The Sweetest Word

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I got a card in the mail from my OB/GYN office this week. Just a simple card with a couple of check marks and one beautiful, glorious word: “benign.”

For a cancer patient, this is the best word in the world. It means everything’s OK. Everything checked out. You can actually exhale.

In my anxiety-ridden mind, I’d already diagnosed myself with ovarian cancer before this procedure. I’d gone as far as mentally preparing myself for the news, trying to wrap my mind around what that would mean–more chemo, more invasive surgery, maybe radiation, maybe death. This is what life is like post-cancer. Worst-case scenarios running through the mind all the time.

But thankfully, this is one I no longer have to worry about. I am so grateful.

 

Mother’s Day

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Me, my mom and my younger sister, 1985?

For many years now, Mother’s Day has been a difficult holiday for me. I lost my mom about a month-and-a-half before Mother’s Day 2000, and since then, the day has been a yearly reminder of the huge void in my life.

But over the past few years, I’ve slowly started to change my perception of this day.

In the decade since I met my husband, I’ve joined him in celebrating his mother, my now mother-in-law. From pretty much the moment I met her, she has treated me like a part of her family. And while she’s not a substitute for my own mom, she has become someone I depend on, confide in and love as I would my own mother. I am so grateful to have her in my life.

I’ve also been so very fortunate to have a circle of lifelong friends whose mothers I consider second-moms. I grew up in these women’s homes, and they’ve rallied around me when my mother passed, when I got married, when I had a baby and when I faced cancer. The love these women have shown me over the years makes my heart swell, and I am so thankful to have the kind of friends who gladly share their wonderful mothers with me.

I’m also truly blessed to have an older sister who’s shown me what it means to be a great mom. Dawn is 14 years older than me, and she’s raised two intelligent, kind, successful women, instilling them with a sense of confidence and a strong faith that sustains and guides them. When I think about the kind of mom I want to be, I often look to her example.

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Me and my sweet boy, photo by the amazing Jordan Brannock

And, of course, the biggest and best thing that has changed my feelings about this day is becoming a mother, myself. My son is my greatest gift, my greatest achievement, my greatest love. He fills my heart with a feeling of pure joy and love that I never thought possible. He inspires me to be a better person, and he makes everything I’ve endured over this past year worth it.

Is Mother’s Day still a hard day for me? Absolutely. I will never stop missing my mom, and the hole that her loss has left in my heart will never be filled. But I know that I am lucky to have some incredible mothers in my life, and I have the opportunity to be that for my son, and for those things I am forever grateful.

Notes from the OR

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Pre-op fashion

Yesterday’s oophorectomy went well. My doctor didn’t see anything that looked weird (huge sigh of relief), and the procedure was pretty uneventful. I was home by around lunchtime.

My torso scar collection has grown by three, although these are pretty small (and let’s be honest, my bikini days are over anyway). I’m sore, but it’s not unmanageable–much less pain than my c-section or mastectomy.

I’m not going to lie, it was a little sad to take a pregnancy test (standard procedure) and then sign a form confirming that I realized going through this procedure meant I wouldn’t be able to have any more children. It’s weird because even though we’d already made the decision to only have one child, the finality of all this still feels like a loss.

But what I’m gaining–some additional peace of mind–is worth it. At the end of the day, I have to remember that it’s not about mourning children that won’t be, but celebrating the gift of time with the precious child I do have.

An Ounce of Prevention

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In what has started to feel like a regular occurrence for me, I’m preparing for another surgery this week.

This time, I’m going under the knife for an oophorectomy, which sounds completely made-up but is the medical term for removing the ovaries. My fallopian tubes will be removed, as well.

Because of my BRCA2-positive status, I am at a higher risk of developing ovarian cancer. And ovarian cancers often spread and even sometimes start in the tubes. So, they all have to go.

The procedure will be done laparoscopically, which I’m told makes it much easier. My OB/GYN, who will perform the surgery, assures me it’s a very standard procedure.

I have mixed emotions about it. On the one hand, I’m just ready to get it over with. I’m ready to have one less body part to worry about possibly sprouting cancer.

On the other hand, I’m completely freaked out. Not really about the procedure itself, but more of the what-ifs. My greatest fear is waking up to somber faces telling me they found something abnormal. A tumor. Weird cells. More cancer.

I’m also feeling a bit sad about what this procedure means for me. I was done having children, but once this operation is finished, there is no possible way I could ever change my mind on that. There’s a finality to it that hurts a bit.

