Parenting After Cancer

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Hello there! I just wanted to share some of my recent writings about parenting and breast cancer. I wrote this essay, “How Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mom,” for Good Housekeeping. And I also wrote a similar piece, “Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mother,” for SheKnows. Check them out!

Spreading the Word

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Hi there! I’ve been pretty busy writing about my experiences with cancer, and also talking to some major news outlets about post-cancer life.

I wrote this essay for HelloGiggles about how my husband and I navigated my cancer diagnosis and treatment.

And I was interviewed by Good Morning America after a reporter there saw my piece in Glamour on post-cancer premature menopause. I discussed that topic and how premature menopause is just one more difficult part of my post-cancer life.

Obviously since I’m a professional writer, this is all part of building my career. But it goes beyond that for me. Almost every time I write something about my experiences, total strangers reach out to me to share that they’re grateful for my words because they capture the same feelings and experiences they’ve had. When I was going through treatment, I was so thankful for all those who gave their time to me–volunteers in the hospital, survivors who shared their experiences, strangers who offered me unsolicited words of encouragement. I vowed to myself that once I got on the other side of this, I’d give back, too. And while I’d love to volunteer at the cancer center or take part in a fundraising event, I still have too much emotional baggage to give back in that way. So this is how I do it–if my writing can make even one person feel less lonely and more seen, then it’s worth it to me.

Checking In

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I had my now annual (down from weekly, monthly, every few months) check-in with my oncologist a few weeks ago. This is an appointment that always makes me nervous.

The visit basically entails getting blood work done and then talking with my oncologist about the lab results and how I’m feeling. He also does a physical exam to make sure there’s nothing weird going on with my chest or lymph nodes.

First, the really good news: I’m fine. My doctor said my labs were perfect, and in his words, I “couldn’t be doing better.”

I don’t know that that’s exactly true.

Returning to the cancer center is always a weird experience for me. I spent so much time there during treatment and in the year after. For a time, it felt comfortable, welcoming. It was one of the few places I felt like I fit in with my bald head or weird chemo curls. I knew how shitty all those people sitting in the chairs in the lobby felt–both physically and emotionally. There was this odd sense of belonging.

Now, that is gone. When I walked in there this week, I felt like an outsider with my long hair and summer-tanned skin. I looked more like a caretaker than a patient, and physically, I felt that way, too. I could certainly still empathize with those struggling through chemo and radiation, but my feelings aren’t so raw and at the surface. And instead of feeling comforted, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I realize this is a good thing. This is me re-entering the regular world, finding some sense of my “normal” life. Moving on. Living.

But at the same time, it troubles me. When you go through something so epically traumatic as a cancer diagnosis and months of intense treatment, it leaves you feeling so off-kilter. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but that’s because it’s important and ongoing–moving on with the rest of your life is really hard.

Going back to the cancer center is really triggering for me now. I can almost conjure the sick feeling of chemo when I’m there. Seeing the people there for treatment–with their tote bags and pillows–I get antsy. I know what they’re in for. I know what the next days and weeks hold for them.

While I was in treatment, I always thought I’d love to come back and volunteer at the cancer center. So many survivors do, and it’s really amazing to see them there when you’re going through it–they made it, and so can you, is the message they send. But I’m starting to think I will never be able to do that. I can’t imagine being back in that infusion room again–the thought of it makes my palms sweat. As much as I’d love to help others, I don’t think that’s the way for me.

Instead, I’m turning to my writing. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I’ve been writing more about my experience for numerous publications. I’m working on a memoir, too, focusing on how hard it is to get on with your life after going through something like this. Hopefully one day I’ll actually finish it!

Until then, I’ll be here, sharing these thoughts and reminding anyone who is in a similar boat that these feelings are normal, and it’s OK to still struggle. I do, and I want to talk about it so others can feel less alone in this process.

 

Three Years

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This morning I logged onto Facebook and saw a post by a friend, celebrating her mother’s triumph over cancer after being diagnosed 12 years ago today. And then it hit me–today’s my cancerversary, too.

The past two years, this day has filled me with a mixture of dread and gratitude. On July 11 the past two years, I’ve relived those awful moments of that day, recalling the overwhelming fear and grief I felt at hearing those words: “You have cancer.”

