Amber Marchese: My Journey with Cancer
The Real Housewives of New Jersey star opens up about her second battle with breast cancer in a new blog exclusively for People
Starting today, Real Housewives of New Jersey star Amber Marchese will blog about her second battle with cancer on PEOPLE.com. After surviving breast cancer in 2009, she discovered a lump, which turned out to be cancerous, in her right breast in April. Marchese will share updates on her treatment and how she is coping with this second round of the deadly disease with prayer, a positive outlook and the help of her family.
I kept going back and forth between how I wanted to begin sharing my story with the readers of PEOPLE.com. Do I begin my very first blog upbeat and happy or jump right into this mess called cancer?
I am a very energetic, happy and joyful person. Well, at least for the majority of the time, unless I hear my kids bickering back and forth with one another.
I figured that for the most part, the public got to know me from the Bravo show, Real Housewives of New Jersey. But I’m not sure if the public got to see the whole me. In all fairness to the show, you are not going to possibly know me from one season. The show is heavily edited to tell a story, entertain and fit a time slot on a major network.
I think most people get that, but then you have the occasional person who thinks that what they see is what they get, with no wiggle room. Believe it or not, there are people who do not understand that they are seeing a snapshot and not the entire picture. For me, that can be just as frustrating as my kids bickering back and forth with one another.
After much thought, however, I decided I am just going to drop you right smack into the middle of my situation. After all, that’s how it happened in real life.
One minute I was planning an amazing family vacation with my family and friends to the Bahamas, the next I was getting a radioactive IV and a PET-CT scan to see how and/or if the cancer had spread or progressed.
The scary part was that if it had progressed or spread, those two major factors would greatly determine the amount of life I have left to live and the quality of life that remains.
Cancer smacks you in the face and makes you realize just how real life can be. For most of us, life includes happiness and sadness, but we do not think about the idea that life also includes sickness and death, especially at a young age.
Despite what my feeble mind thought, I am not immortal. My actions in this world do have consequences – sometimes mortal ones.
Cancer is hideously ugly. I hate cancer so much. I hate the amount of suffering it causes to the one who has been diagnosed and the family members who watch the suffering. If you let it, cancer will suck the beauty and joy away from life. I can tell you this first hand; it has been my hardest hurdle to have to overcome to date.
We all take for granted being physically strong when we are healthy, but mental and spiritual strength is even harder to have in the face of the unimaginable. No matter what road I am to travel in this lifetime and no matter how much physical pain I am in, I will not let this overcome my mind, my soul, and my faith. One day, all of us will lose our physical bodies, but our thoughts, our lessons that we teach our children, our souls, and our faith carry on.
Somehow during this entire process, I became grateful for having cancer. Yes, you heard that correctly. It has made me feel more alive and closer to God than ever. My faith has helped me conquer my fear; my spirit will never be crushed. I am brave and my soul is trusting in God that, no matter what, I will have victory.
Now on to how spring 2015 started. I received a call from my surgical oncologist about a week after he removed a lump I had found a few weeks before. “I am sorry but I wish I had good news for you,” he said. “The tumor was cancerous.” I was waiting for the moment for him to retract his words: “Oh wait. Wrong pathology report. Yours was just scar tissue.”
But that never came. I was just silent and had a buzzing in my head. I was quiet for so long that the doctor actually asked me if I was still on the phone. I was in a daze just staring out my back window in the sun room – the same window I have stared out a hundred times watching the kids play with dogs. I had watched them playing in the leaves and in the snow, picking flowers in the spring, or catching fireflies in the summer. Now, I just saw a blur of green, browns and blues resembling what was supposed to be the outside world.
The doctor went on with the next steps. He told me who I would need to speak to next and said that he had contacted my oncologist.
Then I just heard buzzing again.
Everything was now numb. I could not process what I was hearing. I was shattered, but I could not let my children – my babies – see me like this. I was just about to feed them dinner. I thought, ‘They can t see that I just received one of the worst phone calls of my life.’ They were so happy, giggling and goofing around while they were setting the table. They had no idea, not a care in the world. I sucked up enough breathe and told my surgeon to please hold. With a smile on my face, I told the kids to finish up and that I would be only a few minutes.
Thankfully, they barely heard me on the phone and continued being silly. I walked into my husband s office, closed the door, and asked the doctor if it was OK to conference my husband into the call. It was so hard to speak. I could not catch my breath.
This was unlike the first time I was diagnosed six years earlier. When I received the terrible news I was screaming frantically that I had cancer. I called Jim at his office. This time, I only had energy to calmly tell him that the biopsy did not come back benign. Once we were back on the phone with the doctor, I literally had only enough breathe for maybe one more question. I took a deep breath. All I could say is, “How?” Unfortunately, he did not have much for me, except to say that sometimes this does happen, despite having a mastectomy. He went on a little more about scans, further pathology reports, and further treatment. I only heard, “I am sorry but the tumor was cancerous ” – and a buzzing sound.
I hung up the phone. I slid down the wall and put my head to my knees. I was hiding in my husband s office, scared but not alone. I heard the kids laughing in the background. Lord, I love them so much. I was just in total disbelief that this was happening, AGAIN! How is this possible? I had a full, bilateral, prophylactic on my left breast, double mastectomy. I had four months of dose dense chemotherapy. I had a year and of half of continued immunotherapy. I took tamoxifen every day for the last six years. I had even made it past the five-year mark.
I remember reading cases of this happening, but stopping mid-way because there was absolutely no chance of that happening to me. It was not even supposed to happen the first time. I was 31 years old and had no family history of breast cancer! That was a mistake, but I dealt with it, and moved on.
