About sandraspivey227

Wife, mother of 2, sister. Metastatic Breast Cancer Survivor since 1998. Helpline volunteer working with those diagnosed with stage IV cancer. Consumer Reviewer for breast cancer research proposals. Volunteer at local animal shelter, taking care of adoptable cats.

Illness Magnet

It’s often said that “Opposites Attract” but what about people with illnesses or those who know someone with serious heath conditions?  Do they attract?

When I was originally diagnosed with breast cancer in 1995, I unintentionally became the hub of all things health and cancer related.  At work, people told me stories of Aunt Matilda who died a horrible death from colon cancer that eventually invaded her brain.  Or a best friend who, after battling breast cancer for four years, died leaving behind her five year old triplets to be raised by their unemployed alcoholic father.

Why did I have to know about these people?  What was I to do with such information?  It seems when some people hear the word “cancer,” they do a brain search for that word and blurt out whatever story is in their head about the subject, no matter how horrifying.  And the person who patiently listens to the story (me) tries to figure out if she’s meant to comfort the story teller, ask more questions about the situation, or detail how my situation might be different than the tale’s protagonist.

Is it not enough to have to face the burden of one’s own illness, but also have to shoulder the burden of emotionally supporting another person’s loss or health scare?  Or to provide specifics about my own health issues to someone who has thus far ranked as a “say Hi in the hallways” friend up to this point?

What I’ve surmised is that some people just don’t think.  They don’t know what to say when they learn of a serious health condition of one of their friends, co-workers or family members.  So they think about themselves and their experiences with the disease or related disease.  They share War Stories.   This is similar to situations pregnant women who have to listen to jaw-dropping stories of 48 hour labors or babies born with severe challenges.

When I discovered I that my cancer had spread to my bones, one woman at work checked in on me daily, letting me know how her sore back was coming along.  She had the condition for months and kept the pain under control with yoga and Tylenol.  As she spoke, my internal dialog was active “I realize she’s hurting, but how does telling me about it do anything for her or for me?  Yes, she is having a hard time standing up straight, but the pain in my hip makes it nearly impossible for me to walk at all.  And this wig is really itchy.  I need some alone time.”  I had to look around my office to see if there was a hidden camera recording each encounter, which would be played on some future reality TV program.  Was she going to burst out laughing, pointing to the camera and say “Gotcha”?

There came a time when cancer treatment caused my immune system to crash and I needed to stay away from people.  So, during weekdays, I my office as a bunker, equipped with jumbo bottles of hand sanitizer.  I was lucky to have a job where I could use the phone and email to accomplish most of my objectives.  By this time, many more co-workers knew of my condition.  The in-person visits became phone calls and emails.  People asked what I needed.  I had to figure out what I needed.  Maybe I just needed to be alone?

I found this great article on the American Cancer Society’s website:  “When Someone You Know Has Cancer”

http://www.cancer.org/cancer/news/when-someone-you-know-has-cancer

Another article “When Someone You Work With Has Cancer”

http://www.cancer.org/treatment/understandingyourdiagnosis/talkingaboutcancer/whensomeoneyouworkwithhascancer/index

Both have outstanding tips, thoughtfully put together from those who have been through treatment for cancer and those who have supported them.

As I was working through my emotions on the subject of feeling like a health junkie dumping ground, I decided to take the high road.  The stories had to be told by the teller.  I could choose listen to them as a way to both help the other person and a way to understand that the other person was coping in the best way they could at the time.  I learned how to tactfully cut conversations short.  I learned that people wanted to help but didn’t know how.  So I developed ideas on how they could help:  send me funny cards in the mail; shoot me an email every once in awhile to tell me how they’re doing;, text me a humorous photo of something happening in their lives.

After all of this, I trained to become a breast cancer helpline volunteer and speak with those facing stage IV disease.  I’ve been able to share in the frustrations of other women feeling like they have become Illness Magnets in their workplaces or families.  And most importantly, I’ve given them some perspective on how they can broaden the conversation away from disaster stories to things that can actually help them get through the workday.

Yes, I’m still an Illness Magnet.  But, no, I don’t let every scrap of disease-related situations stick.

