, MRIs, surgery appointments, oncology consults and shopping excursions to buy things you’ve never heard of like surgical camisoles. Suddenly, the Merry-Go-Round or Tilt-a-Whirl or whatever it is starts going at breakneck speed. You go through surgery, you go through chemo, you go through radiation, you do it all. You get used to this new reality, this tumultuous spinning wheel of blood draws, port infusions, belly shots of Neulasta, daily blasts of radiation. You go around and around, back and forth, up and down, over and over. You’re strong and on top of things one day; you’re addle-brained and couch-bound the next. You spend all of your time in pajamas and patient gowns. You forget how to talk to people. You forget who you are. You’re bald, boobless, beaten down and burned to a crisp. And then suddenly, you’re pushed off the Tilt-a-Whirl or Octopus or whatever it is and told to go back to your normal life. The ride is over.

The only problem is, you’re still spinning.

Ever see somebody get off a high-speed carnival ride that’s suddenly stopped short? They stagger. They lurch. They might even walk into a pole. Or do a face plant onto the sidewalk.

That’s what life after cancer treatment was like for me: a great big WTF. I couldn’t trust the ground under my feet. I couldn’t trust my own body. I couldn’t even trust the reflection staring back at me in the mirror.

I tried to capture what it was like coming back from that and coming to terms with my new body and my “new normal” in this latest essay for

Writing about post-cancer body changes – and body image — has, by far, been the hardest thing to put into words and share with others. To be honest, it feels a lot like showing up at work in your underwear. But as vulnerable as it makes me feel to put this out into the world, I think it’s important to let people know about the collateral damage of treatment. And let other cancer peeps know they are most certainly not alone.

As always, thanks for the read, people.

What if people treated other cancers like they do breast cancer?

15 Sep

I’ve been recuperating at home the last week or so, healing up after my fourth and FINAL breast reconstruction surgery (just need to “dot the i’s” and I’m done, folks – high five!). Anyway, like any good invalid, I’ve spent most of my time watching Netflix, devouring books and reading social media posts from friends, colleagues and fellow cancer buddies.

I especially liked But Doctor I Hate Pink’s recent call-to-arms, Pinktober, Metastasized, a series of blog posts that takes on a few of the more inane “awareness” campaigns that have popped up so far.

As most women with breast cancer can tell you, the month of October is a huge pink clusterfuck. There are your Boob-A-Thons, your giant bouncing boob races, your Save The Ta-Ta’s wet T-shirt contests (because women who’ve been forced to have mastectomies love nothing more than having healthy normal breasts shoved in their faces). Stores sell everything from pink clogs to pink stun guns with a fraction of the profits going towards yet more “awareness” as opposed to research which could, hello, save women’s LIVES not just their boobs. Even the NFL, which has so clearly demonstrated its love of women in recent days, gets into the act with pink cleats and pom-poms. As I mentioned, a clusterfuck.

Follow the bouncing boob. More importantly, follow the money.

Follow the bouncing boob. More importantly, follow the money.

Particularly annoying are the wrong-headed campaigns encouraging women, including survivors and metavivors (women with metastasized breast cancer who are not exactly “surviving” this crap) to post cryptic and vaguely sexual status updates on Facebook (“I like it on the floor!”), don T-shirts adorned with vapid boob-related slogans or bedazzle their bras (provided they still have them) with lace and sequins, again all in the name of breast cancer awareness.

But Doctor I Hate Pink does a great job of taking on these egregious offenders in her posts (she’s also started a cool new #mycancerisnot4sale social media campaign to fight the pink profiteering). “After five years of being truly, horribly sick, I can tell you that [breast cancer] is not a cute, fun little disease that you can play with or have a party about,” she writes. “Breast Cancer is the most trivialized disease in history … Do they have a tighty whitey decorating party for anal cancer?  Let’s put a little brown glitter around the back end of the underwear, hey? Maybe some red sequins to show one of the signs that cancer lurks in that area? Yeah, let’s tell that cancer story through decoration.”

I love her feistiness and her humor and I especially love her point. You really don’t see other cancers – lung, liver, colon, bladder, prostate, anal, cervical, ovarian, etc. – being trivialized and/or sexualized in the same way that breast cancer has been over the last decade or so (although there is a rather interesting “put your cock in a sock” testicular cancer campaign currently rampaging through the interwebs).

What would it be like if other cancers were treated in the same ridiculous and demeaning fashion that some of these PR geniuses and clueless clods treat breast cancer? Read on to find out (with sincere apologies for those going through colon and testicular cancer). My edits are in italics. The rest is verbatim. As always, looking forward to your thoughts.

NATIONAL BRA (Breast Reconstruction Awareness) DAY promotion letter 

Testicles are so much more than just “the boys” or “gonads.” They’re fabulous. They make us feel sexy, whether we’re in our best outfit, lounging around in our favorite flannel PJs, or just bare butt naked (sic). This fall, we want to spread this sensation of beauty and testicle empowerment to testicular cancer patients and survivors, as well as men nationwide.

Many men who undergo orchidectomy aren’t adequately informed about reconstruction options and reimbursement.  In order to help raise awareness of these available options, we’re celebrating National TRA Day 2014 with a grassroots social media campaign using the hashtag #WHATSUNDERHERE.

