Parenting After Cancer

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Hello there! I just wanted to share some of my recent writings about parenting and breast cancer. I wrote this essay, “How Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mom,” for Good Housekeeping. And I also wrote a similar piece, “Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mother,” for SheKnows. Check them out!

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.

Sparks of Joy

Pardon the title–I promise this isn’t about Marie Kondo.

Today I had my annual checkup with my surgical oncologist, who performed my mastectomy. It’s totally routine, but even the most ordinary of appointments can feel fraught after cancer.

Visiting my surgeon’s office is especially triggering, since it’s housed in the same building as the breast center where I had my first ultrasound and biopsy, the first moments I realized that lump was more than just a cyst. Just driving into the parking deck makes me nervous.

But today’s visit was pretty much the exact opposite of that day.

Me, my snazzy granny drape and some intestines.

After the usual intake routine, I was shown to an exam room and given one of the little drapes to cover your bare chest. These always crack me up because they look like little shawls made of the curtains from someone’s granny’s house.

But I digress.

After performing his exam, my surgeon declared everything looked and felt great–no weird bumps or lumps on my chest or my lymph nodes. Great news!

Once I was all covered up, we chatted a bit about my checkup schedules, as well as the challenges of parenting small children (he has a three-year-old).

Before leaving the room, he shook my hand and told me how much he enjoys these appintments as opposed to those first ones when things are so scary. Since the moment he happily delivered the news that my post-surgery pathology was clean (I swear I could hear him smiling through the phone that day), he’s always seemed so genuinely happy and excited to see me doing well.

I couldn’t help thinking how hard his job must be–delivering terrible news on a regular basis, coming up short sometimes no matter how hard you try (because cancer is a beast), seeing women about your age with kids around the age of yours feeling utter devastation at such a terrifying diagnosis. It has to weigh on the soul.

And even though I really have very little control over how my situation turned out, I’m glad to be able to bring him even the slightest bit of joy. Honestly, after all he’s done for me, it’s the least I could do.

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.

Eff Cancer

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As I mentioned in my last post, I’m in an online support group for women who’ve faced breast cancer. And in that group, one of the members was dealing with Stage IV metastatic breast cancer. Today I found out she passed away.

It’s so strange because this is a person I only knew from her posts in this group. We weren’t close. But every time she posted, my heart just ached. She was my age. She was a professional traveler, who’d zig-zagged around the globe, sharing her adventures online. From all I could infer through her words and photos, she was a vibrant, happy person.

And now she’s gone. She suffered at the end. I know this because she would vent her frustrations in our group–intense pain, swelling that made it nearly impossible to even get out of bed, debilitating fatigue.

Less than a year ago she was declared “cancer-free.” She completed her treatment. She did what she was supposed to do. And still, this shit came back. And it killed her.

Normally when I hear things like this, I am awash in grief and fear, but tonight I feel different. I’m angry. So fucking angry. If cancer were a person, I would strangle it with my bare hands right now. I would revel in squeezing the life out of it. I would laugh as it crumbled in my grip.

It’s so completely fucking unfair that this woman is gone. That so many women (and men) have been taken far too soon because of this stupid fucking disease. Not to mention all those who’ve somehow survived, yet live with the detritus that’s left behind after treatment, surgery and the mindfuck that is facing a potentially terminal illness.

I wish there was something I could do. Some way I could make this stop happening. I’m so tired of people dying needlessly. I’m so tired of worrying that I will join their ranks before I’m ready.

Fuck this disease. Fuck cancer.

Groupthink

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Not long after I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I received a packet of information from the cancer center outlining all their various support programs for patients and survivors.

Thumbing through the pages, I discovered I now qualified for all sorts of things from free yoga and massages (sweet!) to makeup classes for chemo patients without eyebrows and eyelashes (eh).

And of course, there was a slew of support groups–general cancer support, caregiver support, prostate cancer support–the list went on and on. I noted there was even a group for young women with breast cancer and mentally made plans to attend once I had some time to wrap my mind around everything.

But as my diagnosis set in and treatment began in earnest, I found no shortage of excuses for skipping the monthly meetings. I was tired. I felt bad. My kid was sick. I had to work late.

Truthfully, my social anxiety was the main culprit keeping me from showing up. So I was thrilled when a friend invited me to join a private support group for breast cancer patients on Facebook. Through this forum, I found the means to connect with others with similar struggles without the awkwardness or time commitment of an in-person group.

I’m still a member of that group today, although sometimes I think about leaving it or at the very least hiding it.

Don’t get me wrong–it’s a fabulous group. The women are truly amazing and inspiring and so kind and supportive. It has been a valuable resource for me, and I’ve even invited others to join.

But there’s a certain level of harsh reality in a group based on a health affliction. Sometimes things don’t go well. Sometimes people die. And when they die of the disease you all have, it’s really scary.

Just this month, one member who had a full response to chemo and was moving on with her life found out her cancer has metastasized all over her body. She’s currently receiving end-stage care. She’s also my age.

Even the friend who invited me to the group had a recent scare with some mysteriously broken bones. After a bone scan she thankfully got the all-clear, but it was another reminder that I can never let down my guard.

Even though it frightens me sometimes, I will stay in the group. I can take breaks for my sanity, but just like I know I can never fully put cancer in my rear view, I can’t let these women go.