Beverly McKee MSW, LCSW

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Navigating The Storms Blog

A licensed mental health therapist by training, writer at heart, Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW has an unbridled passion for empowering others to live their best life, even in the midst of crisis. Follow her award winning blog to read about therapeutic tools designed for coping with adversity, valuable life lessons, book tour updates and breakthroughs in cancer treatment.


CHANGE YOUR PERSPECTIVE, CHANGE YOUR LIFE: HOW I WILL REMEMBER RADIATION

change your perspectiveIt’s amazing how one’s perspective can change when dealing with any crisis in life, especially a health crisis. The initial days are always the hardest, often filled with shock and a wide range of emotions. As time marches on, we fall into a routine of a “new normal” and our perspective changes. This has been the case for every survivor that I’ve spoken to about their journey through breast cancer.  

Initially, my doctors didn’t think I would need radiation. We thought my tumor was small, so a bilateral mastectomy and chemotherapy would be my treatment plan. I was very disappointed when the unexpected pathology report resulted in the need for radiation. As time has passed, not only have I accepted the need for radiation, but I am eager to begin this last step of breast cancer treatment.

I will have 28 treatments...every day...Monday through Friday for the next six weeks. The treatments take about 15 minutes and the side effects are general fatigue towards the end of treatment and skin irritation/burning/peeling at the radiation site. Minor, compared to chemo and surgery but 28 days of treatment is a significant amount of time.

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I AM CANCER FREE!!!!!!

cancer freeAfter surviving the eye of the storm, I was exhausted physically and emotionally.  Out of nowhere, came the biggest, brightest rainbow that I’ve seen since the day I was diagnosed:  no cancer in any of the 22 lymph nodes:
I AM CANCER FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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FINDING MY WAY THROUGH THE CHEMO FOG

beverly chemo treatmentI had my LAST chemo treatment four days ago and the chemo fog is lifting after this treatment. Many of us laugh about chemo brain, but it is real and it can be very frustrating. For many years, the phenomenon of chemo brain was blamed on stress, anxiety and fatigue. While it is true that these things can impact brain function, neuro-psychological testing has confirmed that chemo does cause changes in the brain. Doctors and researchers call chemo brain a “mild cognitive impairment”.

For me, chemo brain has impacted my memory, ability to concentrate, multi-task and I feel mentally “foggy” for the first week after chemo. It feels as though I’ve had one too many drinks and my processing skills are slightly delayed. In real life, I am a serious multi-tasker, but not the week after chemo. I have to write notes to remember everything and often confuse dates and times. I also exchange words (“Please put the milk back in the dishwasher.”).

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WHEN THE DOCTORS DO NOT AGREE

bevs wrist with bc braceletFor anyone who has been following my blog, you know that I have struggled with the decision of whether to remove the rest of my lymph nodes under my left arm for many months. I had four lymph nodes removed during my bilateral mastectomy in November. Two of those were positive for breast cancer.

My surgical oncologist recommended that I have the remaining lymph nodes in that area removed, which seemed like a logical next step after chemo. However, this turned out to be a highly controversial subject over the next few months.

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HOW DOES IT FEEL TO GET CHEMO?

Bev with Sandra


It's a great question with many different answers, depending on the type of chemo and how each person's body reacts to the drug they are receiving. I reacted differently to my first chemo "cocktail" (AC) than I have to this second drug (Taxol).

After general labs (weight, blood pressure, temperature), my nurse starts my "line". She inserts a small, curved needle into my port, which is located near my collar bone. It doesn't hurt, other than a slight sting. She draws my blood, which is analyzed by the lab. A saline drip is started and keeps dripping for the entire treatment.

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CHEMO # 5: FEELING GREAT, OTHER THAN NERVE PAIN

bev smiling during chemo

 

Five days after Chemo #5: I have felt better, overall with this new drug. I only slept half of the day on Wednesday and have not had any of the queasiness, disdain for normal food or burning in my mouth. All great news!