Each participant receives a pair of boxer shorts with the #WHATSUNDERHERE hashtag on the front. In addition to the shorts, each kit comes with a set of cards with fun and thought-provoking sayings, such as: “Is Cancer Free,” “Looks Great Naked,” “Will Not Take Cancer Lying Down,” among others.

NATIONAL ‘NO BRA’ DAY – Facebook post from July 2011 

Colons are Fantastic… We all think so. And what better way to express the way we feel than to support a full day of colon freedom?? Humans are magnificent creatures, and so are their colons. Let us spend the day unleashing colons from their colon zoos.

Support breast cancer? Really? Does this hideous disease really need our SUPPORT?

Support breast cancer? Really? Does this hideous disease really need our SUPPORT?

People, free your colons for 24 hours by removing those dreadful (but at times oh-so-helpful) underpants. Our poop chutes should not be hidden! It is time that the world see what we were blessed with. Your colons might be colossal, adorable, miniature, full, jiggly, fancy, sensitive, glistening, bouncy, smooth, tender, still blossoming, rosy, plump, fun, silky, Jello-like, fierce, jolly, nice, naughty, cuddly… But the most used adjectives to describe your colons on this day should be joyous, wild, and spectacular.

Everyone can participate! If you don’t want to free your colon, then your job will be to support everyone else by rocking something brown. It can be a brown tie, brown boxers, brown socks, a brown Colon Cancer Awareness Ribbon, I ♥ Colons Bracelet…. If it is brown, it supports us. (Your support means quite a lot to us…)

**If wearing underpants on this day is absolutely necessary, you can definitely show your support by wearing something brown.**

Yay for colons!

Pardon my dust …

23 Aug

under construction signJust a note to let you know this site is under construction. Not the website: me.

Since January 2013, I’ve been working with a great plastic surgeon at UW Medicine to reconstruct my girls, lost to breast cancer in April of 2011. I had high hopes that I’d be able to keep all of you up to date on my progress, but between the multiple surgeries, the creepy complications, the healing process, the physical therapy, the emotional upheaval, the fabulous new job (took a full-time writing gig at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in January) and my other much-less-fabulous job – dealing with the aftermath of breast cancer and treatment – I’ve just been too dang busy.

So instead of beating myself up about not putting up a blog post every ten minutes (or ten months, for that matter), I decided to post this electronic version of a yellow “Under Construction” sign.

My next surgery is slated for early September. Yep, just a few days away. I’ll be going through more micro fat transfer (i.e., having fat liposucked from my lower body and injected into my top, particularly Lefty, who had rads) plus swapping out my cereal bowls … er … tissue expanders for “real” implants. I’ll still need nipple construction and tattooing after that but those procedures should be a little easier. Famous last words, right? ; )

If you’re looking for a laugh, here are a couple of links to recent essays on

Chemo curls: How cancer, and my new hair, helped me grow

Not your Mrs. Robinson fantasy: The brutal truth of dating after 50

And if you’re curious about what I’m doing in the new job, please feel free to check out my stories at

Thanks for stopping by and for your patience and support as I make my way down the long road to reconstruction. Looking forward to catching up with you all once the dust settles.

Reconstruction is not a boob job and other scary stories

31 Oct

October has been a bit of a crazy month for me. I had my second reconstruction surgery at the end of September – followed by a couple of post-op complications – so for weeks, I’ve just been trying to bootstrap my way off the couch and back to normal life. But since it’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month – aka Pinktober – I’ve also been busily cranking out essays and stories about the crab monster and the various ways it messes with our lives.  

Two of those essays went live today.  The first, for, is about how Reconstruction After Breast Cancer Isn’t a Boob Job. Anybody who’s been down the long road to recon knows this (and how), but there are still many people who think reconstruction is something that’s done as simple day surgery in a plastic surgeon’s office. Breast cancer? No problem! Here are your new magical boobs!

For all of those people who think building new breasts is as easy as baking a cake and all my BC sisters who’ve been through hell and back just to regain what cancer stole from them, a few thoughts on the subject:

It’s been nearly a month since my last surgery and the new girls are still a little scary looking. Righty’s recovering from a post-op infection that had me in the hospital on IV antibiotics for two days. Lefty’s missing most of her nipple, a casualty of my first surgery back in May.

They’re bruised and bandaged and look a bit like they’ve been in a bar fight. But they’re mine, thanks to the wonders of breast reconstruction surgery. Or as it’s popularly known, my “free breast cancer boob job.”

I’m being sarcastic, of course. Only a fool would confuse breast reconstruction with a boob job, but sadly, there seem to be a lot of fools out there.

I should know; I used to be one of them, until a radiologist uttered those three little words that have made such a difference to so many peoples’ lives: You have cancer.

After that, everything changed, including my understanding of what women have to go through to get their girls back. And trust me, it’s not easy and it’s not quick.

Unless you’re lucky. Or Angelina Jolie.

And here’s a link to the full essay.

The second piece, written for the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s website, doesn’t specifically focus on breast cancer. In fact, many of these tips could apply to anyone diagnosed with a debilitating disease. It’s on 8 Things You Shouldn’t – And Should – Say To a Cancer Patient.

As always, I’d love to hear about your experiences, either with reconstruction or cancer comments that have left you speechless. Sorry for the short post but as I said, this month is crazy.  And it’s not over yet – today’s Halloween! Take care and thanks for the read, my friends.