On top of that, my doctor warned me that I will pretty much go into menopause immediately after the surgery. I’ve been in a chemo-induced sort-of menopause for months now, so I’m hoping the side effects won’t be too bad. Mentally, this is another one I’m having a bit of a hard time with because I shouldn’t have to be dealing with this now. I’m too young. It’s too soon.

Last night I had two dreams about the surgery. There was the standard stress dream of not being in the right place, not being able to dial the numbers to call and let them know, etc. Then I dreamed that I was going in not to just have my ovaries removed, but to have gender reassignment surgery to transition me to becoming a man. I’d already had my breasts shaped into the most incredible set of pecs I’ve ever seen, and I was sporting a short brown hairdo. Hoo-boy, chew on that one, Mr. Freud.

While I have no control over the completely bananas world of my dreaming subconscious, I’m trying to keep the pity parties to a minimum. Yes, all of this is incredibly crappy and unfair. But, I’m also really lucky. I have the chance to possibly prevent another bout of cancer, to possibly save my life. For that,  I am truly thankful.

 

 

 

 

 

The Bridge

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Exhibit A of why I’ll never be a visual artist.

This morning was my last session with the therapist at the cancer center. She’s a master’s program intern, so she’s graduating next week. I sort of felt like our time was kind of winding down, anyway, as I’ve talked ad nauseam about my anxiety over recurrence/metastasis. She has introduced me to some techniques to help manage said anxiety (hello, meditation!), and also helped me see some of my underlying issues with control and needing to always have it together for others (it’s the responsible oldest/middle child in me).

As part of today’s session, she asked me to draw a bridge that represents my journey, and draw myself somewhere in the photo. That’s the masterpiece you see above (pretty sure my sisters got all the genes for visual artistry in our family).

In explaining my drawing to the therapist, I divulged a longstanding irrational fear of bridges. There’s something about them that’s always kind of freaked me out, particularly those over water (I also have an irrational fear of water I can’t see the bottom of, too, so I’m sure that plays into it.). I told her about the Bonner Bridge that takes travelers out to the Outer Banks–that one has always given me the willies. I mean, look at it:

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I drove over this thing at night once, and nearly peed my pants before reaching the end. 

I also told her about a recurring dream I have about crossing a precarious bridge, usually represented as the old I-85 bridge over the Yadkin River linking Rowan and Davidson counties in North Carolina (I grew up in Rowan county). I’d post a photo of that one, but it was permanently closed in 2012 (see, I was freaked for good reason!), and images are few and far between on the internet.

In my drawing, I put myself halfway across the bridge. There’s a pretty substantial chunk of land behind me, and a smaller one ahead with a sign: “Normal life.” That’s the goal. That’s the magical place I’m trying to reach. I’m not really sure what it looks like. In my drawing, I’m almost half-way there.

Below me, the water churns. I wasn’t planning to draw water at first, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized the water was the perfect representation of my fear. If I fall off the bridge, I could drown or something in that abyss could reach up and grab me. I might survive, but I could just as likely die.

That’s what metastasis/recurrence looks like to me. I could survive, but I also could die. So many others have.

But on the bridge, I’m safe. I’m moving forward. I’m figuring out a way to make sense of all this, to live life without constant fear, to get closer to “normal,” whatever that means now.

Another point the therapist made was all the worrying I do is a way to trick myself into thinking I can prevent something bad from happening. It’s true. If I’ve thought about it, considered it from every angle, run through all the scenarios, they can’t possibly come true, can they?

Of course they can. And that’s where I am right now. In meditation, I’ve learned to acknowledge these thoughts when they pop up, and then send them on their merry way as I get back to focusing on the moment at hand. The truth is, obsessing about this stuff isn’t going to stop any of it from possibly happening. Rationally, I know that I’m still under pretty careful surveillance by my doctors, and they’re likely to catch something should it arise. In the meantime, fretting and Googling and working myself up into a froth isn’t doing anyone any good.

All that is easier said than done, of course, but I’m working on it. And step by step, I’m going to get across that bridge.

Pins and Needles

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In my quest to quell my anxiety and improve my overall well-being, I’ve been trying a lot of new things.

I’ve been going to therapy (that’s not really new to me), I’ve been meditating, and last week, I tried acupuncture.

