Who’s That Girl ~ Meet Janell ~ 2015 Calendar Girl

By: Jamie McAllister

There were no support groups for young breast cancer survivors when Janell Nickols was diagnosed more than two decades ago. Now the 61-year-old James City County resident uses her experiences to show young survivors that a full life after diagnosis is possible. “I want to get the word out to other women that we can survive,” she said.20140214_191600

Janell encourages women to listen to their intuition and to pay attention to their bodies. Twenty-five years ago she was living in New York and happened to watch a biography about Minnie Riperton (best known for singing the 70s song “Lovin’ You”) who passed away at the age of 31 from breast cancer. After seeing that show Janell began to think that she didn’t feel quite right. She had no major symptoms but was later diagnosed with breast cancer.

“The cancer was detected because I listened to myself, my husband listened to me, and my doctor listened to me,” Janell said.

Janell is not normally a fan of having her picture taken because she always seems to blink just when the camera flashes. Other than that, though, she loved the photo shoot from start to finish. “I loved all the attention!” she exclaimed. “I am an extrovert and I loved getting all dressed up for the photos.”

Janell teaches fifth grade at Stonehouse Elementary School. She and her husband James have two children, Jennifer and Joel.

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Who’s That Girl ~ Meet Julia ~ 2015 Calendar Girl

By: Jamie McAllister

Julia Jewel Martin attended the Beyond Boobs! Gala in 2013 and was inspired by the unveiling of the next year’s calendar. Tears came to her eyes as she looked around the room at all of the women whose lives had been affected by breast cancer. At that moment she decided to be a calendar model so she could help other women by sharing her story.julia

Julia is not shy about confessing her love for the camera. “The photographer and everyone at the shoot made me feel good,” she said. “I loved the dress I wore; it made me feel like a goddess. I felt pretty even with the scars from my breast reconstruction surgery.”

Julia loves and lives every moment of her life. She works at Our Lady of Hope as a recreation therapist, planning fun activities for the residents. She makes sure to schedule fun for her personal life, too.

“I am a shopaholic,” she said, laughing. “I love to buy new clothes. I used to ride a motorcycle and I want to get back to that now that the weather is warmer and my surgeries are done. I bought a guitar and recently paid for four lessons. My goal is to learn how to play over the next three weeks.”

Julia, 29, originally hails from Connecticut. She moved to Virginia in 2003 to attend Virginia Commonwealth University. She and her husband Eric live in Richmond with their three children.

“June 26th was the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis,” Julia said. “That was a big milestone for me. I made it one year and I plan for many more years to come.”

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Who’s That Girl? ~ Meet Amy ~ 2015 Calendar Girl

Who are the 2015 BB! Calendar Models?  On September 20, our  Calendar To Live By 2015 will be revealed featuring our lovely breast cancer survivors and their stories that are sure to inspire you.  Join us in the next 11 weeks for “Calendar Girls 2015” BLOG Series to take a peek into the lives of these ladies and unite with us in anticipation of this year’s Pink Carpet Gala and the big ‘reveal’!

By: Jamie McAllister

Amy Banks celebrates every year post diagnosis, but 2015 is going to be a particularly sweet year for the 39-year-old Norfolk resident – it will mark five years since she was diagnosed with stage 3 inflammatory breast cancer.

When Amy joined Beyond Boobs! and found out about the yearly calendar project she knew 1234762_10202096101433372_1577343133_nright away she wanted to be a model for 2015 to celebrate her important milestone and share her strength with other women facing a similar diagnosis.

“Everything I read said that the life expectancy was five years out,” Amy said. “I want to show other women that the statistics don’t mean you can’t live longer than that.”

Normally Amy is the one behind the camera so it was a little strange for her to have the lens trained on her. She quickly overcame any nervousness she may have felt. “I am definitely not shy when it comes to getting out there for the cause,” she said with a laugh.

Amy’s 16-year-old son John and her niece went with her to the photo shoot. “It was so cool to have them there with me,” she said. “My son was a vital part of my recovery and was there for me through the entire process. I also wanted to show my niece that there is support out there for women’s breast health.”

Amy is enthusiastic about the calendar and hopes every woman will have one hanging on her wall. “These calendars raise awareness about women’s health,” she said. “They tell the stories of breast cancer survivors and give women the tips and information they need to take care of their bodies.”

