One Year Later

The past few days have been weird. We’ve all collectively mourned and recollected what our lives were like before March 2020. Before quarantines and lockdowns. Before masks and social distancing. Before COVID-19.

The day that the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic, March 11, 2020, I was on a plane, en route to New Orleans for a work trip to a trade show. With all the news flashes and buzzing of the virus’ spread—an assisted living facility in Washington being decimated by disease and death, hospitals filling in major metros like NYC—I was more than a little nervous to be inside a plane (a petri dish on a good day), stay in a city that just finished hosted scores of people for Mardi Gras, and walk around shaking hands and meeting people at a trade show. At that point, mask-wearing hadn’t become an everyday part of life, so I was armed with extra hand sanitizer and plenty of paranoia. That afternoon, after checking into my hotel, I attempted to work a bit while watching the ACC Tournament, stopping to listen to reports of similar sporting events halting. And that night, my colleagues and I ate dinner on the patio of Napoleon House in the French Quarter, nervously checking our phones for news and discussing how uncomfortable we felt going to a trade show the next day. It felt sort of like being in the beginning of a zombie apocalypse movie—we knew something bad was coming, and we felt like sitting ducks.

In the year since that day, a lot has happened. More than half a million Americans have died. So many more have been sick. My husband and I both got COVID in October—I spent my birthday and my favorite holiday, Halloween, in quarantine. But we were lucky. So lucky. Staying inside for ordinarily special days was a small price to pay for getting well and surviving, for not spreading this disease to people we love.

This past year, so many people have lost their jobs, businesses, homes and more. I was laid off from my job last March. In the year since, I’ve found a new path as a full-time freelance writer. I am extremely lucky to have a husband with a full-time job and benefits, which means my son and I can affordably get insurance through his employer. And while I don’t make as much money as I once did, and I sometimes fear this might not be sustainable as clients cut freelance budgets, I feel so fortunate to be able to work from home, doing what I love. This new work model has enabled me to be here to help my son with virtual school, and now take him to and pick him up from in-person school. I don’t know how we would have made this work were I not at home with such a flexible schedule, and I worry about families not as lucky as us.

I also worry about those who are struggling with the mental fallout of this virus. Even if you haven’t been sick, the mental and emotional strain of being isolated, stuck indoors, not seeing people you love, not working, can be overwhelming. My mental health has suffered. I’ve struggled with a lot of fear—fear of getting COVID, fear of a loved one getting the virus, fear of losing family and friends, fear of not being able to pay my bills. There have been so many days that I felt OK, but when my head hits the pillow, anxiety and fear take over, forcing me to toss and turn until I give in and take something to knock me out.

This all feels so familiar, too. Anyone who has been through a catastrophic health crisis like cancer knows these feelings all too well. We know how it feels to have our lives upended, to have everything feel different, to not know what to expect with each passing day. We know what it’s like to look at your life and ask, “is this really happening?” Because it’s so strange and awful, it just can’t be real, right?

At the same time, I know there is light at the end of the proverbial tunnel. Yesterday I got my first COVID-19 vaccine dose. My husband has had both of his, as has my father and my in-laws. Those last three make me even happier than getting the shot myself—my greatest fear during this thing was somehow passing the disease to one of them and losing them as a result. And I am deeply grateful that did not happen.

As I stood in line for my shot yesterday, I found myself holding back tears. This simple act, a needle in an arm, felt so momentous, so important. It’s miraculous how such a small thing—a shot, a clean scan, the words “no evidence of disease”—can change everything, can right a tremendous wrong.

I know we still have a long way to go, and if cancer has taught me anything, it’s that there is no such thing as going back to your old life, going back to “normal.” Instead, we take what we’ve been through, bearing our scars and sorting through the emotional debris, and we move forward. We adapt and grow and learn that we’re stronger than we thought, and while we can’t predict what the future holds, we know we will handle it and hopefully emerge from it in one piece.

Banding Together on World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day, which I honestly didn’t realize was a thing until recently. A lot of these “holidays” that seem to happen every day are a bit silly, but this is one I can get behind. For me, it’s a day to honor those struggling with a new diagnosis or through treatment, to remember those lost, and to think about those who’ve survived, but still bear the emotional and physical scars left behind.