The biggest issue that I've had is nerve pain, primarily in my abdomen. I will feel fine, then it is like a firework explodes and these little falling beams of light hurt intensely, but only for about 30 seconds. The pain kept me on the couch Thursday evening, but has improved since then. It hits randomly and has also appeared throughout my chest and back. I spoke to the nurse and she said that taking Vitamin B6 may help, so I started that today. Very odd and not pleasant, but bearable.

Sending all of my fellow chemo buddies and breast cancer survivors love, hugs and prayers!

Thanks for reading!

Beverly McKee

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LOOK GOOD, FEEL BETTER!

 

look good feel better

I have been feeling great this week, but Chemo #4 hit me a little harder than the first three.  My red blood count was down just a bit, which made me feel more fatigued than I generally do.  I felt fine the day after chemo, actually the best I've ever felt the day after chemo.  The following day (Wednesday), I slept most of the day.  The fatigue is all-consuming and too much fight.  I have vague recollections throughout the day but really just slept.  The nausea was a bit worse this time, but I feel better without the steroids on Day 2 and 3.  Acupuncture helped tremendously and I was feeling fine by Friday.
Yesterday, I attended a "Look Good, Feel Better" session provided by the American Cancer Society.  I was in a big class, with about 15 other women.  Many of them were older, but there were five of us in the same age range.  We all received a bag of makeup valued at $600 from a variety of companies, received a make up lesson and heard about tips to deal with hair loss.  You can look up this organization by clicking here.  If you are going through chemotherapy, I highly recommend this program.  It's more than make up and feeling good for the day.  For me, it was about connecting with other women who were experiencing my same journey.

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Sassy New Wig and Nesting

Bev and dan on date new wigI am feeling phenomenal!  A Grace Potter concert with my best friend from college, a new sassy wig and a fabulous date night with my sweet husband...what a week!

So here's an odd side effect of chemotherapy:  I've been thinking a LOT about organizing my house...my kitchen cabinets, my closet, my laundry room. This morning, I woke up and was compelled to clean and organize my kitchen cabinets. I had dishes everywhere and was scrubbing the cabinets with a frenzy and it felt so great. I looked around my kitchen and started to trying to figure out why I felt so compelled to clean and realized that I was nesting. My poor ovaries are being shocked by the chemo and I guess my hormones are shifting...I remember nesting when I was pregnant with both kids. I started laughing and figured I may as well ride this wave of the nesting instinct while it lasts. I organized my kitchen cabinets and got rid of things I haven't used in the nine years we've been in our house.

One very unexpected side effect of chemo: a clean, organized kitchen! What about you...have you had unexpected positive outcomes from your journey through breast cancer?  We'd love to hear about them in the comments below!

Thanks for reading!

Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW

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"You don't LOOK like a chemo patient..."

lexiToday, eleven days after my second chemo, I went out for my three mile walk with a very excited beagle mutt, Lexi (that's my little girl to the left). After our mile hike through the hills of our subdivision, we came to the flat part of our walk, where we used to run at least a mile, if not two. Today, I was enjoying the warm weather, my music was motivating and I felt like running for the first time since surgery. So, much to the amazement of the dog, I took off running. It felt AMAZING! We had to walk a bit after a half mile, but then took off again. We finally slowed our pace after another 1/4 mile and walked the rest of the way home. I'm so grateful to felt so normal after this chemo treatment.

I put on a suit and heels for the first time after surgery and had some very productive business meetings and later attended a big extended family dinner for my cousin who is serving in the army.  As a side note, my aunts and uncles watched my grandmother struggle with breast cancer forty years ago.  I guess they all had an expectation of how I would look.  They were stunned to see me walk into the restaurant in the midst of my journey.  This was my favorite quote of the night, "You don't LOOK like a chemo patient.  You look so...normal."  

Chemo is not easy, but it is doable. I would love to hear your positive experiences with family and friends during your journey through breast cancer!  Sending love, hugs and prayers to my fellow survivors and a special thank you to my cousin, Jared and all of our military personnel for sacrificing so much to keep our country safe.