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I Have a Family of Boober! Sisters

I was diagnosed with breast cancer in November 2013 and attended my first BB! support gathering in February. By the time March rolled around, I learned about the 2014 Annual Boober! Retreat to be held in May.  I was hesitant to register, but my new support gathering friends assured me it would be an experience I would not forget.10287026_10204139330509625_3123795754595349414_o

I showed up at the Island Hopper house, renamed “Fantasy Island” for the weekend on May 2nd. I was three and a half weeks post TRAM reconstruction surgery. I only knew one person in my house upon arriving, but when I left on Sunday, I had a family of Boober! sisters. Everyone I was blessed to meet, greeted me with a warm smile and a hug. We were strangers before the weekend, but we had the bond of breast cancer. The sisterhood was instantaneous.

If I could describe my retreat weekend experience in one word, it would be “therapeutic.” Ever since my surgeries, I have struggled – would my body and life would ever feel normal again? This retreat surrounded me with so many strong and encouraging women who provided me with so much love. I met women who were newly diagnosed like me, some who were going through chemo, some who had the same reconstruction surgery as me, and some women who were two to five years post treatment and beyond. I learned that even though it doesn’t feel like it now, it WILL be okay on the other side of the hard times. This was a game changer for me. I met other women who have walked the path that I am on, and though all of our journeys are different, the core is the same. Survival. Fight. Win. Love. Live life to the fullest. It was a true display of our motto to “Live life with an exclamation point! not a period.” I am so glad that I went!

With love, Christy Birgen

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Young Survivor’s Conference Provides Fresh Perspective for Beyond Boobs! Volunteer

Young Survivor’s Conference Provides Fresh Perspective for Beyond Boobs! Volunteer

by Ann Pietrangelo

I recently had the pleasure of accompanying staff, volunteers, and members of Beyond Boobs! to the Young Survivor’s Conference in Orlando, and what an eye-opener it was! I’ve been a BB! volunteer for just over a year, and while I could talk and write about BB! convincingly, I can now feel its very heartbeat. That’s because this was my first opportunity to spend time with the young women who attend the support groups and benefit from the fun outings. Seeing is believing.
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During the three-day conference, the 40+ members of the BB! brigade visited the 50 or so exhibitor booths representing breast cancer organizations, health advocates, and more that were showcasing the latest products and up-to-date information about breast cancer. Fun stuff, from henna tattoos to makeovers, and belly dancing to modern dancing made the event as much a social event as it was a conference about a very serious topic. The BB! booth was a hubbub of activity, lovingly staffed by Vicki, Celia, and a rotating band of boobers who charmed passersby into stopping for a chat.photo-alp

Informative seminar topics included: breast reconstruction, integrative medicine, metastatic breast cancer, and genetics. Discussion groups tackled triple-negative breast cancer, mortality, weight, family planning, and lymphedema.

The emotional aspects of breast cancer were also addressed, including sex and intimacy, talking to children about cancer, caregiving, survivor’s guilt, relationships, living with metastatic breast cancer, dating, and advocacy. BB! will be sharing much of this information in the months to come.

And then there was BB!’s very own, “Surviving Survivorship: Living Life with an Exclamation Point!” Presenting to a packed room, Rene and Mary Beth skillfully led their audience on a potentially hazardous road trip that, as it turns out, goes a bit more smoothly when you’re packing the right tools. The ladies had ‘em on their feet more than once during their interactive talk. Among the highlights was Rene’s striptease, during which she morphed from her serious black lawyerly suit into the glittery pink Good Health Fairy, complete with wand, tiara, and high-top sneakers. Energized fans exited in a wave of bubbles blown by strategically placed boobers. It would not be overstating to say they totally rocked the house! Did someone say, “Encore! Encore!?”

Throughout the conference, I observed the genuine love these women have for each other, along with a deeper appreciation for BB! and all it represents. The emotional connection – bonding, learning, growing, letting loose – was the living proof of the BB! tagline, “living life with an exclamation point (!).”

I shared the 13-hour road trip back home with Rene and Mary Beth and now I know something else, too. They never stop. It’s all systems go, all the time. Even as we made our way north, they continued to focus on their work, although “work” is probably the wrong word. It’s truly a labor of love.

