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.

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Looking Forward

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A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day, and it kind of blew me away at how completely spot-on it is for my life.

In 2014, I was completely transformed, getting pregnant and giving birth to my son. The following year was completely eye-opening as I settled into motherhood and transitioned to a new role at my job.

Then came 2016. Fuck, 2016. The death of loved ones. Watching friends endure unbearably painful experiences of loss. The election. Cancer.

In 2017, I had to rebuild, mentally and physically. It was a long, incredibly difficult process (and I’m still working on it).

I was nervous for 2018, but it has been a year of growth in so many ways. I’ve gotten to a pretty good place mentally. I still have tough days, but overall, I’m doing so much better. And I’ve achieved some goals in my professional life, and I feel inspired and excited for what the coming year may hold for that part of my life.

So on this 2019 eve, I feel happy. Hopeful. Ready.

I wish you all a fantastic new year full of good health, happiness and prosperity. Here’s to 2019! May it treat us all well!

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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Beyonce Made Me Cry

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Every October, the hospital system in my city hosts a breast cancer walk/race to raise funds to provide mammograms to women who can’t afford them otherwise. It’s a worthy cause, and unlike a lot of breast cancer awareness events, it actually has a legitimate, worthwhile purpose.

In the years since my diagnosis, I’ve thought about participating in the event. The first year, I was just coming off treatment and still felt too sick to do it. Last year, I was working and this year, it was the same day as my son’s birthday party.

In my prep for the party, I went to a local restaurant to pick up a party tray. When I walked in, I was blown away by all the pink. Several large groups of participants from the event were enjoying a post-race meal in their pink t-shirts. A few of them bore the “survivor” shirts, and one was obviously still in active treatment.

As I stood waiting for my food, I felt a lump begin to rise in my throat. I started tearing up, and I bit my lip to keep it together until I got outside.

Once I got to the car, I let it go and cried. And as I was driving home, the song “Survivor” by Destiny’s Child randomly came on the radio. I sobbed even harder. And I sang along, an overwhelming feeling of anger and defiance pouring out of me with each word.

“I’m a survivor. I’m gonna make it. I’m gonna survive, keep on surviving.”

I’ve been backsliding a bit lately in my anxiety over recurrence and metastasis. My back has been bothering me quite a bit, and anytime I have persistent pain, it triggers a sense of panic that it might be something more nefarious than just pulled muscles or arthritis.

I was honestly surprised by my reaction yesterday. I didn’t expect to have such an emotional response. My tears surprised me, as did the anger that rose up with Beyonce’s words (Bey can get you in a mood to kick some ass, can’t she?). I’m obviously still feeling a little raw, even two years later.

I hope that one day I’ll feel strong enough to participate in the race. I want to help other women, and I really think it could be an empowering event. But I realized yesterday that maybe these conflicts that have kept me from participating are the universe’s way of saving me from a meltdown. I’m just not ready yet.

 

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.

Two Years

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Two years ago today I got the call that changed my life forever. Two years ago today I began a journey I never wanted to take. Two years ago I was diagnosed with breast cancer.

On this second “cancerversary,” I’m in a far better place than I was a year ago. I feel better. My hair is longer and more manageable. I’m not constantly gripped with anxiety.

My doctor’s appointments have tapered to once-a-year checks rather than monthly visits. I’ve grown accustomed to the side effects of Tamoxifen and menopause. I’ve settled into that “new normal” everyone kept telling me about.

I remember my oncologist telling me at one of my post-treatment appointments that there would come a time that I didn’t think about cancer every day. It would no longer be a major part of my life. At the time, that seemed inconceivable.

I still think about it every day, but it has become far less of a focus in my mind. I don’t obsess about it, constantly worrying that every little twinge or pain is recurrence or metastasis. I consult Dr. Google far less often, and I’m for the most part staying clear of the rabbit hole that is breast cancer message boards.