At the same time, with each year that passes, I feel so grateful to still be here. And I get excited to think of how much closer each year brings me to that magical five-year mark when my risk of recurrence decreases (although, that’s no guarantee it won’t ever come back).

But this morning, cancer was not the first thing on my mind when I woke up. And as I went through the routine of preparing for work and getting my son off to camp, I still didn’t think about it. During my drive to the office, I listened to a podcast and got lost in the story–cancer was nowhere in my thoughts. Until that moment I logged onto Facebook, I actually didn’t think about what today is and what it means to me. For a while, I forgot.

This is huge! And it’s something that even two years ago I’d never believed possible. I remember after I got the all-clear after treatment, my oncologist told me there would come a time that I don’t think about cancer every day. I had such a hard time believing him because at that moment, the disease was at the forefront of my mind all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about it. And while I’m still not quite to the not thinking about it stage yet, I’ve made so much progress.

So this is all to say, if anyone out there reading this is still early on in their journey with this disease, I want you to know it gets better. It never stops being scary or sad or frustrating, but those feelings lessen. And you learn coping mechanisms to deal with them. And eventually your hair grows back and your appointments taper off and you start to feel more like yourself again. It’s a process, and as you go through it, the key is to be gentle with yourself and do what you need to find peace. I never believed it myself, but I can tell you now, it will come.

Summertime Blues

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I’m having trouble sleeping. For the past week or so, I toss and turn in bed, trying in vain to settle so that sleep will come. I take lavender baths, I read, I have a soothing ocean sounds white noise channel playing, but none of it seems to help. I usually end up getting up to take a pill to help me rest.

This is not a normal problem for me. I usually have little trouble falling asleep. Sometimes I even conk out before I’d planned while snuggling with my son in his bed after storytime.

Part of my problem is this is the week before we go on our annual family vacation to the beach, so my mind is racing, thinking of all the things I need to take care of at home and work before being gone for a week. But even as I check off items on that long to-do list, my restlessness remains.

Then yesterday, this photo popped up in my Facebook memories from three years ago:

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My husband and me, sitting on the porch swing at the beach. We were peaceful, relaxed, and on the cusp of a complete shitshow. I didn’t know it at the time, but sitting right there, my body was betraying me. Cancer was growing in my breast, forming a lump that I’d notice just days after this image was captured.

I look forward to summer every year, basking in the warm days and beach trips and pool parties. But there’s also a part of me that dreads it now. Not because of the heat (although, talk to me in August, and I’m sure I’ll have changed my tune), but because of the memories this time of year dredges up. Everything about this season conjures a frightening past–the thick heat, holidays we celebrate, the travel I make for work. It all takes me back to that terrifying time of finding a lump and being diagnosed with cancer. It transports me to those grueling months of slogging through my life, bald, tired and perpetually nauseous from the chemo.

When I saw the photo, I suddenly understood this feeling of angst that seems to be following me right now. My restlessness surely in part comes from that underlying sense of paranoia that I doubt I’ll ever fully shake. There are so many little triggers this time of year, so many subtle reminders like how the light looks in the afternoon and how it feels to walk through a stifling day, that take me back to that place I’ve fought so hard to forget.

In my meditation exercises, one technique is to acknowledge worrisome thoughts, and then push them along their merry way to focus on the moment at hand. I’m doing a lot of that right now, and it’s something I’ll do even more next week while vacationing with my family. I refuse to let this disease steal one more moment of happiness from me.

Writing Here and There

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you may know I’m a professional writer by trade. And even though I’ve neglected this space a bit over the past few months, I’ve been busily cranking out the words for other outlets. I’m really feeling the personal essay genre, writing about cancer but other things in life, as well. Here are a few recent pieces that I thought I’d share:

Protect the Skin You’re In for Cancer Wellness

How My Toddler Taught Me to Accept My Post-cancer Body for SheKnows

Why I Chose to Have Only One Kid for SheKnows

You can also read more of my writing here.

Death in the Digital Age

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This morning I was reading The Cut when I came across an excerpt from the soon-to-be released memoir from Erin Lee Carr. Erin is a filmmaker and the daughter of David Carr, the storied NY Times reporter and one of my journalism heroes. In the excerpt, Erin details the day her father died suddenly in 2015. In the midst of the chaos and grief left behind a sudden death, she also had to grapple with the unexpected, unwelcome publicity that fell upon her and her family like an avalanche just mere minutes after viewing her father’s lifeless body in the hospital.

