Why am I Still Crying?

 

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I don’t know what’s right and what’s real anymore
I don’t know how I’m meant to feel anymore
When do you think it will all become clear
And I’ll be taken over by the fear
-Lily Allen, “The Fear”

Today I had a followup appointment with my surgeon. The meeting went well–he said everything was healing up nicely and he went over my pathology report again, reiterating what great news it contained. All in all, pretty darn good.

So, why did I spend half the drive home crying?

I should be really happy right now. Yes, I’m still in some pretty wicked pain, and my chest is a hot mess, but that will all eventually change. I’m “cancer-free;” I should be ecstatic, right? I certainly shouldn’t be boo-hooing in the car.

And yet, here I am. My emotions are all over the place. I don’t know how I’m supposed to go from being the cancer patient back to a regular person. I’m too afraid of recurrence to let my guard down. And every time I catch a glimpse of my reflection in a mirror, I’m taken aback–the mind’s eye vision of myself doesn’t fit how I actually look with my barely-there growing-in hair, pale skin and flat chest.

And even nuttier, I’m actually kind of sad that my time with my doctors is starting to wind down. I’ve grown kind of attached to these people, having seen them so much the past few months. Not to mention the fact that they literally saved my life.

I’ve heard people say that the treatment of cancer is hard, but figuring out life after treatment can be just as difficult. I always used to think that sounded kind of weird, but now I’m starting to¬†understand what they were saying.

I don’t know how to proceed. I’m not sure how to process all of this.¬†I don’t know how to be me anymore.

There’s a flyer in my oncologist’s office called “Finding Your New Normal.” I guess that’s what I have to do now. I won’t ever be able to go back to the old me.

 

 

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Lucky

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It feels kind of odd to say this considering what I’m going through right now, but I am a very lucky person.

No, I’m not generally the one who wins the big giveaway, and I’ve been in a lottery pool for years and have yet to hit it big.

I guess lucky isn’t exactly the right word. Fortunate might be more correct.

When I got my cancer diagnosis, I felt just the opposite. I felt marked. Cursed. Unlucky.

But then a strange thing happened–the outpouring of love and support began to wash over me.

In the days, weeks and months since my diagnosis, I have experienced a level of love and support I never thought possible. From the unfailing love of my husband and family to the constant cheering of close friends to the unrelenting support of my coworkers to the texts, emails, cards and Facebook messages of former coworkers, high school classmates and friends-of-friends, the level of love, kindness and concern I’ve received has truly humbled me.

At first, I didn’t really know how to handle it. I got tired of people constantly asking how I was. I even had the audacity to complain about all the attention (I know, could I have been a bigger, more ungrateful brat?). But once I got over the initial flurry, my heart just swelled with the love I’ve felt from others. It has moved me to happy tears more than once, and it continually restores my faith in humanity.

Whether it’s a container of homemade soup from a dear friend, or a comment from a complete stranger on this very blog, these gestures mean so much to me. They help me get through the rough days, and they remind me that there are so many good people in this world, and I am so very lucky to know and be touched by so many of them.

Good News

Today was a very scary day with a very happy ending.

This morning, I climbed back in the ol’ MRI tube to get my head scanned. There are few things in this world scarier than having a scan of your brain to check for cancer. And waiting all day for the results is no picnic, either.

By the time my doctor called, I was about to crawl out of my skin. But then he said those magic words: “no cancer.” The only thing the MRI picked up was a small cyst on my pituitary gland, which he said was common and not a cause for concern.

I wasn’t expecting it with this news, but I sobbed. The mixture of relief, gratefulness and sheer joy at hearing good news was just overwhelming–in a good way.

I will still have a PET scan to check the rest of my body, which also is a pretty scary prospect, but for today, I’m happy and just enjoying this win.

Birth Day

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Our first family photo

Two years ago today, my baby boy was born.

Like most parents, I cannot believe how fast the time goes. It feels like just yesterday that I was pregnant. Looking at this photo, it’s hard to believe that little peanut is now a rambunctious two-year-old boy who sang “Happy Birthday” to himself this morning.

