You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

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A former colleague of mine recently got the terrible news that she has breast cancer. I’ve followed along as she shared her experiences on social media, and my heart has really ached for her this past week as she underwent a bilateral mastectomy.

Two years ago today, I was in that same position.

I remember lying in my hospital bed that night after my surgery, suffering the most intense pain I’d ever experienced, when I noticed something. The whiteboard bearing my nurse’s name and call number also held one more important bit of information: the date. November 28.

I stared at the numbers, and then I began thinking about my recovery in those terms. On the 29th I’d be a little better–maybe I’d get to go home. On the 30th I’d be a little better. And so on.

Having cancer and going through treatment really makes you slow down and take things one day at a time. That’s not easy for most of us, and honestly, it was one of the things I struggled with the most during my ordeal. But once I finally surrendered to the rhythm of cancer treatment, learning to take each day as it comes and not think too far ahead, I found the whole experience to be far more palatable.

Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable to me that each of those days have accumulated into two years. I remember when I was first diagnosed being told that treatment would be a process, but it also would be just a season in my life (providing it went well and worked, which thankfully it did). At the time, that was hard to imagine, but in retrospect, it’s true.

Yes, I definitely still deal with the after-effects of my diagnosis and treatment. Many things, like the fear and anxiety, will probably never go away. But life on the other side of this is still good. I know my former colleague still has a good bit of road ahead of her, but when I think about her (or anyone in this position), I just wish them to get to this point. It’s so hard to visualize life without chemo and surgeries and radiation when you’re in the thick of it, but it will come.

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Nightmares and Dreamscapes

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For many years, I’ve suffered from night terrors. Or, rather, anyone sleeping in the room with me has suffered from them.

The scenario was always the same–a room that’s too dark (I need a little light) and a recurring nightmare that a dark figure has broken into my house and is trying to kill me. I’ll wake up screaming and thrashing, trying to fight off this would-be assailant, all the while terrifying the person (my best friend on a trip, former boyfriends, my husband) innocently sleeping next to me.

I haven’t had one of those in a long time (*knock on wood*). But I do still have recurring nightmares. Only now, instead of a dark figure trying to kill me, it’s always the real enemy–cancer.

I had one of these last night. In the dream, I found out that there were three new tumors in my reconstructed breast. In delivering the news to some friends, I remember crying and saying, “this is going to kill me. I’m going to die, and my son won’t even remember me.”

I woke up in a panic. Like the recurring dreams I have about my mom, these are always vividly real. I lay in the bed for a moment in terror, until I realized it wasn’t real, and there are no new tumors. Of course, that didn’t stop me from doing a quick self-exam in the bathroom just to be sure.

When I wrote last month for HuffPost about my struggles post-cancer, this was one of the things I didn’t mention. I may have some control over my thoughts and fears during my waking hours, but my anxiety is free to run amok in my subconscious when I sleep. I literally have zero control over it. It doesn’t happen every night, but it happens enough to really rattle me–I always feel nervous and haunted by the dream the next day.

Unlike the dreams that sent me into night terrors, I know there’s a pretty solid likelihood that I will experience the monster coming to get me in these dreams. But until he rears his ugly head, I just have to remember monsters in dreams cannot hurt me.

Tattoo You

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I turned 40 last month. It was one of those birthdays that kind of took me by surprise. Like, how did I get to be this old? Wasn’t I just 19?

I imagine most people feel like this. But while some freak out, I felt oddly zen about it all. My brush with death via cancer has given me a new perspective on aging–I’m simply grateful to be here and have the privilege of getting older.

That said, I do believe I’m having a bit of a midlife crisis. Case in point: I got a tattoo.

I’ve never wanted a tattoo. When all the other 20-something girls were getting tramp stamps and ankle tats, I was completely uninterested (thank goodness). I’ve always loved tattoos on other people, but I never thought they were for me.

But then in the months leading up to my birthday, I was overcome with a desire to get some ink of my own. Part of it was noticing my friend’s beautiful, dainty wrist tattoo and thinking how pretty it was. Then I started noticing other wrist tattoos. That led to actively scoping them online.

Once I’d decided on where to put the tattoo, I had to figure out what it should look like. I knew I wanted just one word, and in a typewriter font. I wrestled with what word to choose, but everything felt wrong or hokey. Finally, it hit me–my son’s initials. Just three letters, lowercase. Perfect.

To me, this tattoo represents everything I’ve created. My son, this miraculous creation of my own body. And then the typewriter font represents me as a writer, and what I create through my words.

The tattoo also makes me feel cooler–no small feat.

Perhaps even more than most my age, I feel old and lame. My post-cancer, menopausal body is not hot (except for the flashes–ba-dum-bum!), and I feel like the lack of estrogen is causing me to physically age more rapidly than I’d like. I’ve got aches and pains and wrinkles and sometimes I just feel like I’m 80. It sucks.

But when I look at my little tattoo, I feel marginally cool again. It’s a tiny thing, but it helps.