I could barely breathe as I read her words, on this day of all days. The 19th anniversary of my mother’s sudden death. Like Erin, I remember distinctly getting the call that something happened and I needed to rush to the hospital. Like her, I remember the terrifying, disorienting trip to said hospital, and the crush of pain and disbelief upon arriving and finding your parent is gone. Even after all these years, I can still remember exactly how it felt–the unrelenting, unbearable agony.

In that first year following her death, I cried all the time. I was terribly depressed, as one would expect. Nothing in my life felt right. I was unmoored, lost without the person who’d been my guiding light, my rock, the one I knew I could always depend on, no matter what.

Time has dulled and shaped my pain. I don’t cry over her so much anymore. My grief isn’t so immediate–it’s manageable. Sure, it still surprises me sometimes, but for the most part, I have it under control. And the events of that horrible day 19 years ago have gotten blurrier. While I can still feel the terror and despair as acutely as I did in those moments, the memories of that day are foggier and broken–chunks of time rather than a full mental narrative. There’s actually some comfort in that, too, as it makes it more difficult to replay the events of that day over and over in my mind–these are moments I’d rather not relive.

As I read Erin’s words, I couldn’t help feeling so terrible for her having to deal with such a loss in this digital age, where her phone dinged every couple of seconds with texts, social media posts and calls. I can’t imagine the added stress of all of that on top of the pain of processing your parent’s death.

I sometimes feel lucky that my mom died before we became so digitally connected. I don’t have to worry about electronic reminders of her loss haunting me–there’s no abandoned Facebook profile or dormant Twitter feed to obsess over. I didn’t have to answer a mountain of texts or DMs after her funeral. Instead, I had the quaintly analog task of mailing paper thank you cards provided by the funeral home. Sure, I got tired of licking envelopes, but it was the kind of activity you can do to zone out and take your mind off what’s really going on.

A lot has changed in these past 19 years. But one thing is still exactly the same–I miss her, every single day, so very much.

Life Goes On

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Hey, long time, no see!

I remember when I was first diagnosed, I found this really great blog written by a young woman who’d also navigated a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. I devoured her posts, grateful to read the words of someone who’d already walked the path I was about to take.

But then, her posts stopped. Not because of something bad, but rather, because she was doing well. She was living life and moving on.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m two years and eight months removed from my diagnosis. I’m almost two-and-a-half years removed from chemo, and it has been more than a year-and-a-half since my last surgery. Not a huge amount of time, but enough to feel some distance.

My hair is getting long–it hangs just past my shoulders when I straighten it. And it’s getting less curly and easier to manage. In fact, when I got it colored recently, my stylist remarked, “It feels like your hair again. It didn’t feel like your old hair when it first came in, but it does now.” She’s right. It’s softer and less coarse. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I don’t see such a stranger looking back. That has done wonders for my self-confidence. Truth be told, while I was grateful to have hair again, I hated it so much when it was short and super-curly. I felt ugly and unlike myself–it was yet another indignity to suffer after what seemed like an endless stream of indignities during treatment and surgery.

My anxiety is a lot better, too. That first year–whew, that was rough. I feel like I was living in a near-constant state of panic. I certainly still have my bad days, but nothing like that. And when I was in the throes of that anxiety, I never would have believed I’d get to this place–that’s what anxiety does, it whispers in your ear that things will never be fine. It lies.

Am I still afraid? Sure. Do I still worry about recurrence/metastasis? Absolutely. But I’m not preoccupied with it. I’m doing my best to keep moving, keep living.

And that’s why this blog has sort of fallen off. It was a place for me to vent about the painful, surreal process of cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. I still plan to talk about that stuff from time to time, but I feel a shift in myself that I think should be reflected in this space, as well. My blog’s tag line is “life after cancer,” and that’s what I’m going to focus on from here on out. Not forgetting the past, but certainly not dwelling on it, re-chewing it long after the flavor’s gone.

So, hopefully you’ll hear from me a little more often. And hopefully what you hear will be less about cancer and more about simply living a good life.