Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Quick Takes: Debbie Thomas

Today I'm introducing one of the new features for "Women With Cancer" -- Quick Takes -- a question and answer column that I'll run twice a month.   I learn so much and am constantly inspired by hearing other women's stories and know you will be, too.  Let me know what you think! 

When friends ask me where or how I met Debbie Thomas, 44, of Hampton Falls, New Hampshire, I have to stop and think.  It seems like she’s been a part of my life for a long time -- that's the kind of bond we share -- but the truth is I met her last summer.  My introduction came through the thoughts expressed from her blog, simply titled “Debbie’s Cancer Blog” ( and her incredible story.  From there, our correspondence continued on Twitter, to email and talking on the phone as we can.  She was diagnosed in 2006, and I’ll ask her to tell you the rest.

Since we met through words let’s start there.  What do you think of blogging?   I like blogging.  For me it’s an extension of journaling, which I do a fair amount of. Blogging was a way for me to tell my story.  It’s great that we can all share our stories with like minded souls.

Last fall, when your treatment ended, you wrote that your body was “getting ready for a break, but my mind was just getting started.” Can you tell us some more about what you were going through?  When treatment ended it was great for my body.   If I’d been asked to do any more physically my body might have broken down.  During treatment, my mind was in a state of 'rest'.  I could only focus on one day at a time. As soon as treatment ended I started chewing mentally on the reality of cancer and everything I went through.   I started to accept that this was really happening to me and that it was scary as hell.   For the most part my mind went straight to the negatives.  Without the constant treadmill of treatment there was time on my hands, and time to consider what might happen next.  And it was very hard for me to not travel down the 'recurrence' path.   Then when it DID happen I was right back in shock and despair again. I have to say that going through it twice may have led me finally to a different place completely.

Please tell us what happened.  How soon after did you find out your cancer recurred and how?  Recovering from treatment after my cancer had metastasized brought me to a different place. I still had the struggles similar to the first recovery – the exhaustion, depression, anxiety, and side effects of medication.  But after my first treatment I was terrified that the cancer would come back. So when it did my worst nightmare had happened.  But when you then live through your worst nightmare and manage to come out stronger you feel like you have come to a new place.  You’re not as scared anymore.  
           My recurrence happened about nine months after I finished treatment the first time.  This treatment included a left breast mastectomy, four months of chemo, seven weeks of radiation and a year of Herceptin.  I was having some pain in my left shoulder blade, which is the side I had my breast cancer on. The pain was a deep sort of pain and unusual for me. It came and went. I was running and lifting weights and doing yoga so I thought (was hoping) I had hurt myself.  But when I met with my surgeon in January, two years post mastectomy, she suggested a bone scan. The bone scan showed something tiny in one vertebra so she suggested a PET Scan. This scan along with a blood test confirmed one small cancerous spot on the left side of my first thoracic vertebra.
Another striking statement to me was your observation that “there is a fine line between kicking cancer’s butt and allowing yourself to recover.”  I’d love to hear more about that.   When I wrote this I was considering the line between getting back to life after treatment while allowing for the time and space needed to recover from the ordeal you’ve just experienced.  I was mostly talking about the physical aspects but I think it applies to mental and psychological or emotional aspects as well.  I wanted to return to my 'normal' routine or working, raising my daughter, taking care of the house, the dog,  volunteering …friend ...I wanted to do it all again just like I had before cancer but found that I couldn't.  I would often get frustrated about that.  But you also don't want to close yourself off and baby yourself too much.  This leads to isolation, deeper depression and physical atrophy. 
           So how do you walk the line between taking your life back and perhaps even pushing yourself to new lengths (like running a half-marathon) versus those times when you really need to go to bed early and  take the every elusive "time-for-yourself"? It is a challenge every day to find the balance.