I was asked by Nashville’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Center to participate in their Band Against Cancer initiative, which helps provide information and support related to cancer for patients and caregivers. That’s me on top in the middle of the above image.

This initiative feels particularly timely for me personally, as I just found out this week that a friend’s mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. I took some time yesterday to send them a long email full of chemo tips, places to go for support, etc. And doing so took me back to that period at the beginning, being afraid and overwhelmed, searching for every morsel of information I could find to help prepare me for what lay ahead.

That’s why initiatives like Band Against Cancer, and organizations like Metavivor, BreastCancer.org and the American Cancer Society are so important. Information arms us to better contend with this beast, and support allows us to know we don’t have to do it alone.

On this World Cancer Day, I encourage you to show your support for groups like these. They’re doing the hard work to support the people behind all those ribbons.

How I Learned to Adjust to Post-cancer Life

That’s the title of an essay I recently wrote for Healthline. It’s one of many pieces I’ve written lately for media outlets exploring issues related to breast cancer. Since I was laid off from my full-time job in April of last year (thanks, COVID), I’ve been writing a lot more about cancer. In one way, this kind of writing is easy because I know this topic so well. But it’s also hard. Rehashing old memories and telling stories similar to my own can be very triggering. While I have my anxiety under control, for the most part, there are certainly days that it comes roaring back to scare the hell out of me like it once did on a daily basis.

All that said, I’d like to share a few of the pieces I’ve written lately that I think might be helpful for others either in active treatment or finding their way in post-cancer life. Thanks for reading!

Healthline: 6 Overlooked Symptoms of Breast Cancer
Healthline: Parenting through Illness Prepared me for Parenting in a Pandemic
Breastcancer.org: Managing Breast Cancer, COVID-19 and the Winter Blues
Breastcancer.org: How to Fight ‘Caution Fatigue’ and Stay Vigilant about COVID Safety
Breastcancer.org: How to Stay Active During Quarantine
Mission Health Blog: The Importance of Mammograms: One Woman’s Story

The Healing Power of Hope

Last month during those lazy, languid days between Christmas and New Year’s Day, I was beset by an odd rush of energy. I wanted to clean, I wanted to plan, I wanted to prepare to start anew. Normally this feeling doesn’t hit me until the frosty first days of January, but this past year, the moment the Christmas gifts were opened, my psyche seemed to shift toward the future, ready to shake off the detritus of 2020.

I imagine a lot of us have felt this way. 2020 was a hard year for so many. Personally, I lost a job I’d had for nearly seven years, my family got COVID (but thankfully made a full recovery), I experienced some bumps in important relationships, and I mourned the loss of a beloved family member. And outside my bubble, the world seemed to be on fire–sometimes literally. The election, natural disasters, the horrific instances of police brutality that launched social unrest and the absolute horror of a global pandemic, that at this writing has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the U.S. alone, left me feeling powerless and fearful.

I haven’t slept well over the past year. Even on days when I felt as though I was doing OK, as soon as my head hit the pillow, the latent anxiety emerged, my mind racing and my body unable to settle. I’m pretty adept at masking my true feelings, but they always seem to bubble to the surface at night. When I should be sleeping, everything I’ve repressed demands my full attention, leaving me nervous, sad, angry.

Being a cancer survivor compounds these feelings. The COVID-19 pandemic has been triggering as hell for me, as I imagine it has been for many others who’ve faced cancer. The fear of a potentially deadly disease that strikes without warning, the isolation of being trapped in your home, over-analyzing seemingly benign symptoms–“Is that cough just allergies or something else?” It all rings true to cancer survivors. So does the surreal feeling of life as you know it ending, of your day-to-day routines being disrupted, of not knowing what bad thing the next day might hold. We’ve been there; we’ve felt that.

But still, that feeling of anticipation, of hope, returned to me. And as the ball dropped and this new year dawned, that feeling has grown. I’ve felt it as the rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine has begun, particularly last week when my 81-year-old father got his first dose. My health care worker husband gets his next week, and I’m hopeful his parents will get theirs soon, too. And I felt a sense of hope as a new administration was sworn in, including the first woman vice president–I’ve waited 42 years to see that.