I’ve always been curious about the ancient Chinese practice of inserting tiny needles into pressure points around the body to treat various ailments. I have a coworker who’s been swearing by her acupuncturist for years, so I decided to give him a try.

Right away, I liked that he works out of a traditional doctor’s office (he rents space there). I’m a little hippy-dippy, but I also believe in the power of Western medicine. Our session began with talking. I told him about all I’d been through in the past year, we talked about my diet and exercise habits, and discussed what I hoped to get out of this treatment.

I told him about my fear and the anxiety it causes. Like my therapist, he said I’m still in fight or flight mode (I am), and I’ll have to work to get out of that and back to feeling more normal mentally and emotionally. I really liked what he had to say and how he approached things–he definitely has a sense of humor about what he does, but he also takes it very seriously and truly wants to help people.

After our chat, we got down to the business of treatment. He showed me the tiny needles–not much thicker than a strand of hair–and explained that I might feel a slight bit of pain when they were inserted. He only used five needles–one on my forehead between my eyes, one on each of my hands just above the bend between my thumb and forefinger, and one on the top of each of my feet. I felt the teensiest sensation when he inserted them–honestly, I can’t even call it pain.

The needles were just the beginning, though. The other part of the treatment was cranial sacral therapy. This basically entailed him holding my head in his hands with his fingers placed around the base of my skull. He told me to just let gravity do its thing and let my head rest in his hands.

For 45 minutes I laid there like that, needles poking out and my head in his hands. As he held my skull, his fingers moved very slightly against pressure points in my head.

At first, I honestly didn’t feel much of anything. I was relaxed, but no more so than during a massage. But after a bit, something strange happened. This is going to sound totally bonkers, but I almost felt like I was floating–I could barely feel the table beneath me. That’s how relaxed I was.

Holy hell, I haven’t been that chill in a loooong time!

At the end of the session, I felt sort of like I’d just awoken from a really good nap–relaxed, refreshed and slightly dazed. It was a good feeling, and I tried to carry it with me throughout the rest of that day.

Did acupuncture totally change my life? No. But did it give me some peace and calm, even for a few minutes? Absolutely.

As I continue my all fronts war on cancer and the fear and anxiety left in its wake, I’m excited to add this new weapon to my arsenal. I know it’s not some magical cure for my woes, but if I can add even a minute of anxiety-free time to my day with it, it’s worth the time and money.

In Dreams

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For the first couple years after my mom died, I had a recurring dream about her.

The dream would change slightly, but would always involve her still being alive, and having left us in some other way. She and my dad would divorce, or she would simply go away, only to return later. I would wake up from these dreams so angry. Why did she leave us? How could she abandon us when we needed her? And then once that half-asleep anger subsided, the wave of pain and grief would wash over me.

I suppose this was my subconscious’ way of sorting out her loss. Her death was so sudden, so completely jarring, that my psyche just didn’t know what to do with it.

I haven’t had one of those dreams in a long time–until today.

I took a sweet nap with my son this afternoon, a rarity these days since he’s hitting that age where naps aren’t guaranteed. In the midst of our slumber, she returned.

This time, I found out she’d faked her death to leave us. But she eventually came back and moved into an apartment in my hometown. She would occasionally text me, or send me a card in the mail, but we never saw each other.

In the dream, I called my dad, asking him about her. He said they’d gone to dinner and they’d had a good time. He said she seemed happy, and he seemed OK with whatever the status of their relationship was. I tearfully asked him if she said anything about seeing me or my sister, or ventured to explain why she left. He said no to both counts. Then he changed the subject and started talking about something unimportant that I didn’t care about–this, a bit of reality since he has a tendency to do that when the conversation hits a subject he’s uncomfortable with.

Upset, I went to see my sister. I asked her if she’d seen mom, and she said no, sort of in an exasperated way, like, “Not this again, just let it go.” But I couldn’t let it go. I remember saying, “Why would she go to such lengths to leave us? Why doesn’t she want to see us? Why doesn’t she want to meet Alex?” She didn’t have an answer.

The last thing I remembered before waking up was trying to figure out why she’d gone to so much trouble. I recalled standing in the funeral home, looking at her lifeless body in the casket–the bruises on her forehead from the dashboard, still visible through the heavy pancake mortician’s makeup. The plastic wrapping I could see around her wrist inside the sleeve of her dress–likely some sort of preservation method since we had to wait a week to hold her funeral because my dad was so banged up from the accident. Was none of that real?