Thanks for reading!

Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW

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GOOD BYE HAIR!

bev with connie at wig shopWell, I did it! My hair is gone! My sister and I spent the morning getting my hair cut and shaved to about 1/4". Both of my wigs have been fitted and I wore my new wig to lunch.

I have to be honest. I have been dreading today more than any other part of this journey. I knew that losing my hair would change my looks so dramatically and without a wig, it would be obvious to everyone that I am have cancer. I don't have a problem sharing my story about breast cancer but I don't want that look of pity from strangers. My hair was due to fall out next week but I did not want to risk it falling out on Christmas morning or coming out on my pillow or in the shower. I wanted to control it as much as possible, hence my appointment today.

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ACUPUNCTURE DURING BREAST CANCER TREATMENT

acupuncture needlesAcupuncture has been around for centuries and I've always wondered about the concept of inserting tiny needles into the skin for pain relief.  But I had never been brave enough to try it...until today.  I was in extreme pain after port surgery, which was unexpected.  Several examinations later, we determined that an old whip lash injury had been aggravated from the positioning during surgery, resulting in severe neck strain and lots of pain.  

After my weekly physical therapy appointment, I walk across the hall for acupuncture.  I asked for an explanation of why this seemingly barbaric method is so effective. The western reasoning (USA/modern medicine) is that acupuncture reduces inflammation, allowing the body to heal itself more effectively. The eastern reasoning (hundreds of years of alternative medicine) believes that the entire body has energy flowing through it. At times, that flow becomes blocked for a variety of reasons, causing a multitude of symptoms, including pain. Acupuncture removes that blockage, allowing the energy to flow properly.

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ONE CHEMO DOWN, SEVEN MORE TO GO!

I survived chemoChemo# 1 went great today.  I love the idea of destroying cancer cells that infiltrated my body.   My oncology nurse was a true angel that has found her calling in life.  She was patient and kind, answering my many, many questions.  The apprehension that I felt about using my new port was alleviated when she painlessly started my saline drip.  I enjoyed four hours of undivided time with my wonderful husband while the chemo dripped slowly into my body on a seek and destroy mission to annihilate any cancer cells that are hiding throughout my body.  
My chemo treatment went by in a flash...one down, seven to go.  A "buzzy brain" from the steroids was the oddest part of the treatment for me.  
 

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I START CHEMO ON FRIDAY!

keep calm planAfter much research, stress, many discussions and prayer, we have a plan for chemo. We saw my chemo oncologist yesterday. We had a lengthy discussion with her and we are going with a total of eight chemo treatments but they will be dose dense...which means every other week, rather than every three weeks. Studies have shown with my type of cancer and this chemo that dose dense improves outcomes by 5%. I would rather go every other week and get it done.

I told my doctor that I wanted to go to Florida in July and she took the time to add up all of my treatments. Even with lymph node surgery, I will be done the first week of June. Three weeks to recover from radiation and then we will head to Sanibel Island, Florida!!!!!!!! Woo hoo!!!!!!! I can get through anything in the next six months with my beloved island waiting for me on the other side.

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SECOND OPINION...NOW WHAT????

girl praying in sunsetI woke up yesterday feeling great...the most like myself mentally and physically that I've felt since my bilateral mastectomy three weeks ago. Today was even better...taking Advil every six hours only for discomfort from the implant...no real pain. I had a double fill so now I am a nice B cup.  Luckily my skin is numb so I don't feel the injection. It is quite facinating to watch my body change right before my eyes.


I went to Siteman Cancer Center for my second opinion today. I was hoping he would agree with everything that my other doctors said but it turned out that he only agreed with radiation. He agrees that I need chemo but is recommending a different kind of chemo than my oncologist...he recommends six chemo treatments with totally different medication. Bottom line, either course of treatment is standard treatment for breast cancer and is top of the line. We meet with my original oncologist on Monday to hear her opinion and then I have to decide.