And there’s this, too–2021 will be the five-year anniversary of my cancer diagnosis. Making it to the five-year mark is a big deal, and I’m clinging to that sense of hope that I will not only make it to that milestone, but I’ll surpass it.

Of all the lessons both 2020 and facing cancer have taught me, the power of being hopeful has been one of the most difficult to embrace. It’s hard to be hopeful in the midst of a pandemic, and it’s hard to be hopeful when you know the betrayal of having your own cells try to kill you. But that hope–even if it’s just a tiny kernel, a whisper you can barely hear–is what gets us through these calamities. It’s what reminds us that it won’t always be this way, that nothing is permanent, and just as the bad comes, so does the good.

In this new year, I’m trying my best to lean into that hope. I’m still pragmatic, but I’m also trying to remember that I’ve been through trials before, I’ve felt as though all was lost, and I still made it through. The good came. Life went on.

Here’s to hope, and hoping this year will bring its promise of better days for us all.

What It’s Like to Be a Cancer Survivor with COVID-19

A couple of weeks ago, my husband got sick. He works in health care, so it’s not uncommon for him to pick up a bug while seeing patients. I joked he had a “man cold” as he spent that Monday sleeping all day. He didn’t have a fever, and his symptoms seemed to line up with a run-of-the-mill head cold.

Two days later, I started feeling bad. Nothing serious–just a cough and fatigue, with some mild nasal congestion. Again, no fever. But after a few days, I couldn’t seem to shake it, and the fatigue intensified into that bone-deep tired feeling that I hadn’t experienced since chemo. And on top of that, I realized I couldn’t smell anything–I could press my nose against a candle or dryer sheet and smell nothing at all. Even cleaning the litter box was an odorless experience. I knew something was wrong.

So, I went to my local drive-through testing site and got a COVID screen. My results were positive. The next day, my husband was tested, and he was also positive.

For the next week or so, I experienced more symptoms that included a three-day-long headache and nausea, on top of the fatigue and general malaise I already felt. My husband’s symptoms remained minimal, though he also experienced fatigue. Neither of us ever had a fever.

Both of us are feeling much better now and are at the end of our quarantine period, though we’re still staying away from people just in case.

Throughout this pandemic, I’ve been terrified to contract COVID. My immune system is still not what it once was before cancer, and I feared not being able to withstand the virus. Thankfully, whatever strain I encountered was mild compared to what has killed so many others.

I’m grateful, but just like when I had cancer, there’s a level of guilt in fairly easily surviving while others die. Why was I so lucky?

Along with that guilt, COVID dredged up a lot of other feelings I’d mostly buried. The fatigue, nausea and headaches I experienced felt eerily similar to side effects I suffered through during chemo. Being trapped at home, mostly staying in bed felt familiar, too. And the weeks-long onslaught of constantly changing symptoms felt oddly similar to what I experienced after the first couple of chemo infusions–just as you start to adjust to one side effect or symptom, a new one pops up to throw you off kilter.

The biggest lesson my bout with COVID-19 taught me is this is a wily, insidious illness. I’ve had my temperature taken dozens of times over the past few months, but none of those checks would have caught my infection. I never had a fever, so I thought I was OK. Had I not lost my sense of smell, I probably would’ve just chalked up my symptoms to a cold.

This is how the virus spreads. People who have mild symptoms, or who are asymptomatic, going about their daily lives, not following the protocols of social distancing, wearing masks and washing/sanitizing hands. I do all of those things, and will continue to, even though I’ve had the virus. The only way we can stop this thing is by stopping the spread. And the only way we can do that is by following the rules. Wear your mask. Wash your hands. Keep your distance. These are small sacrifices to make to save lives.

COVID-19 is very real. It’s not a hoax or a political stunt or the flu. It’s a real, sometimes deadly disease, and none of us know how our bodies will react should we contract it. Be safe out there, and follow the rules–not just for yourself, but for the sake of all of us.

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.