On the Cusp

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Memorial Day is my favorite of the summer holidays.

I like the sentiment behind it–honoring those who died serving our country in the military–and I like its place as the unofficial first weekend of summer. On Memorial Day, the long, lazy days of summer stretch before us with the delicious promise of three solid months of warm weather, vacations and fun outdoors.

Last year, I felt robbed of my summer. Or, at least of half of it. I was diagnosed in early July, smack-dab in the middle of summer. I went from pool parties and beach trips and baseball games to chemo and hair loss and fear–so much fear.

While the rest of the world was still enjoying the sun, I was cowering indoors, terrified of my own body. My beachy glow was replaced with the ghostly pallor of a person who spends her days inside the cancer center, poison flowing through her veins. While my son was still wide open, eager to soak up every minute of daylight for playtime, I struggled through the evenings, exhausted from the Neulasta shots yet uncomfortably wired from the steroids that helped keep me from puking my guts out.

I’m excited for this summer. I have a lot of fun things planned–a beach trip with my family, a trip to New York City with my sister, work trips to Chicago and Vegas, a Guns ‘n’ Roses concert (woot!). There will be pool days, and barbecues and hours spent helping my son build castles in his sandbox.

But as excited as I am for this season, I’m also anxious. I’m afraid something else will happen. Something new will pop up. More bad news. I have a follow-up brain MRI scheduled next month, and just thinking about it makes me nauseous.

This is my life, post-treatment. No matter what good thing I have going on, there’s that little voice whispering from the depths, reminding me what could go wrong. I’m getting better at tamping it down, but it’s definitely an ongoing process.

 

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The Sweetest Word

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I got a card in the mail from my OB/GYN office this week. Just a simple card with a couple of check marks and one beautiful, glorious word: “benign.”

For a cancer patient, this is the best word in the world. It means everything’s OK. Everything checked out. You can actually exhale.

In my anxiety-ridden mind, I’d already diagnosed myself with ovarian cancer before this procedure. I’d gone as far as mentally preparing myself for the news, trying to wrap my mind around what that would mean–more chemo, more invasive surgery, maybe radiation, maybe death. This is what life is like post-cancer. Worst-case scenarios running through the mind all the time.

But thankfully, this is one I no longer have to worry about. I am so grateful.

 

Mother’s Day

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Me, my mom and my younger sister, 1985?

For many years now, Mother’s Day has been a difficult holiday for me. I lost my mom about a month-and-a-half before Mother’s Day 2000, and since then, the day has been a yearly reminder of the huge void in my life.

But over the past few years, I’ve slowly started to change my perception of this day.

In the decade since I met my husband, I’ve joined him in celebrating his mother, my now mother-in-law. From pretty much the moment I met her, she has treated me like a part of her family. And while she’s not a substitute for my own mom, she has become someone I depend on, confide in and love as I would my own mother. I am so grateful to have her in my life.

I’ve also been so very fortunate to have a circle of lifelong friends whose mothers I consider second-moms. I grew up in these women’s homes, and they’ve rallied around me when my mother passed, when I got married, when I had a baby and when I faced cancer. The love these women have shown me over the years makes my heart swell, and I am so thankful to have the kind of friends who gladly share their wonderful mothers with me.

I’m also truly blessed to have an older sister who’s shown me what it means to be a great mom. Dawn is 14 years older than me, and she’s raised two intelligent, kind, successful women, instilling them with a sense of confidence and a strong faith that sustains and guides them. When I think about the kind of mom I want to be, I often look to her example.

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Me and my sweet boy, photo by the amazing Jordan Brannock

And, of course, the biggest and best thing that has changed my feelings about this day is becoming a mother, myself. My son is my greatest gift, my greatest achievement, my greatest love. He fills my heart with a feeling of pure joy and love that I never thought possible. He inspires me to be a better person, and he makes everything I’ve endured over this past year worth it.

Is Mother’s Day still a hard day for me? Absolutely. I will never stop missing my mom, and the hole that her loss has left in my heart will never be filled. But I know that I am lucky to have some incredible mothers in my life, and I have the opportunity to be that for my son, and for those things I am forever grateful.

Notes from the OR

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Pre-op fashion

Yesterday’s oophorectomy went well. My doctor didn’t see anything that looked weird (huge sigh of relief), and the procedure was pretty uneventful. I was home by around lunchtime.

My torso scar collection has grown by three, although these are pretty small (and let’s be honest, my bikini days are over anyway). I’m sore, but it’s not unmanageable–much less pain than my c-section or mastectomy.

I’m not going to lie, it was a little sad to take a pregnancy test (standard procedure) and then sign a form confirming that I realized going through this procedure meant I wouldn’t be able to have any more children. It’s weird because even though we’d already made the decision to only have one child, the finality of all this still feels like a loss.

But what I’m gaining–some additional peace of mind–is worth it. At the end of the day, I have to remember that it’s not about mourning children that won’t be, but celebrating the gift of time with the precious child I do have.