I’m a survivor, a boober, but my breast cancer occurred at age 51, and my experiences were somewhat different than that of a woman in her 20s, 30s, or even her 40s. Now, when I do my bit as a volunteer, it will be with a fresh perspective. It did my heart good to watch the women of BB! take care of each other. Each of them has the strength of a family/team behind them. No matter what happens, the group has their back. They need never feel alone.

Young women need what BB! provides – not only the support system, but the fun that can so easily be dismissed while dealing with cancer. I’m grateful to BB! for allowing me to play a small part in its mission.

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Breast Cancer between the hours of midnight and 7 AM….

Breast Cancer between the hours of midnight and 7 AM….

by Shawn Huddy

 

Any of us who have heard the phrase, “I’m sorry to tell you that it’s cancer,” know that feeling when time and sound come to a complete stop. When the silence in our own heads becomes a struggle to tolerate. And all the movement around us, within our line of vision, is jerky and slow. That single moment, we all remember it, when reason and sanity temporarily leave our body.

The First Wave

The next motion, for me, in that horribly vivid chain of events, is tattooed on my brain. It was with a shaky hand that I grabbed my phone and with a shaky finger began to dial numbers that I had memorized. No searching through my contact list. I had to physically press each number, feel the keys, hear the beeps through my phone speaker. I was calling those closest in my circle, and delivering the news with a shaky voice, because I needed someplace to go, to be with people and fall apart.

That night with those people who love me was critical. It was with those who love me that I was able to express how frightened I was. To vocalize my desire to live – or rather, my aspiration NOT to die.  My insistence that my daughter KNOW me, and NOT from stories that other people tell her about me, either. And that I get to watch her grow up and participate in the goal of raising her to be well-rounded, respectful, smart, compassionate, funny, and loved. I told Cancer to be damned – it wasn’t claiming me.

I cried a lot that night. I asked a lot of questions of people who had no way of answering them or easing my fears. But I was still in the company of loved ones. I knew I wasn’t in this battle alone. That felt so reassuring. So warm. I stayed that night with family. With the emotional safety blanket wrapped tightly around me.

The next day, when I knew I had to go home, I assured my family and friends that I was fine, fine. FINE. Not to worry. I would call if I felt like I needed to. I was exhausted and just wanted to sleep in my own bed. Get a good night’s sleep and have a clearer picture of things. A better attitude, perhaps.  With a deep breath and phony smile, I got into my car and headed home.

Have you ever traveled to a familiar place, lost in thought, when you suddenly realize, and well into your journey, that you have no recollection of the trip thus far? Well, that was my drive home. I was close to my street when I even remembered what I was doing or where my intended destination was. On that drive I wasn’t driving – I was itemizing my belongings in my head for the attorney, visualizing the attendees at my funeral, imagining my little girl shopping and laughing with her “new” Mom and forgetting about me. I was trying to choose friends to be in charge of educating her about me. I knew her Dad wouldn’t do much, as he and I were going through a nasty break up. I figured my eventual demise would bring him freedom and happiness. In short – my mind traveled to very dark and depressing places and conjured up very upsetting images and thoughts.

I walked in through the front door as if my home was foreign to me. I was afraid of the dark all over again, like I was as a child. I went through the house, just turning on the lights and staring. I don’t know what I was seeing. Not sure of my purpose. But everything I looked at seemed to represent this daunting chore or responsibility and I became overwhelmed. How will I maintain my home, care for my daughter and pets, manage a full time job, and keep up with friends and family. HOW??

Alone in the Midnight Hour

I walked into my room and the bed looked unwelcoming to me. How will I ever sleep again if my mind keeps putting me in the worst possible of scenarios? Sleep wasn’t coming. Not that night. Not the next. And when it did come, it was restless and filled with crazy body temperature fluctuations and bad dreams.

After a few nights with virtually no sleep, I had to shake hands with my new best friend — the Graveyard Shift. Yep – the two of us, we go waaaayyyy back. We shared a lot of late nights together…watching TV, reading books, organizing and re-organizing my sock drawer…all to try to fall asleep. Lots of boxes of Kleenex went by way of the graveyard shift, too. The moment I’d get into my bed and close my eyes, I’d start to forge into scary and upsetting thoughts. I’d question the validity and benefit of the medical tests and treatments I’d had, I’d question my physicians, and even my Maker. Why me? Wasn’t I a pretty good gal? I was kind. I paid it forward. I appreciate the beauty in everyone. I find silver linings. I volunteer. I help others. WTF???