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THE DAY THAT I COULDN'T STOP CRYING (TEARS OF JOY)


gratitude rockYesterday I spent the morning watching radioactive dye being pumped into my veins and drinking a colorful cocktail of dye for cat scans and bone scans. The dye needed to flow throughout my body for three hours before the bone scan. It was a long day of waiting, being poked and prodded and at one point, laying completely still for 25 minutes with a rubber band around my feet.


After completing my testing, my husband took me to lunch. We were both nervous about the results of these tests...waiting to hear if the cancer had spread to my bones, liver or lungs. It would be a long weekend, waiting for the results. Suddenly, the phone rang...it was my oncologist office and in that instant, my heart stopped. I was stunned to hear the best news in my journey through breast cancer:

All of my scans were clear and there were no signs of cancer anywhere else in my body!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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My TEAM OF ONCOLOGISTS

cancer under microscopeI had a long day on Friday, meeting with all three oncologists and learning more about my pathology. I'm feeling very positive and re-energized after meeting with my chemical oncologist.

First we met with my surgical oncologist. We discussed the pathology at length. I have Stage IIIA cancer, based on the size of the tumor and lymph node involvement. I asked her if this is considered advanced cancer and the answer was yes. It was a bit surreal to realize that I have advanced cancer at age 42. She outlined my plan again...scans of my liver, lungs and bones, chemo to start in a few weeks, surgery to remove the remaining lymph nodes under my arm, radiation, hysterectomy and then my last reconstruction surgery. We walked out of the appointment feeling overwhelmed and in a bit of shock over the stage III/advanced cancer conversation.

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DIFFICULT NEWS FROM MY PATHOLOGY REPORT

true strengthI am doing remarkably well with my recovery only eight days after my bilateral mastectomy. I saw my plastic surgeon yesterday and he took out my drains, which gives me the freedom to resume normal range of motion at whatever pace my body will allow. My right arm is great and my left arm is coming along. I am still taking pain medication at times but have minimal pain, other than one area that tends to swell near my lymph node surgery. I was able to wash my own hair today and blow dry it on my own, which was amazing! I'm even back to wearing a normal shirt. I'm happy to report that this double mastectomy was not as much of a challenge as I anticipated.

My pathology came back yesterday and it was not the news I had hoped for but I have accepted the blow and will be formulating my treatment plan today with three different oncologists.

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RECOVERY FROM A BILATERAL MASTECTOMY

dan and bev wedding day

 "In sickness and in health"... 

Who would have thought that we would put our vows to test at such a young age? 

Thanks to my husband for taking care of me when I needed it most!

 

 

 I am growing stronger every day. I am down to one kind of pain medication along with Tylenol. Today, I walked down the street to the cul de sac and had a great visit with my friend and sister.

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RECOVERY WITH SURGICAL DRAINS


Bev with Sally nurseI can't believe that my bilateral mastectomy is behind me! Surgery went well yesterday so I was discharged today. I was happy to get home and relax!

I don't remember much from the recovery room. I was very drugged and tired when I made it to my room. After a short visit, my family left so I could rest. My husband spent the night with me and the nurses were phenomenal throughout my stay.

I did not get a definitive answer about my lymph nodes. One lymph node had questionable cells, which may or may not be cancer. Luckily, only one lymph node had anything in it. My pathology should be in by Tuesday then I will meet with my medical oncologist to formulate a treatment plan. The waiting is tough and I look forward to knowing what I'm facing in this next phase of my journey through breast cancer.

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LAST PREOP APPOINTMENT

choose hopeI had my last pre op test today. A very sweet woman injected a clear radioactive dye into my breast and then took digital images as the dye went to my sentinel lymph node. She marked the node with a black magic marker. Tomorrow during surgery, my surgeon will use a small Geiger counter to locate the radiation and remove that lymph node, as well as several others around it.This will help my surgeon remove that very specific lymph node and several others to determine if the cancer has spread. My doctor will be able to tell my family when I am in recovery and I will know as soon as I wake up. I won't know my course of treatment for about five days, when I meet with my chemical oncologist. I may need chemo even if the lymph nodes are clear, based on my age, the size of the tumor and my genetic testing results.