I awoke with that same dazed, angry feeling I haven’t felt in years. And then the familiar rush of sadness. Alex was snuggled close to me, and I held him a bit tighter and kissed the top of his head, breathing in the sweet scent of baby shampoo and wild boy. There’s no way she’d miss this.

Grief is a sneaky beast. Just when you think you’ve got a handle on it, when it feels like enough time has passed to ease the burden, it sneaks back up on you, often in unexpected ways.

I’ve missed my mother so acutely the past few years. Through my pregnancy, motherhood and my cancer journey, I’ve longed to talk to her. To lean on her. To hear her voice tell me she loves me. That it’s going to be OK.

There are some losses you never get over. Some that shake your faith and leave you wondering what the hell just happened. Time passes and you learn to manage it, to move on and keep living. But that grief is always there, waiting to haunt you even on the prettiest of days.

Adventures in Hair Growing

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I’ve always had a lot of hair.

As a kid, I would suffer through sob-inducing post-bath de-tangling sessions with my mom, her hands nearly cramping from raking a comb through my long, matted hair.

In my 20s, I went to a stylist who called over some of her coworkers to show them exactly how much hair was on my head–circus freak-style. And my poor current stylist would sometimes have to take breaks while coloring, cutting and styling my hair during the waning months of her first pregnancy.

Of course, all that changed with chemo.

But here’s the good news (besides that clean path report): My hair is growing back!

And boy, is it growing back weird.

In Cancerland (that sounds like the world’s worst theme park, doesn’t it?), they call the situation I’ve got going on “chemo curls.” My hair is about an inch long, and in the back especially, it is curly. Really curly. Shirley Temple with a Richard Simmons perm curly.

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This really doesn’t even begin to capture the ringlet action I have going on back there.

Apparently, this is another fun side effect of the chemo. A friend who’s much smarter than me when it comes to matters of science explained that the chemo curls happen because even though it’s been months since I’ve had a treatment, the lingering effects of the drugs remain in my system. That’s kind of crazy to think about. That’s also why after six months to a year, the hair starts growing back as it normally would (in my case, not curly).

In the meantime, I have no clue what to do with this mess on my head. I’ve tried all manner of taming methods–texturizers, headbands, etc. I’ve also played around with the color a bit. For a while, I thought I might like to be a redhead. Then I realized, nope, what I really want is to be blonde again. It’s weird, but even though my blonde comes out of a bottle, it makes me feel more like me.

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Like a sexy Medusa robot

So, I went to the salon a couple weeks ago to get some highlights. I was amazed that the stylist was able to put my short, kinky strands in foils. That is some next-level styling, right there.

The result isn’t exactly where I was before, but a step in the right direction to looking more like the me I see in my mind’s eye.

That’s the thing about this whole losing my hair process–in my mind, it never really happened. When I imagine in my mind’s eye how I look, I look as I always have with long, blonde hair. It is truly jarring sometimes to catch a glimpse of my reflection and see how I really look.

I get lots of compliments on my short hair. A lot of the time, I think people are just being nice because they feel sorry for me having gone through this shit. Sometimes the compliments come from strangers, though, so I think they might be genuine. Regardless, while I appreciate being told I look “cool” or “sassy” or whatever, I can’t really love this hair. While I’m very grateful to have it at all, the current state of my tresses is just a constant reminder that something really bad happened. And something really bad could happen again.

So, I’ll let it keep growing. And hopefully I’ll figure out a way to grow with it.

Seventeen Years

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My sister, mom and me at the Outer Banks sometime in the ’80s.

I hate April Fool’s Day.

I’ve never really been into pranks or trickery, and there’s something about this day that gives mischief more of a mean-spirited edge. And social media has made it even worse. Every year there are the fake engagement and pregnancy announcements, fake moving announcements, fake whatever announcements. It’s annoying and not really funny at all.

Of course, my hatred of this day is about more than just an intolerance of childish tomfoolery. My mom died in a car accident on April 1, 2000.

There’s something especially cruel about getting the dreaded call from the hospital that there’s been an accident on April Fool’s Day. For a split second I thought, “is this some kind of horrible joke?”

This year, the anniversary fell on a Saturday, just like the day it actually happened. My sister Wendy texted me in the wee hours of Saturday morning, likely awake with her thoughts, to tell me that having the anniversary fall on a Saturday again makes it harder for her. I nodded as I read her words, feeling the exact same way.