I remember the day he was born so vividly. I was three days overdue and was induced because they didn’t want me to go too long past my due date because of my age (35 is ancient in child-bearing years). The labor process via induction was long and painful. At first, very little happened. Then I got pitocin and the doctor broke my water, and things got real (and by real, I mean seriously painful). Contractions on pitocin are no joke. After laboring for a while on my own, I could no longer take the pain and got an epidural (a magical, wonderful thing).

Even after all that, he wasn’t progressing enough, and my blood pressure was rising, so the doctor made the call to do a c-section. I was disappointed because I wanted to do it on my own, and also afraid because a c-section is fairly major surgery.

But, it all went well. Even though I was terrified, the moment I heard Alex’s first cry made every bit of it worth it. I relived that moment this morning as I held his wiggling toddler body as he slept next to me in our bed, marveling at how much has changed in just two short years.

So, happy birthday to my sweet boy. I love you more than you will ever know.

 

Hitting Close to Home

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The Modern Love column is one of my favorite features in The New York Times. For the unfamiliar, it’s a weekly essay series that explores the topic of love in all its various forms. It’s often heartbreaking, revelatory and even sometimes funny.

Last week’s essay, though, struck me deeper than any has in the past. The writer is fighting metastatic breast cancer that recurred in her spine, the tumor actually breaking one of her vertebrae.

Not only is she fighting cancer, but she’s also my age. And she lives in my city. She’s the mom of two little boys, and she worked as a writer and editor. The parallels between our lives were striking. Except, for one–I am lucky enough to have a good prognosis (at this time, at least), while hers is far more grim.

I have cried so much for this woman I don’t even know. I’ve cried for her husband. I’ve cried for her babies. I’ve wondered if our paths have crossed at the cancer center. I’ve wondered if we have any mutual friends. I’ve wondered if there’s any way I could connect to her, to tell her I’m so sorry, to give her a hug, to ask if she needs anything.

There’s one paragraph of this beautifully-written story that I keep coming back to. In talking about her sons, the author says this:

Their very existence is the one dark piece I cannot get right with in all this. I can let go of a lot of things: plans, friends, career goals, places in the world I want to see, maybe even the love of my life. But I cannot figure out how to let go of mothering them.

The tears are welling in my eyes right now reading this. She absolutely captured the feelings that a mother has when facing the specter of death. I know exactly how she feels. I can handle anything else about my diagnosis and all the scary possibilities that come with it, but the possibility of not being there for my child is the one thing I cannot bear.

So, I cry again for her, and for her boys. And I hope that somehow she can feel my love and empathy floating across our city to her.

It’s Everywhere

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A strange thing has started to happen. I feel like breast cancer is everywhere.

It’s not just the premature “Pinktober” hoopla that’s already taking hold (Have I told you how I’m sort of dreading next month’s pinkpalooza?); it’s actual people, people who have or are battling this same beast that I’m currently at war with.

I hate to always bring everything back to pregnancy and childbirth, but the parallels line up again for me.

Three years ago when my husband and I first started trying to have a baby, I learned the sad truth about how common both infertility and miscarriage/loss are for women. One in 8 couples have trouble getting/sustaining a healthy pregnancy. I never thought I’d be one of those people who would have trouble, and yet there I was, month after month of disappointment at my door, wondering what was wrong with my body.

What I found during that time was I was not alone. SO many people I knew had struggled to get pregnant or, even worse in my mind, gotten pregnant and lost a child. I cannot imagine such a loss, and my heart just aches for anyone who knows that pain. As people I knew experienced this, or told me about past experiences, I realized this was a far more common occurrence than I’d previously believed. I guess we try to tell ourselves that these things don’t happen often, and when they do, they happen to other people, as a means of coping with the real fear that this terrible thing could, in fact, happen to us, too.

