October

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October is my favorite month.

I was born in October (as were both my parents). I got married in October. I gave birth to my son in October (he was due Sept. 30–I instinctively knew he’d wait to make his debut in his mama’s favorite month).

October is when the stifling heat of a Southern summer finally breaks, and crisp air turns the leaves eye-popping hues of crimson, orange and yellow. The mouth-watering aroma of fair food seems to hang in the air all month, beckoning with the promise of once-a-year delights like sugary funnel cake and forearm-sized turkey legs. Children (and adults like me) delight in the thrill of a ghostly tale told by the warm glow of a grinning jack-o-lantern. And football really hits its stride, with some of the year’s best match-ups hitting the gridiron.

It’s really quite magical, when you think about it.

Last year, I felt sort of robbed of my October experience. I spent half the month sick and afraid (and not the good Halloween kind) from my bad reaction to Taxol. The rest of the month, I was still in recovery mode, trying to get my sea legs after chemo and mentally preparing for my bilateral mastectomy. Sure, I still took my son trick-or-treating and watched scary movies, but it wasn’t quite the same.

This year, I feel like I’ve gotten my October mojo back. I kicked off the month with my son’s birthday on one of those glorious fall days that makes you wonder why other seasons even bother. He’s really into Halloween this year, so he and I have decked out his room, our house and backyard with all manner of creepy decor.

I’ve gotten an eyeful of peak N.C. mountain fall foliage while watching the Appalachian State University Mountaineers take the field (while eating a funnel cake, I might add). I’ve watched spooky shows (I highly recommend Lore on Amazon Prime), drank pumpkin beer and delighted in scoping out Halloween decorations with my son.

Tomorrow is my birthday. And this weekend I have plans to hit up some Halloween funsies with my kiddo–a pumpkin festival, trunk or treat–and have lunch with my dad and sisters. Then on Sunday, I get to hear the amazing Andre Leon Talley speak as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And, of course, it all wraps up with Halloween.

It feels good to enjoy all these simple pleasures again. Though my mind and body are very different now, on a crisp October day, I feel like the old me.

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Hair Envy

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A strange thing has started to happen–people are telling me they love my hair.

This is not a completely new occurrence. Friends, family and coworkers who’ve witnessed this journey over the past year often comment on my wild mane of chemo curls. They know how excited I am to have some tresses of my own again, no matter how unruly they may be.

What’s odd is strangers or people who’ve met me since treatment and don’t know about my cancer making positive comments about my hair.

It happened the other day at Jersey Mike’s, of all places. I was in line and the shop owner–a chatty guy who gabs with all his customers–made a comment about my hair. He throws out compliments generously, so I wasn’t really surprised by his statement. It was the response of the woman standing in front of me in line that left me speechless.

She told me how she always noticed my hair when she’d see me in the restaurant (I have a weekly sandwich habit), wondering if she could make that cut work for her own curly tresses. She genuinely wanted hair like mine, hair that I’m often struggling to love.

It happened again at work. A new coworker has several times remarked how much she loves my hair, asking if it naturally curls like that. To avoid the awkward cancer explanation, I just smiled and nodded. “I’m so jealous,” she replied.

There are few things stranger than having someone tell you they’re jealous of your out-of-control chemo curls.

I recently got an actual haircut (adios, poufy mullet!), which has given my mane a bit of shape. I’m back to my old blonde, and I’m able to pin back pieces with bobby pins to give it some semblance of a style. All this to say: I don’t really hate my hair right now. I kind of dig it, actually.

But, it still feels weird to get compliments. I think it’s because for so long now, my bald head/short hair has been a symbol of my illness–an obvious clue that something is wrong with me.

Now it has gotten to a length that looks as though it were cut that way on purpose. And to the passing stranger or unsuspecting coworker, it doesn’t look any different than any other short hairdo.

It’s just another piece of the puzzle of putting my normal (whatever that means now) life back together. To the rest of the world, I no longer look like a cancer patient. It’s no longer obvious something terrible happened to me. And while part of me has a hard time reconciling that–since the trauma of it is still pretty fresh in my mind–I’m mostly glad to just look like everyone else.

Pinktober

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OK, y’all, I have to get up on my soapbox for a minute. My apologies.

It’s October again. That means the pinkpalooza of Breast Cancer Awareness Month is in full swing. Everything from pink candy to cosmetics to exercise equipment will be hitting the shelves of stores across the country under the guise of doing something good to help combat breast cancer.

But here’s the thing: Most of that stuff does absolutely nothing but generate profits for the company that produces it. Slapping a pink ribbon on something doesn’t make it worthwhile–it makes it a gimmick.

Fortunately, there are some companies raising actual funds for breast cancer research and support. Bustle published a very good list recently. I also noticed this past weekend that Loft is asking customers to donate to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation, in addition to donating 60 percent of proceeds from a line of jewelry to the nonprofit.

Another thing I’ve noticed is the return of all those stupid viral things on social media, asking people to simply post a heart on their profile or the color of their bra or whatever for “breast cancer awareness.” This does NOTHING to raise awareness for breast cancer. This helps NO ONE. In fact, it trivializes something very serious into a juvenile game. I mean, do you see men posting emojis and their underwear color to raise awareness for prostate cancer? No. So please, I beg of you, stop sharing this pointless crap.

If you really want to share something on social media that can be helpful in raising awareness, this image is an excellent choice. It illustrates how many different ways symptoms of breast cancer can manifest. A lump isn’t the only sign, and it’s important to be aware of all the other possible symptoms.

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Finally, if you plan to mark this month by donating to a breast cancer charity, first of all, let me applaud you and say thank you. Secondly, let me point you in the direction of charities that do real good for the breast cancer community, and who have been proven to allocate the majority of their donations to research/support of breast cancer patients/survivors.

One of those groups is METAvivor, which raises awareness and funds for metastatic breast cancer patients and research. Here’s the thing: Early detection is great, but it’s no guarantee that a woman won’t die of this disease. Breast cancer is a wily beast, and when it metastasizes (i.e. spreads to other parts of the body and becomes Stage IV), that is when people die. And the sad fact is, there is an appalling lack of funding going into metastatic research/support. METAvivor works to remedy that problem, and they are definitely worth your support.

The Young Survival Coalition is another great group, particularly for young patients/survivors like me. They provide resources and tools for young women facing this disease. Living Beyond Breast Cancer is another great group that offers a wealth of support to patients and survivors.

And, of course, The American Cancer Society is always a good choice for supporting research to end this horrible disease for all.

There are others out there, but my best advice to you is to do your homework before you donate. Make sure the organization allocates the majority of your donation to its mission. And make sure the products you purchase are actually funding something, and not just a marketing ploy.

All that said, I’m glad people want to help and be aware. And I hope that everyone takes the opportunity this month to check themselves to make sure nothing looks or feels strange or different. I discovered my own cancer by feeling a lump, so doing self-checks matter. Be vigilant, be aware, and be thoughtful.