Just as it was on that horrible day in 2000, April 1 this year was absolutely gorgeous. One of those warm, not-a-cloud-in-the-sky days that make you revel in spring. As I sat in my backyard looking up at that sea of light blue, I couldn’t help thinking back to that day so many years ago.

It’s kind of amazing that I can remember most of the details of that day as clearly as if they’d happened just last week. I remember the slight nip in the air, what I was wearing (a pastel striped t-shirt from Old Navy and jeans), what I was doing when the phone rang (lying on my dorm bed, waiting for my parents to arrive for a visit). I remember bargaining with God as I careened down I-40 to the hospital in Chapel Hill. I remember realizing my mom was gone when the hospital staff ushered me into a small, private waiting room outfitted with an overabundance of tissue boxes and Bibles. I remember being taken back to see my father, unconscious on a gurney, disrobed and covered with a sheet up to his chest–preparation for surgery. I remember the stunned voices as I called family and friends to tell them the awful news.

In the years since her death, I’ve tried to mark her anniversary in a positive way. Some years I’ve volunteered or participated in a charity walk, others I just try to do fun things to keep the mood light and my mind off the sadness.

This year, I spent the day with Rodney and Alex. We ate pancakes for breakfast, snuggled in bed watching cartoons, went to swim class, went to our neighborhood Easter egg hunt and played in the yard. Nothing particularly remarkable, but without a doubt a good day.

I think this is what my mom would want–her loved ones moving on, living their lives. She’d want to be remembered–and she was–but I don’t think she’d want me or my sister to dwell. I told Wendy this when I returned her text. I asked what she had planned–a trip to Virginia with her boyfriend to see an art exhibition–and told her my plans for the day. And then I told her I loved her.

I know somewhere out there in the ether, my mom was glad.

 

 

A Letter to My Fear

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This morning I had my first appointment with a counselor at the cancer center. Our session was mostly paperwork and getting-to-know-you questions, but toward the end, she asked me what tools I’m currently using to cope with my emotions in the wake of my diagnosis and treatment.

I told her about this blog and other writing I do, and before I left, she encouraged me to use some writing exercises to help work through all the feelings I’m experiencing now. One of her suggestions was to write a letter to my fear and/or my cancer. It sounds kind of hokey, but I’m going to give it a shot, starting with fear. Here goes.

Fear,

I won’t use the salutation “dear,” as you are no more dear to me than a smear of shit on the bottom of my shoe. You are no friend of mine. You are the enemy. You live to undermine me. To torture me. To keep me cowering in the dark, unable to make a move without worry or anxiety.

You’ve always been around. Even before cancer, you’d rear your ugly head before big presentations, on airplanes and even on days that should have been nothing but happy, like my wedding or the day my son was born.

But now, you’re especially vicious. You’re around every corner, it seems. No longer content to just lurk in the shadows, you parade around in the bright light of day, emboldened and relentless. You don’t care if I’m at work, at home, in the middle of something important or joyous. Like the unwelcome guest that you are, you horn in on good moments, popping up in places you don’t belong. You rob me of sleep, of solitude, of peace.

You drive me to Google symptoms over and over again. Pelvic pain. Back pain. Neck pain. Every little twinge sends me into a frenzy. The old me would chalk it up to sleeping wrong, exercising too hard or eating too much rich food. I’d pop an Advil or antacid and keep on moving. But with you on my shoulder, such nonchalance is impossible. Nothing is brushed off. There’s no such thing as just a little ache. Everything must be over-analyzed, scrutinized, fretted over. Every little feeling could be the beginning of impending doom when you take over my brain.

And here’s the thing–I don’t know how to shake you. I know my good buddy time will help me, but he takes his…well…time to do that. So what am I to do until then? Just put up with you? Allow you to control me? Allow you to make my life hell?

And if we’re being truthful here, even time won’t banish you from my life completely. You’ll always be there in some way, lurking around along the edges, just waiting for the opportunity to strike. You can smell my vulnerability like blood in the water–you know all my soft spots and when I’m at my weakest. No predator has ever stalked his prey with more deft cunning than you.

My only course of action is to face you. To call you out. To tell you to fuck off. To allow the rational side of my brain to tamp down the irrational, obsessive side more often. I know this will not be easy. This is going to be a bloody, brutal fight between you and me. But I’m ready. I’ve fought scarier, more dangerous opponents than you. Ask them how that went. I have reinforcements, and my team is stronger than yours. Let’s do this.

Until next time,

Jennifer