Which brings me back to breast cancer (and cancer in general). Just this week, another person shared her story with me. I had no idea she was a survivor, and though it shouldn’t at this point, it took me a bit by surprise. She seems just so, well, normal.

It’s strange for me to see these people who’ve fought and come out on the other side. These coworkers, friends, friends of friends, classmates, childhood chums–all these people, many of them around my age, who’ve gone through this same thing. They’ve waged their battles, and from appearances, won. Their lives have gone on as usual. On the surface, you really can’t tell there’s anything different about them.

But I know there is. I know they have scars, both physical and emotional. I know these scars are what compel them to reach out to me. I know my own scars are what push me to reach out to others, too. I’ve connected with so many people I don’t even know through blogs, friends of friends, etc., since this whole ordeal began. I feel like we’re all just floating along on this journey, reaching out for someone who can help us make sense of it all.

And in talking to all these people, I realize just how common this all is. We all feel like a special snowflake when something happens to us, but the truth is, we’re not alone at all in our experiences. While each individual case may be different, the general commonality remains. Some days this makes me feel better, others it makes me mad/sad. Today, I’m taking comfort in it as best I can–while I hate that anyone else ever has to experience this, it’s nice to not be alone.

Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

And so it begins…


There are some days when I feel like a fraud. I walk into the cancer center feeling good, my cute haircut bouncing along as I walk. I feel almost as though I don’t really belong there.

Today is not one of those days.

My hair has been steadily falling out for about four days. Big clumps. I was dealing with it OK until my son, who likes to play with my hair, accidentally pulled out a big chunk. I could see the bald spots forming. I lost it.

I was going to get my stylist to buzz me this week, but I just couldn’t wait. So, I had Rodney break out the clippers and buzz me. Honestly, it was oddly freeing.

I took a shower after and felt the odd sensation of water hitting my scalp. It felt weird, but good. I don’t have to worry about the clumps coming out, and my head feels nice and cool in the August heat. 

That said, there’s no mistaking that I’m a cancer patient now. 

Me, rocking the Britney 2007/Patches O’Houlihan

Parellel Lives

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One of my nurses during my first chemo session was pregnant. She was one of those lucky women who stayed slim with little more than an adorably round belly to let others know she was expecting.

Judging from the size of said belly, I surmised she was likely due around the same time I had my son. Sure enough, she told me her due date was Oct. 2, the day before my son’s birthday (his due date was Sept. 30, but like his mama, he’s not exactly on the punctual side).

After making this realization, we laughed and swapped some war stories about surviving the third trimester in North Carolina during the hottest part of the year. As she and I talked, I had the odd feeling once again of being on two opposite, but sort of parallel journeys, just two years apart.

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Oh, sushi. I already miss you so.

The first time I felt this way was during chemo class (yep, that’s a thing) when the nurse gave us the rundown of all the foods we should avoid while in treatment. The list was almost the exact one my OB had given me two years prior when I was pregnant with my son–sushi, undercooked meat, unwashed fruit and veggies, etc. In both cases, the risk of infection can cause major problems, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

There are other little things, too, like counting weeks of pregnancy vs. weeks of treatment, feeling intense cravings for fruit and vegetables and, of course, being hyper-aware of my changing breasts.

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Baby’s first beach trip

I loved being pregnant. And even though I was as swollen as the Stay-Puft Marshmallow Man by the end of it, it was one of the greatest experiences of my life. Feeling a living being grow inside you is almost indescribable, it’s that amazing. I’ll never forget the feeling of kicks turning into rolls and, my favorite, when he would get hiccups. It was all so wonderful (well, except those bladder kicks–I could have done without those).

So, to think that just two short years ago I was over the moon with excitement over becoming a mom, experiencing this miraculous process of creating another human being inside me, is kind of hard for me to wrap my mind around. Because over the past few months my body has been creating something else inside, something I neither wanted nor suspected was there. To live inside a body capable of both these things is scary and confusing. How did this happen? How did I go from one extreme to the other so quickly?

