Forget Pink Ribbons—This is How You Mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month

Pinktober is here again.

Breast Cancer Awareness Month, or Pinktober, is here again. Amid the skeletons and jack-o-lanterns, pink ribbons and cutesy slogans are here to remind you that a disease that kills roughly 40,000 per year exists. You know, in case you were unaware.

While it’s cool people and companies are also taking this time to raise funds alongside that oh-so-important awareness, I think there’s more we can do.

For instance, we’re all aware this disease exists. But did you know it presents in a number of ways that don’t include lumps? Ways that sometimes don’t show up on mammograms? Scary but true. I recently wrote a piece for Healthline on this very thing. Did you know skin dimpling can indicate breast cancer? You can learn more about the signs in my piece, as well as at Know Your Lemons (a fab resource).

Here’s another thing you probably didn’t know: Metastatic breast cancer is the only kind of breast cancer that kills. Meaning, once cancer metasticizes (spreads), it can and often will kill. Here’s the even scarier part: Even early stage cancers that are successfully treated can metasticize. There goes the assurance that catching it early automatically means you’ll be fine.

This is the fear every breast cancer patient and survivor lives with. Will it come back? Will it spread? Will I die?

Which brings me to my second point in how to truly make the most of Pinktober: Donate to Metavivor. Stage IV or metastatic breast cancer is the least-funded type of breast cancer research, even though it’s the only type that kills. Metavivor is the only organization dedicated to metastatic breast cancer research, as well as supporting MBC patients. And all donated funds go to that mission—you never have to worry about shady dealings filtering your support. I donate to Metavivor every year, and I encourage you to, as well. Every penny counts.

Last but not least, be gentle with the breast cancer survivors in your life this month. Pinktober is incredibly triggering for us, and throwing a pandemic on top of it doesn’t help. Just remember the fear of illness you’ve lived with these past few months has been our reality for a while, and while a vaccine will one day stop COVID, there’s no silver bullet to kill our boogeyman.

The Secret to a Happy Marriage

Nine years. That day we put on our best clothes, stood before our families and God, and pledged our love to each other, in good times and bad, sickness and health. We had no idea how soon those vows would be tested. 

Less than five years later I had cancer, and we suddenly faced the grim prospect that I might die before we got the chance to grow old together. But rather than give in to the fear and despair, we hunkered down together to fight this thing. When chemo made my hair fall out in angry clumps, he shaved my head. When my surgical drains filled with pinkish fluid after my mastectomy, he emptied them. When I sobbed at the idea of dying before our son could even remember me, he held me.

These are the moments of true love. No flowers, cards or jewelry could ever convey the depth of emotion we share. No mere words could capture the love that performing these acts expresses. 

Our relationship isn’t perfect—no one’s is. We have our share of issues and disagreements, but even then, I know that the things we’ve shared, the storms we’ve weathered, have bound us in a way that can’t be broken. 

Yes, I’m Still Here

Whew, it has been a loooooong time, y’all. Did I miss anything?

Haha, what a year it has been. First of all, let me tell you the good news. I reached my four-year cancerversary in July, and I had the last of my annual check-ins with all my doctors last week. And every one of them said I’m doing great, and I don’t have to see them again until next year. Yay!

Now, the bad news. Of course, we’ve all had our worlds rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and my little world is no exception. I lost my job back in April due to COVID-induced cuts at my company. It was a tough blow, but it was also the kick in the pants I needed to strike out on my own and become a full-time freelance writer–something I’ve been dreaming of for years. Six months later, I’m finding my groove and enjoying being my own boss.

One of my favorite new freelance gigs is writing for Healthline. I’ve had the chance to share my experiences with breast cancer, menopause and losing my job. I’m also writing how-to pieces for them, like this one on walking to alleviate menopause symptoms.

I also wrote one other thing that I’m pretty proud of–my memoir. I finished the first draft at the end of December and spent the first six months of this year editing and polishing. I’m querying literary agents right now, hoping someone will take a chance on it. Fingers crossed!

So, that’s the short version of what’s been going on for the past nine months. I hope that you are safe and healthy, and I promise to keep this space updated a bit more often from now on.

Did Chemo Ruin My Immune System?

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There was a time when I was a really healthy person. I maybe caught a cold once a year, or occasionally had the sniffles. I hardly ever felt the need to go to the doctor–over-the-counter meds always did the trick.

Then I was diagnosed with cancer. And I went through several rounds of intense chemotherapy. And while that chemo decimated my cancer, it also all but wiped out my immune system. Even though I dutifully got my Neulasta shots after each infusion in an attempt to keep my white blood cell counts up, they almost always plummeted. And after the first dose of Taxol made me incredibly sick and wiped out my white blood cells for almost a month, my doctors knew I couldn’t continue with chemo without inflicting irreparable damage to my immune system and bone marrow.

Since that time, I swear my body has changed. And I’m not just talking about my chemo curls or brittle nails, I’m talking about my ability to resist and fight disease. I don’t have any concrete scientific proof of this claim, but I’m making it anyway: I’m pretty sure chemo ruined my immunity.

I catch everything nowadays. And I have a harder time getting rid of illnesses. Almost every cold turns into a sinus infection. And even more curious, my eczema is pretty much gone.

For those lucky souls who’ve never dealt with this irritating skin condition, eczema is an itchy rash often caused by an over-active immune system. I began suffering from the condition in middle school and have contended with it my entire life. That is, until I received chemo. Since then, I’ve had only one teeny-tiny flare up of eczema. While I enjoy the clear, itch-free skin, I also can’t help wondering what’s going on inside my body to keep it that way.

But my lack of eczema is not the issue here; it’s getting sick more often than I’d like. Sure, some of that can be attributed to being the parent of a preschooler, but I can’t help thinking it’s more than that. For example, within the last month, I’ve had a cold that morphed into a nasty sinus infection, strep throat and now hand, foot and mouth disease (which is a really shitty thing to catch, BTW). I feel like I’ve only been well a handful of days this past month.

Do I have any rock-solid medical proof that this is all due to chemotherapy? No. Do I regret undergoing chemotherapy to treat my cancer? Hell no. It saved my life. But I still can’t help wondering if my sub-par immune system is yet another piece of collateral damage in the war to save my life.

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.