You and Nick work together, live together and are raising a wonderful daughter.  What’s your secret?  Wow, that's a good question! We have our ups and downs just like any couple. But we do work well together.   We complement each other. I am pretty laid back and Nick is pretty driven, but luckily we don't drive each other crazy with these opposite ways….most of the time (laughing). We take turns a lot and we talk about EVERYTHING. If you're not defensive and can really listen to each other you can usually find a way to work through issues that arise.  Going through cancer made us closer, made us appreciate each other more and see sides of each other we hadn't focused on before. It has also made us grow as individuals and learn new things about ourselves, which in turn has made us a stronger couple.

You work with images all day long.  Have you done any projects that resonate with you about breast cancer?  Did you photograph your story?  All of our work is commercial/corporate photography, so I never have really worked on anything related to breast cancer. The interesting thing was to work during treatment. I went to a few portfolio showings bald but wearing a hat.  In retrospect it wasn't probably the best business move. Some people asked me what was up, others said nothing and I never knew if I should broach the subject.  I did not photograph my story but I wish I had. I have a few pictures of me bald and if I can manage to scan them I will send a couple. I find them fascinating to look at. In one picture I am standing with my arm around my Mom in our kitchen and we are both smiling. When I showed that picture to my therapist a while back she asked me what I think when I look at that picture and I said I wonder why I am smiling! I think it would have been too painful for Nick to truly photograph me as we struggled through it all, some days were so difficult.
What books and magazines are on your reading table?  I just finished "Living Life as a Thank You: The Transformative Power of Daily Gratitude" by Nina Lesowitz and Mary Beth Sammons.   Everyone should run out immediately and buy this book.  It changed my life. I am now reading "My Life in France" by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme.  I also have "Become a Better You" by Joel Osteen.  His writing has helped to renew my faith and to remind me to act in faith, love and hope.  I also read "Runner's World" and "Budget Travel".

You’re a daughter.  Wife.  Mother.  Businesswoman.  Runner.  Blogger.  Friend.  And now you’re a metastatic breast cancer survivor.  How weird is that?  So very weird!  Even though it has been three years and two diagnoses I sometimes STILL can't believe it has happened to me.  Sometimes I have a hard time reconciling that!  Every morning after my shower I rub lotion on the flat, scared, tanned left side of my chest where my breast used to be.  It is an obvious, physical reminder of what I have been through.  And of course I “know” I have been through it but sometimes I still haven't accepted it. And maybe in some ways it is good. I focus on all the other aspects of my life -- work, family, running, writing, social networking -- there’s no room for cancer. Or cancer is a small part among the many other parts of my life. 

That’s understandable.  Three years isn’t that long over the course of a life.   You’ve written about therapy.  From my vantage point it has helped you pass through some enormous hurdles fairly quickly.  And the clue is:  pass through, not over.  Is that a fair statement?  I don’t at all want to diminish your courage, which I find inspiring.  I highly recommend therapy to anyone going through a traumatic experience. I wish I had started sooner. I waited until I was pretty deep in depression after my first round of treatment before I finally went. I was lucky to find a great therapist and she has really helped me to go through the tough times. She gives me "homework' which often involves journaling, meditating, saying mantras or affirmations, and exercising. She is a runner too so it is cool to share that interest with her. It has been so helpful to have that objective person who is trained to help, but she is not so objective that she can't shed a little tear when I told her the cancer was back and then again when I told her I ran 6 miles for the first time and was training to run a half-marathon. The plain truth is I would not be where I am emotionally right now if I wasn't going to therapy with this woman.

We all agree:  mastectomy bras are worse than Buster Brown cotton underpants.  Please explain to our friends who have had a mastectomy how you got your “vavoom” back with your Victoria’s Secret Bras?  Oh yeah, the "Granny Bra.” I really just couldn't stand them.  They're too large, too boring and too uncomfortable.  And it’s impossible to wear anything even remotely low-cut because the bra would show. I was used to wearing a low-profile, simple cotton underwire bra from Victoria's Secret.  They were comfy and colorful and had matching undies.  So my sister-in-law, who is also a breast cancer survivor, told me about some sew-in pockets that she bought and then sewed into her regular bras. I bought some and my Mom sewed them into all my favorite Victoria Secret bras. So now I can wear the comfy, colorful bras I have always worn! I can wear a low cut shirt and feel a little sexy, something that is sometimes hard to accomplish when you are missing a breast.