That’s the thing about both pregnancy and cancer–they both remind you that you have very little control over your own body. Sure, there are plenty of things about ourselves that we can manage, but at the end of the day, our bodies will do what they do, whether we like it or not. We can react to those changes and either go with or fight them, depending on the scenario. While I was definitely a go-with-the-flow woman in pregnancy (and I am in life, in general), this time around I’m fighting, and I’m fighting hard. Because that little baby needs me, and I plan to be here for him as long as I can.

It’s Just Hair

I cut my hair this week.

Knowing that it’s going to fall out once I start chemo, I figured it would be easier to deal with that loss if less hair was actually hitting the floor/shower/pillow.

A haircut might not sound like a big deal, but for a long hair devotee like me, it’s a major change. How major? This is the last time I had short hair:

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In case you can’t tell by my amazing fashion and way-cool Geo Storm, this is 1999.

That’s right folks, I haven’t had short hair since the ’90s, when I was growing out my Dharma & Greg haircut (I also had the Rachel–I was really into sitcom hair back then).

I love my long hair. It’s thick and shiny and pretty.

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R.I.P., long hair.

I told my stylist about my cancer diagnosis, and she was understandably shocked and saddened. She’s been styling my hair for nearly a decade now, and she and I have known each other through getting married, buying houses, having kids–all the big stuff.

Since she knows me so well, I knew she’d be able to help me through this process. We decided on a sassy layered bob. I probably should have gone shorter, but this was already pretty drastic for me, so I decided to stick with what felt comfortable.

But first, I had to take care of my roots.

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Sex-ay!

I know it was probably stupid to spend good money on highlights for hair that’s going to fall out in a few weeks, but getting my color done just felt normal and good. I need every chance I can get to feel normal and good right now.

The actual process of getting my hair cut wasn’t as scary as I thought it would be. A few snips and it was gone. And once my amazing stylist was finished, I actually felt excited about my new ‘do.

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Hello, awkward selfie.

I know this look won’t last long, but I’m enjoying it while I can. In fact, I’m actually thinking about staying short once my hair grows back in.

I know the real hair drama is still ahead of me. My stylist made me promise to call her when I’m ready for the clippers. I know that cut will be different and much less fun. But, hair grows back, and right now I’m trying to remember that it’s a small price to pay to meet a much greater goal.

 

The End of Breastfeeding

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I was one of those lucky moms who was able to breastfeed their child. We hear all this stuff about “breast is best” and women feel an incredible amount of pressure to breastfeed their children. The reality is that, yes, breastfeeding is great for babies. But it’s also incredibly hard. And sometimes, it just doesn’t work out. Babies won’t (or can’t) latch correctly, moms don’t produce enough milk, etc., etc.

The first couple of months were really hard for my son and me. There were plenty of tears from both of us as we found our way, but eventually we did, and established a pretty good groove. So good, in fact, that I breastfed much longer than I ever intended to–21 months.

I always said I’d be thrilled to be able to do it for six months. I never thought I’d be an extended breastfeeding mom. But my son never lost interest, and honestly, I’d backed myself into a corner using the boob as a crutch to soothe him and get him to go to sleep at night. I was actually ready to stop, but afraid I’d never get him to sleep again.

Then cancer intervened. Once I found out about it, I stopped letting him nurse on that side. And this week, the other side had some weird spots on an MRI. My doctor asked if I’d been breastfeeding on that side, and when I said yes, he let me know that was the culprit. I knew I’d have to quit altogether soon anyway because I’m about to start chemo, so I decided that day to pull the plug.

My son was not pleased. He’s too little to understand, so he cried a good bit when I told him no. And then I cried because I never expected our breastfeeding journey to end this way. Even though it was certainly time, we were forced to stop, unable to end it on our own terms. I know it’s the best thing for us both, but it still hurts.

Cancer takes so many things away from a person. I’ve just begun my journey, so I haven’t lost the biggies yet, like my hair or even my breasts, but these little losses are still pretty tough. They serve as constant reminders that my life is no longer in my control, and that things will never be the same again.