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.

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.

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. 

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.