Something happens to you when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer (or any potentially terminal illness or disease). You carry on as best you can through the day. You can usually find a slice of the day to smile and laugh. To hug and hold the hand of a caregiver. To appreciate what you do have. To feel grateful for the chance to fight the illness or disease with the help of professionals and family and friends. The sun on our faces helps create an optimism about our prognosis.

All of that changes when we crawl into bed with the intention of letting go of the day’s worries and ordeals in order to slip off into restful slumber. Doesn’t happen. Our mind and worry and fear just won’t let us let go. Won’t let our heart stop beating at an accelerated pace. Won’t stop the sweating palms.   It’s the medical version of Freddy Krueger…in this version he doesn’t haunt our dreams, but our ability to sleep, therefore we can’t relax enough to get good sleep.

Fear of the unknown is always a challenge, but fear of death is claustrophobic and choking underwater and tethered to a hangman’s noose. None of this is more obvious than at night when the rest of the world is peacefully dreaming and recharging their body’s battery.

Since I had gotten the cancer diagnosis right after being forced into singledom, I was so afraid of being alone at night. I wished and longed for another warm body in bed next to me, seeing his slow breaths and chest movement – close enough to touch and lie next to…I was convinced it would help calm my fears. In hindsight, I’m not sure it would have made any difference.

When the Lights Go Out at Night

It’s really THIS black and white…your family and friends worry with you, they worry about you, they cry and pray and keep faith…but when the lights go out each night – you could be fighting for your life – and they are not. You could be facing death – and they are not. So, they sleep without the panic that you try to shush internally.

I don’t have any advice for you. Nothing worked well for me until I got further along in my journey. I came to terms with my diagnosis physically, mentally, and spiritually. I trusted my physicians, I followed my treatment plans without question, I leaned on my support systems, and I re-established a line of rapport with my higher power. Some nights I was just too darn tired to worry, and slept well. Some nights were still restless and difficult. However, the card game Solitaire is helpful. Reading is good. TV can lull you to sleep with the background noise. Sleepy time tea can help make you tired. But I couldn’t give you a one-size fits all remedy for a good night’s sleep. I still can’t.

In time, however, the hours of peaceful sleep each night started to extend and my days and nights were less and less filled with fear and dread. I had to learn to lean on people. I had to share my fears and tears with like-minded individuals. This is a big reason that my support group was key to my mental survival. I can’t tell you how often I’d grab my phone, after midnight, and scroll through Facebook to see that some of my breast cancer sisters were also fighting off insomnia. Those crack-of-dawn posts and chats were priceless. Someone empathized with my worry and helped me off the figurative ledge.

It’s been three years since my diagnosis, and many nights, sleep is still not as restful or as uninterrupted or as regular as I’d like it to be. I have had to adjust my feelings about it in order to not be frustrated by losing the ability to hop in bed and within 30 minutes – out!  But the Good News is that these times don’t bother me like they used to because there is always a support group member up when I am. We will catch each other on Facebook posting or commenting on other posts – then we will start to chat.  We make jokes, we share stories, we commiserate about how crappy the insomnia is – but it’s not the end of the world …or the end of us.

No Longer Afraid of the Dark

I’m still single, but I’m not afraid of the dark, or the night, or losing sleep. I am not alone. Neither are YOU!!

 

 

 

 

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Breast Cancer… Through the Eyes of a Son

Dear Friends,

When someone is diagnosed with cancer, the effect on the patient is pretty obvious, and sometimes we forget how much and in what ways the diagnosis may impact the family members and friends.  In this school assignment  to write about a first time experience,  Jacob opens our eyes to what he felt when his mother, Angel, went through breast cancer.  We are grateful that he allowed us to share his essay.  We think Jacob is pretty amazing, and we are sure you will agree after your read his words.  