An Ounce of Prevention

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In what has started to feel like a regular occurrence for me, I’m preparing for another surgery this week.

This time, I’m going under the knife for an oophorectomy, which sounds completely made-up but is the medical term for removing the ovaries. My fallopian tubes will be removed, as well.

Because of my BRCA2-positive status, I am at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. And ovarian cancers often spread and even sometimes start in the tubes. So, they all have to go.

The procedure will be done laparoscopically, which I’m told makes it much easier. My OB/GYN, who will perform the surgery, assures me it’s a very standard procedure.

I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m just ready to get it over with. I’m ready to have one less body part to worry about possibly sprouting cancer.

On the other hand, I’m completely freaked out. Not really about the procedure itself, but more of the what-ifs. My greatest fear is waking up to somber faces telling me they found something abnormal. A tumor. Weird cells. More cancer.

I’m also feeling a bit sad about what this procedure means for me. I was done having children, but once this operation is finished, there is no possible way I could ever change my mind on that. There’s a finality to it that hurts a bit.

On top of that, my doctor warned me that I will pretty much go into menopause immediately after the surgery. I’ve been in a chemo-induced sort-of menopause for months now, so I’m hoping the side effects won’t be too bad. Mentally, this is another one I’m having a bit of a hard time with because I shouldn’t have to be dealing with this now. I’m too young. It’s too soon.

Last night I had two dreams about the surgery. There was the standard stress dream of not being in the right place, not being able to dial the numbers to call and let them know, etc. Then I dreamed that I was going in not to just have my ovaries removed, but to have gender reassignment surgery to transition me to becoming a man. I’d already had my breasts shaped into the most incredible set of pecs I’ve ever seen, and I was sporting a short brown hairdo. Hoo-boy, chew on that one, Mr. Freud.

While I have no control over the completely bananas world of my dreaming subconscious, I’m trying to keep the pity parties to a minimum. Yes, all of this is incredibly crappy and unfair. But, I’m also really lucky. I have the chance to possibly prevent another bout of cancer, to possibly save my life. For that,  I am truly thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridge

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Exhibit A of why I’ll never be a visual artist.

This morning was my last session with the therapist at the cancer center. She’s a master’s program intern, so she’s graduating next week. I sort of felt like our time was kind of winding down, anyway, as I’ve talked ad nauseam about my anxiety over recurrence/metastasis. She has introduced me to some techniques to help manage said anxiety (hello, meditation!), and also helped me see some of my underlying issues with control and needing to always have it together for others (it’s the responsible oldest/middle child in me).

As part of today’s session, she asked me to draw a bridge that represents my journey, and draw myself somewhere in the photo. That’s the masterpiece you see above (pretty sure my sisters got all the genes for visual artistry in our family).

In explaining my drawing to the therapist, I divulged a longstanding irrational fear of bridges. There’s something about them that’s always kind of freaked me out, particularly those over water (I also have an irrational fear of water I can’t see the bottom of, too, so I’m sure that plays into it.). I told her about the Bonner Bridge that takes travelers out to the Outer Banks–that one has always given me the willies. I mean, look at it:

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I drove over this thing at night once, and nearly peed my pants before reaching the end. 

I also told her about a recurring dream I have about crossing a precarious bridge, usually represented as the old I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River linking Rowan and Davidson counties in North Carolina (I grew up in Rowan county). I’d post a photo of that one, but it was permanently closed in 2012 (see, I was freaked for good reason!), and images are few and far between on the internet.

In my drawing, I put myself halfway across the bridge. There’s a pretty substantial chunk of land behind me, and a smaller one ahead with a sign: “Normal life.” That’s the goal. That’s the magical place I’m trying to reach. I’m not really sure what it looks like. In my drawing, I’m almost half-way there.

Below me, the water churns. I wasn’t planning to draw water at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the water was the perfect representation of my fear. If I fall off the bridge, I could drown or something in that abyss could reach up and grab me. I might survive, but I could just as likely die.

That’s what metastasis/recurrence looks like to me. I could survive, but I also could die. So many others have.

But on the bridge, I’m safe. I’m moving forward. I’m figuring out a way to make sense of all this, to live life without constant fear, to get closer to “normal,” whatever that means now.

Another point the therapist made was all the worrying I do is a way to trick myself into thinking I can prevent something bad from happening. It’s true. If I’ve thought about it, considered it from every angle, run through all the scenarios, they can’t possibly come true, can they?

Of course they can. And that’s where I am right now. In meditation, I’ve learned to acknowledge these thoughts when they pop up, and then send them on their merry way as I get back to focusing on the moment at hand. The truth is, obsessing about this stuff isn’t going to stop any of it from possibly happening. Rationally, I know that I’m still under pretty careful surveillance by my doctors, and they’re likely to catch something should it arise. In the meantime, fretting and Googling and working myself up into a froth isn’t doing anyone any good.

All that is easier said than done, of course, but I’m working on it. And step by step, I’m going to get across that bridge.