A Bone to Pick with Peggy Fleming

Have you ever called a radio talk show program? Neither had I until I was dead tired after going through bone marrow transplant in 1999 for stage IV breast cancer. I had it out with Olympic ice skater Peggy Fleming.  Well, I didn’t exactly duke it out with her, but I was very concerned about a Parade Magazine article where she was quoted as having contracted breast cancer in 1998 and now was “cured.”

http://www.peggyfleming.com/about-2/

Using the word “cured” really bothered me.  Currently there is no known cure for breast cancer.   If we had a cure, we wouldn’t be participating in a “Race for the Cure”  in our communities. We also wouldn’t mourn the lives of thousands of women and men who die from the disease each annually.

I felt that Peggy Fleming’s comment might make others think if they were “cured,” they wouldn’t need regular check-ups with their surgeons or oncologists. Why spend the money if there is no chance of recurrence? Having been involved in the breast cancer community for a few years, I knew of women who had been diagnosed with early stage breast cancers, only to see cancer return decades later.

Unfortunately, there currently is no 100% preventive treatment against recurrence.  One morning in October 1999, as I was dragging my chemo-drenched body out of bed, I was listening to KPCC’s “Talk of the City” broadcasting from Pasadena, CA.  The guest was none other than Peggy Fleming speaking about her new autobiography.  My heart started racing.  This was my opportunity to give her a message.

I called in as soon as the phone number was announced and reached the phone screener immediately.  As I was explaining what I wanted to talk about, I got teary-eyed and my voice cracked a few times.  The screener said my topic sounded great and put me on hold.

As I was on hold, I was thinking of all the reasons why I should hang up immediately.  Why was I doing this?  Peggy Fleming is a nice person.  Why make her feel bad?  Before I could answer my own questions, I heard “We have Sandi from Laguna Niguel. What is it you’d like to talk about with Peggy Fleming?”

I swallowed hard just to keep my heart from bursting out of my throat.  Citing the Parade Magazine article, I identified myself as a breast cancer survivor and said that it was a mistake for Peggy Fleming to label herself as “cured.”  She responded in her usual gracious way that she had a very “curable” form of breast cancer.  The host mentioned that being “cured” is a state of mind.

I interrupted by stating that if I had labeled myself as “cured” after having a “curable” form of breast cancer diagnosed four years earlier, that I may not have continued my follow-up appointments with my oncologist and may have missed the fact that breast cancer invaded my bones in 1998.  I could very well be dead by now.

Ms. Fleming said she was sorry if others interpreted her comment in that same way and said she in fact was continuing her follow-up appointments.  The host then talked about the importance of celebrities making accurate statements to the public.

That was about it.  I know there were a few other exchanges but I can’t remember exactly what they were.  I listened to the rest of the show.  The other callers were “gushers.”  They gushed about Peggy Fleming’s Olympic achievements and how they admired her as a person.  I admire her as well but my call was the only one to challenge her public statements.

Is this a case of breast cancer survivor against breast cancer survivor?  I think not.  I’d like to believe it’s about educating those who should know better.  It’s about taking responsibility for one’s words and actions, particularly for people in the public eye.  I hope I made an impact on one individual who has the potential to help the breast cancer cause in so many ways.  And, I hope that one day she and others can confidently and accurately label themselves “cured.”

Starting out

Since my retirement as a human resource professional in 2008, my life has been filled with cats and cancer. I have been lucky enough to be asked to mentor several people I’ve worked with in the past on career advice and sticky people issues. That has helped keep my mind active.

My grown daughter, Allison, and her tuxedo cat, Bickley, moved back home soon after I retired. Allison and I soon started volunteering at the local animal shelter, cleaning cat cages and playing with cats every Saturday morning.  We adopted cat #2, Tiny Baby Sweetheart Honey Cupcake Sugar Princess Yummy Gumdrop, who proved to be everything but Tiny. Soon after that, we decided to adopt our son’s three-legged cat, Buddy (who my husband Bill now calls Zoom-Zoom due to her adept running skills).  So our lives are filled with floating fur and hair balls. 

In 1995, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and expected to complete treatment and be done with it, as happened to my mom in 1980. My cancer had other ideas and infested my bones in 1998 at age 45. I read where 10% of those with the same disease lived past 3 years. I decided to sign up for that group and am happy to say that my membership application was accepted. 

I’ve had several cancer adventures, from 3 weeks in the hospital for a bone marrow transplant to sitting next to cancer researchers determining the strengths and weaknesses of various breast cancer research proposals.  

So my life is now filled with cats and cancer. The cats provide therapeutic value in dealing with cancer. It’s the perfect mix for a retiree like me.