Sometimes, but not always.  Let’s see: what was the last romantic thing Nick has done for you?  A couple days ago he was taking Benny for a walk and he called me to tell me to look out the window. It was an amazing sunset and he wanted to share it with me.  He knew I would want to see it. And to me that is romantic!

Is there anything I haven’t asked you that you’d talk about?  Each person’s cancer journey is unique. But we can find commonalities in our stories.  And ultimately these commonalities can be a source of comfort in a time of despair and fear.  I remember feeling so isolated and lost after my diagnosis and treatment. It seems a long time ago, but I was an outsider in my own skin. I used to think it came from outside me, from other people, but now I think at least half of it came from inside me. But with counseling, the love and support of my family and friends, and some new friends in the cancer community (both survivors and advocates) I have been able to feel more at home in my skin than ever before.  It is all about re-adjustment.
#    #    #


Anonymous said...

Debbie, the most remarkable thing I hear in your Voice is LIBERATION! You've given yourself the freedom to be the Real Woman you are! You've accepted what has been and embrace all that is!! You ARE so INSPIRING!! Thank you Jody for adding this feature to WomenWithCancer!

Annemieke said...

Dear Debbie, although I (short of) knew what you have been going through this Q and A with Jody made it even more clear to me and my admiration for the way you handle yourself has even grown (if at all possible). You will inspire so many with this interview as you do with your own beautiful blog. I'm so happy I got to meet you and still hope to see you in person in Austin come October, Dear Debbie, you are amazing and you rock. Big hug, Annemieke

Annemieke said...

Dear Jody,

As I was impressed with the way Debbie did this Q and A with you, I'm impressed with you coming up with this format to do a piece. You have a wonderful way with words and your kind heart makes you ask the right question all the time. Your love for your fellow men shows through everything you do and that is why you and your work inpsire me beyond owrds. Big hug, Annemieke

Jody said...

I so agree with your comments about Deb. The joy rings through -- and there is so much all of us can learn (and from YOU as well, my friend). Thank you for stopping by. I hope to introduce more and more cool women as time goes by.

Jody said...

Thank you so much! I'm glad that you were able to get to know Deb better through this format. You are an inspiration to US, too. Please don't ever forge that!

Debbie said...

Dear Annemieke,
Thanks for your sweet and supportive comment. It was an honor to do this post with Jody and as you mention she is a great facilitator and so open to helping people share themselves. That made the process very easy! It's like I was just talking with my friend because I was:) And glad to share it with all my other friends!
Love, Debbie

Marie Ennis said...

Well Jody - you've done it again! A remarkable post which I just know will resonate with so, so many survivors out there. I just don't know where to start - there is SO much in this interview to chew on. First off - great questions Jody!! You sure are a skilled interviewer. This wasn't just the usual what happened and how did you feel format - you gave Deb space to really open up and reveal herself, not as a person with cancer, but as a woman - a wife, a mother, daughter.

Like you, I almost can't remember a time that Debbie hasn't been in my life - but again, I just met her online last summer too. This interview has deepened my understanding of what she has been through and the person that has emerged as a result. It has deepened my respect and love for the woman and friend that she is.

Thank you both for sharing this truly inspirational story with us of what it means to be a survivor.

Love to you both. Marie xxxx

Anonymous said...

I may be too close to the subject, but I think I can recognize a great interview when I see one! Tender, probing questions; honest, thoughtful answers.

As a friend who helped the strong, beautiful Deb through her treatments, I guess I still had more to learn. Thank you Jody for your written and personal support for my Deb. You -- and rest of this awesome community -- have provided what I cannot: the understanding and comfort that comes from a community of people with a shared experience.

Jody said...

It's a wonderful friend who shares a precious sister!!! I'll have Deb tell you our "twitter friendship" story. I remember running across a blog with a very brave, very honest and somewhat frightened voice describing the journey none of us are prepared for. The rest as they say, is history!

Thank you so much for your lovely comment. Interviewing Deb was a pleasure and part of an ongoing, incredible conversation.

Let's let the good times keep rolling,