I'm praying hard that it's not in my lymph nodes and for strength if it is...the fight will be harder but I am up for whatever fight needed...no worries!

Thanks for reading!

Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW

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PURPLE POWER PORT

purple power portI had port insertion surgery today.  I now have a purple power port under my skin near my collar bone.  This will prevent the chemotherapy from burning the veins in my arms.

I'm ready for chemotherapy!!

How about you?  Did you have a port?  Do you know what it looks like?  My doctor let me hold a sample port which helped me understand how it works.  Let's chat in the comments below about ports!

Thanks for reading!


Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW

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FEELING THE LOVE AND SUPPORT

hands around world globe.PURCHASEDI'm am overwhelmed with the amount of support that has surrounded my family since I heard those fateful words.  Saturday morning, my former coworker/newly reunited friend/fellow breast cancer survivor, walked in the Strides Against Breast Cancer walk in my honor.  This spring, I walked in her honor, having no idea that she would be able to return the favor so quickly.  I am very grateful that she is back in my life and a friend that I can turn to with questions, since she has gone through the same battle so recently.  She is a beautiful woman inside and out and I am blessed to have her in my corner.
Two of my husband's coworkers also walked in my honor at the same walk.  They raised more than $700 in my name for the event and sent fun pictures.  I am getting ready to send a thank you email to a group of people, some of whom I have never met, thanking them for supporting me in my fight.  I am so grateful that they are my husband's coworkers and that they are there to support him when he needs it most.  One day we will no longer have breast cancer walks, because we will have found a way to prevent it.  I know I will live to see that day!

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BRCA 2 GENETIC MUTATION

brca 1 and 2I received a call from my oncologist yesterday afternoon with the results from my BRCA gene, also known as the breast cancer gene. My BRCA1 gene does not have any mutations...great news! The results are somewhere in the middle of the continuum of positive and negative on my BRCA2 gene. I have mutations in that gene and the results sway enough to the positive side that my doctor is recommending a full hysterectomy. I had already talked this over with my husband prior to getting the results back and I had decided that I wanted to have a hysterectomy regardless of the test results.

Here's why: my ovaries are producing estrogen which is what my cancer feeds on to stay alive. In an effort to prevent future cancer, I will take a long term preventative drug, Tamoxifen, which is an estrogen suppressor. Sounds like a great plan, but the negative side effect is that it can cause....this is pretty unbelievable...ovarian and uterine cancer. I do not want a ticking time bomb in my body, which is why I opted for a double mastectomy. I have no reason to keep my ovaries, since I've already been blessed with my two amazing kids. It makes sense to me to make decisions based on my long term plan: a 40 year survivor celebration on October 17, 2052.

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TALKING TO KIDS ABOUT A CANCER DIAGNOSIS

hope in a bottlePerhaps the most challenging part of this journey was talking to my young boys about my diagnosis.  It seems so unfair to burden their innocent little lives at only seven and nine.  We waited until Friday evening after school and came together for a family meeting.  I was prepared for them to ask if I was going to die and sure enough, it was the first question that my oldest asked me. We talked about my surgery and they had lots of questions about the knife and the blood. My youngest is just young enough that he was excited that I will need him to help cook, since he is my little chef. My oldest asked a lot of questions and later, when I tucked him into bed, he told me that when he hears cancer, he thinks that people die. We talked about the fact that most people get cancer when their body is old and worn out and they just can't fight it off, but I am young and tough and have great doctors. He also asked me if breast cancer is contagious. I had not anticipated this question. He was very relieved when I told him that it was not...something I will mention to other moms before they talk to their kids after a new diagnosis.

 

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