The chance of being diagnosed with breast cancer at the age of 31 is less than 0.5 percent. Being diagnosed with a local recurrence after the types of treatment I received is less than 2 percent. Come to think of it, getting on a reality show is probably a little less than 2 percent. I am starting see a statistical pattern here. Seriously, am I a label on a milk carton or a person? Do you think the same pattern would occur if I went to Vegas and played double zero on the roulette wheel? But like it or not, the statistical percentage of “less than 2 percent” had been applied to my life in many meaningful ways.
My poor husband, again, had to rush home from work after getting an awful call while in a meeting. He told the kids to begin dinner without us, which made me nervous that that would tip them off that something was wrong. They never eat dinner without us. Jim closed the doors to his office, got on the ground with me, hugged me, and that s where we stayed for a while. Jim would have to remind me to breathe once in awhile, but instead of breathing I would let out his cry, a cry that came from deep within my soul, but had to remain silent because I did not want the kids to hear me. I was shaking the whole time, but did not realize it.
After what seemed like an eternity, we put on our best game faces and sat down with the children. We didn’t say a word. Jim and I put their innocence, love of life and happiness before almost everything. The cruel world will rob them of that soon enough, but we will protect them as long as we can.
This all began to become an out of body experience. As if I was watching someone else live this nightmare. One of the biggest concerns when having cancer is how far it has progressed. Is it a local recurrence? Is it a regional recurrence? Or, God forbid, did the cancer travel to a distal region of the body – in other words, metastasize?
I was basically going through the staging process all over again. “Staging” is the process nearly every cancer patients undergoes to determine the extent of their disease progression. It looks at size of the tumor, whether it has spread to lymph nodes or other regions of the body. It also looks at characteristics of the tumor. In the world of cancer, this is by far the MOST anxiety-ridden, fear-provoking, depressive time to endure.
The “stage” you are given is the basis of treatment, including if or how long you will receive chemotherapy, radiation and what types, as well as, statistically speaking, determining your prognosis. In short, it can tell you whether you can be cured or the chances that you will be alive in five years.
In my mind, all I think is, “Will I be on chemotherapy for the remainder of my life and will the remainder of my life be only five years?” Then I recalled how the chemotherapy made me weak the last time I had it.
I am in the best physical condition of my life. I work out five days a week, no matter what. I feel great and I am never sick, which is so ironic to me.
On an average day, I spend one and a half hours at the gym. I usually start by squatting on an incline board, adding 225 pounds to it and then doing Goblet squats with 70-pound dumbbells. After four sets of four other exercises (all with weights), I run a nine-minute mile. I am a trim 5-foot-6, 129 lbs. with only 17 percent body fat at 37 years old. I am a wife and a mother … oh yeah – and I appear on a TV show. And yet, despite all these things in my life, I have breast cancer, again. This makes no sense to me.
I ask you to follow my journey every week on my blog to see if we can make some sense out of this craziness and, along the way, lend some perspective to people.
I would also like to share some information that I am gathering related to cancer, including new treatments.
One characteristic about me is that I don t take bad news lying down. I want to know why something happened. I won t accept an answer like, “It just happens.” I want to know every aspect of how could it happen and what I can do to make sure it does not happen again.
Our minds and body are powerful. I will win this war against this disease on many fronts, incorporating various tactics to beat this awful disease. I believe in traditional and alternative medicine, and will offer scientific evaluation on both.
What Helped Me
Each week, I will offer advice to readers that I found valuable on my journey. Do whatever you choose with this. Some may find this helpful and some may not. But I want to offer some tips on how my family and I learned to manage the anxiety, complicated testing, treatments and how we explored treatment options while maintaining our sanity.
Have a Family Member or Friend Present at All Consultations
Whenever speaking with a physician, radiologist, or oncology or homecare nurse, bring someone you trust with you to take notes. Another set of ears will help. What you hear may seem like a different language. You will be in no condition to try and memorize medical terms.
Do Not Go on the Internet and Read Anything About Your Diagnosis Yourself
You can have your family member or trusted friend look up specifics concerning your care. The person who searches on the Internet must be able to focus on the therapies you are receiving and not browse randomly. If they do, tell them to keep the stories to themselves. THERE ARE HORROR STORIES AND YOUR STORY IS YOUR OWN. Even my story is very unique. Take from it what you need and forget the rest. Medical journals with peer-reviewed, science-based papers are the best material to read.
Find a Peaceful Place
This means finding somewhere or something in your life that will distract you from the diagnosis. It is easier said than done, but you need that safe place if only for a few minutes a day. For me, it is the gym, spending time with my husband, my children and my dogs, church and meditative prayer. Stay close to loved ones who are positive. Tell the negative ones that you will call them later. At night, when it is quiet, my husband says, “Breathe” and rubs my shoulders, which also helps.
Talk About Your Diagnosis Only If You Want To
Many people will find out through the grapevine that you have been diagnosed. The people who come up to you to talk to you about it may have good intentions, but there are places that you will want to remain your safe place, free of cancer discussions. It is YOUR CALL when and if you want to discuss it and with whom.
For example, I can get hundreds of emails on a daily basis either sending me well wishes or sharing their stories with me. This is perfectly acceptable and frankly, I love it. However, when I am at the gym, for example, it is not cool to bring it up in between my sets while I am jamming out to music. I am in the zone. I am feeling strong, and I am not thinking of cancer. It is OK to say, “Thank you, but I am trying not to think about it here.” You are not mean for doing that.