I haven’t forgotten, and I wouldn’t say I’m complacent, either–I don’t know that I could ever get to that point. But I am far less freaked out. And I’m much more focused on simply being healthy and living my life. My “new normal” is certainly different, but it’s sweetly normal, nonetheless.

 

Beautiful Broken Things

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My boy’s shell haul

My three-year-old son loves picking up seashells. He combs the beach with laser precision, able to spot a treasure no matter how obscured or buried it may be. And he procures them with gusto, gleefully exclaiming, “here’s an awesome one!”

Last week we made our annual family trek to the beach, so pretty much every day, he and I trawled the shoreline looking for shells.

But after the first day or so, I began to notice something. While I searched for perfect specimens–symmetrical shells with no breaks or holes or other blemishes–my son was a bit less discriminating. Actually, it was like he was intentionally trying to pick up the gnarliest, most pitiful shells he could find.

“Look at this one,” I called to him, holding up a pristine white oyster shell.

He studied it for a second and then held up a broken piece of a similar shell, “But check this one out!”

At first, I would reply in the affirmative just to humor him, but after a while, I started to realize something. The shells he was choosing actually were awesome.

Yeah, they were broken or oddly shaped or full of holes. But they were interesting. Different. Weird. My bucket full of perfectly-shaped, flawless shells was pretty, but it was also boring. I could find the exact same assemblage inside a lamp at the beach house, or in a prepackaged bag at a gift shop.

Whereas his was filled with cool colors, textures and shapes–splashes of purple and amber, the juxtaposition of jagged edges alongside sea-smoothed curves, shells that looked more like moon rocks than sea life, riddled with hundreds of tiny holes.

These shells told a story. They hadn’t arrived on the shore in one piece. They’d lost their inhabitants. They’d been battered, beaten and carried who knows how far by the currents, rolled up and down the beach as storms and tides stirred them up from the sea floor.

As I watched my son marvel over these imperfect pieces, I began to see the beauty in broken things. The uneven, misshapen things. The not-quite-right things. The battered and scarred things.

We get so caught up searching for perfection–the right haircut, the perfectly-shaped breasts, the thin thighs, the flat stomachs, the smooth skin–that we miss the utter, distinctive beauty right in front of our asymmetrical faces.

Those imperfections tell our story–who we are, where we came from, what we’ve been through. They make us interesting. They make us individuals. And whether we choose to believe it or not, they make us beautiful.

Hide and Seek

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My mom, me and my sister

The other night, my son and I were snuggling in bed when he pointed to a photo hanging on the wall and asked “Mom, is that your mama?”

The photo–or photos, rather–hang in a collage frame my aunt and uncle gave me as a wedding gift. It was my favorite wedding gift, the only one that made me cry–a collection of images of my mother as a baby, teenager, on her wedding day, with us as kids, alongside similar images of me. A couple of the shots I’d never seen, making them the equivalent of long-lost treasure.

My son is only three, so questions about my mother make me a bit nervous because I’m not quite ready to explain the concept of death to him. I told him, “yes, that’s my mama,” and he replied, “I wish I could see her.” “I wish you could, too, baby,” I replied, trying my best to hold back tears.

Belonging to this terrible club I never wanted to join–children who’ve lost parents–is a game of hide and seek. Once you get past those first few years of grief–the all-consuming kind that can take your breath away–you find ways to live with the pain. To file it away in the back of your mind. To find a good hiding place where it can’t find you. Only, every now and then–usually without warning–it pops back up, and you grieve all over again.

My heart ached as I talked to my son about the grandmother he’ll never know. I hurt for how much I know she’d love and treasure him. I grieve the utter delight he would’ve brought her.

Holidays like Mother’s Day tend to dredge up these feelings for those of us missing our parents. We plaster on smiles and pretend everything’s fine, when deep inside, we’re hurting. Grief has found us again.

And while this holiday has gotten decidedly happier for me in recent years, it’s still bittersweet. As I revel in my own role of mother, I ache for the one not here.