Hugs, Mary Beth

While I don’t like to talk about this often, as it makes me feel like I’m “boasting” about a struggle that was not truly mine, I’m also often told that it’s a little uncaring to not note my part in it at all.  So, for my essay, I will be writing about my first experience with breast cancer in my family.
Before my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, I don’t think that anyone in my family (including me) knew that much about cancer, other than the basics: That it has no “cure” yet, that it kills a lot of people, and that a lot of people are working to find out more about it.  So, when the news hit, it significantly changed how we saw the disease and, in a way, the world as a whole.30072_1490615910064_7480650_n

It was April, 2010, when I was told that my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer.  I was in the 7th grade, and was only 12 years old at the time, so I didn’t really know how to react.  She said that she was actually fairly lucky, since the cancer was found on a routine mammogram, and it could be removed.  We found some comfort in this, but we still were very scared.  I had no idea what I could do or what would happen, but I still tried to help her when I had the chance.  She tried to comfort us by doing things like bringing home books on how to deal with cancer in the family, ranging from very factual booklets, to childish picture books, but they never really helped me.  While I did care, I didn’t want to read about it when it comes to how it would affect me.  While I had full faith in my mother overcoming the disease, the books only felt like salt in the wound.

Her treatments carried on into high school, and here’s where we all got to see its effects first-hand.  They tend to make cancer treatment out to be much simpler than it actually is.  Cancer treatment is made out as just chemo, radiation, and hair loss, when that is only part of it. 33470_1661257295992_3735872_n There were many days where my sister (who was about 7 years old at the time) and I would have to be home alone because mom was in the hospital, and dad had to make sure she was okay.  When she was home, she was no longer as energetic as she was before.  She walked around in a half-asleep state, and didn’t have the energy or strength to preform many basic tasks.  For the most part, she may as well have been bedridden.  As the time went on, we got to see all her hair disappear.  When I say all her hair, I mean her eyebrows and eye lashes as well.  She went from having long brown hair, to lacking all the subtleties you would expect of the human head.  The strangest thing was that this was the easiest part of it all.  We all even found humor in the situation, in how silly it was.  My mom even joked about how she “now knows how a newborn baby feels”.  You could always get fake eyelashes, draw on fake eyebrows, and get a bunch of silly wigs and hats.  However, you could not get a replacement for all the pain that the treatment makes your body feel, nor could you get back the energy that it takes away.

To make matters worse, my dad works in the Navy, and had to deploy a few months after my mom was diagnosed.  Combined, these two things had a very powerful effect on everyone.  Throughout all of this, I tried to not let it affect me.  I told people at school, both friends and teachers, but I tried not to bring it up often.  This wasn’t only that I didn’t want to talk about it, but also because it felt like I would be making an excuse at the expense of someone else.  My mom was the one suffering, while I was perfectly okay.  To me, claiming that it affected me academically would be faking a broken arm after seeing the attention that the person with the real broken arm got.  I did care about my mom’s health, that’s why I didn’t want to undermine it by complaining about my “suffering”.  While it did affect me heavily, it would have been arrogant for me to “take credit” for the suffering that was not experienced by me.

Eventually, my mom was able to overcome the cancer and successfully had it removed from her body.  But, this taught me another thing I didn’t know about breast cancer.  A lot of surgery goes into attempting to bring back healthy tissue that was removed.   The most surprising thing was that the reconstruction surgeries are the ones that seemed to be the most dangerous.  While the chemo made my mom weak and sick, the reconstruction opened up the possibility of much worse things.  One of the scariest experiences I had during this was when my mom began to feel unusually sick.  We all watched her to make sure she was okay, even calling over a friend who was a nurse.  That’s when my mom and her friend realized what was going on.  The device put in place to help reconstruction had caused a major infection to begin to develop.  This meant that it must be removed, alongside all progress towards the reconstruction.  That was when I saw my mom go from seeming okay, to being in great sorrow and despair.  She didn’t want to have it removed, even refusing to go the hospital at first.  I didn’t understand this, and I’m not sure I even understand it now.  The tissue that was lost was not, as far as health goes, important.  It also didn’t make her appear strange in anyway, with even having many thing that would hide it if she felt otherwise.  But still, she seemed to initially choose her health over losing it.  This was the closest I felt to thinking that she was going to die.  She eventually went to the hospital and had it, as well as the staph infection, removed.IMG_8739

After a few years of treatment, the worst is now behind us.  However, the effects of the cancer are still present.  My mom is still going through reconstruction surgery, but nothing even coming close to before has happened.  The cancer has not returned, and I hope never will.  Her hair has regrown, and she has regained much of her strength.  She’s now active in the breast cancer support group “Beyond Boobs!” and has found a lot of people who have or are going through same thing as she did.  Everyone in my family is now more aware of the effects of breast cancer after seeing what it can do first-hand.

-Jacob (16 yrs)

02/07/14

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