Hi, friends! My essay, This Is What No One Tells You About Surviving Breast Cancer, is now live on HuffPost Personal. Check it out!
Hi, friends! My essay, This Is What No One Tells You About Surviving Breast Cancer, is now live on HuffPost Personal. Check it out!
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.
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.
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.
Yesterday I read a really interesting article in The New York Times on the conflation of the “wellness” industry with medicine. The piece talked about all the current wellness fads–everything charcoal, detoxing, supplements–and how most of them have very little impact on a person’s overall health or longevity of life.
Even more concerning–because you would think it would be obvious–these things do nothing to cure or prevent disease. Yet many people believe “wellness” products and regimens can keep them cancer-free, make their arthritis go away or miraculously reverse the effects of a host of ailments.
Scrolling my Facebook feed, I’m not surprised so many people believe this malarkey. I regularly see posts about the “lies” told by “Big Pharma,” along with posts touting the ability of everything from marijuana to essential oils to treat and cure everything from anxiety to cancer.
Don’t get me wrong–I’m not totally poo-pooing alternative medicine or wellness products/practices. I’ve tried some of these things, and I think there’s merit in things outside the traditional realm of Western medicine, even if it’s just a placebo that makes me feel better mentally. And I do believe in medicinal uses for marijuana, particularly in relieving symptoms like nausea.
BUT. And this is a big but–I would never do or tout one of those wellness practices/products in place of actual medical care/medicine. Because for one thing, I am not a doctor. I have not studied or practiced medicine. Beyond personal experience and internet research, I have no knowledge of how and why certain treatments work for certain diseases.
Just thinking about breast cancer, I had no idea before being diagnosed how incredibly complex this disease is. There’s no such thing as just breast cancer–each case is different, based on a host of variables–rate of growth, hormone and protein receptors, genetic mutations. Two women with breast cancer may have completely different treatments because their cancers are different types.
Because of that, there’s no one magic bullet that cures all cancer. And to suggest that marijuana or essential oils or some yet-to-be-determined plant from a rainforest is the magical cure that everyone dreams of is at best naive, and at worst very dangerous.
Because here’s the thing–there are people who believe this stuff. They don’t do their research, and they don’t ask questions. They read something on Facebook and believe it. And that person can be in great harm if they read that your essential oil is the only thing they need to treat their cancer.
Listen, I get it–chemo is scary, and it sucks. And sometimes it doesn’t work. But a lot of the time, it does. It did for me. And so I get a little bent out of shape when I see someone with no medical training spouting half-truths or outright lies on the internet to help sell their multi-level marketing company’s products.
It’s a slap in the face to anyone who’s undergone chemotherapy–essentially pointing out you must be an idiot to allow that “poison” into your body. And it’s discounting the years of research and work done to create these drugs and bring them to patients.
The old adage says if something seems too good to be true, it probably is. I feel like that’s more applicable than ever, and I really hope people will keep that in mind, think critically, and ask questions and demand science-based answers. And stop sharing dumb shit on the internet!
**steps off soapbox
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.
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.
Even though it’s technically still spring, it’s pretty much summer in the South. The temperatures have already hit 90 more than once, and afternoon showers mean the humidity levels stay high. Hot and muggy–that’s the forecast for the next five months.
Last summer, with my chemo curls in full effect, I struggled to keep my hair from becoming a frizzy mess atop my head. Headbands were my go-to, along with a healthy dose of texturizing cream and some hairspray.
This summer, I actually have a decent bit of length to my hair. It’s actually at or maybe even a little longer than when I got it cut before beginning chemo:
But while it’s longer, it’s certainly not straighter. My chemo curls are still in full effect. And to be perfectly honest, I am sick of them.
Sure, my curls are cute. And I’ve tried my best to rock them proudly. I get a lot of compliments on them. But, again, if we’re being totally honest here, I kind of hate them.
The reasoning is two-fold. For one, they’re a pain in the ass to maintain. I have to use a special shampoo and conditioner to help deflate the frizz. Blow-drying is pretty much impossible, because that just leaves me with a poofy mess. So, to wear it curly, I usually wash it on the weekend (I’m a once- or twice-a-week hair washer), apply some texturizer and let it mostly air dry. And then I usually have to pin back part of it to keep it from being huge.
The other option is to straighten it, which is even more time-consuming–it takes at least an hour to wash, blow dry and flat-iron it into submission. And even then, I never get it totally straight. Those chemo curls fight pretty hard.
The second reason I hate my curls: They’re not me. I never had curly hair. I never wanted curly hair. The only reason I have curly hair is because something terrible happened to me. And so, they’re like a constant reminder that I had cancer. That I went through chemo. That I could go through all of that again.
I’ve done the whole “having fun with different hair” thing. I wore the pixie and dyed it red. I rocked funky headbands and barrettes. And I became a curly-haired gal for months.
But I’m over it. So that’s why I decided to get a Brazilian blowout.
I got the idea from a naturally curly-haired friend at work who recently got a keratin treatment. Her curls transformed to smooth, straight locks, and I was jealous.
So, I brought it up with my stylist at my last color appointment, and she told me she could give me that same look with the Brazilian blowout technique. It’s essentially a keratin treatment that relaxes the hair and reduces frizz. And the best part? It can last up to 12 weeks. Hells yeah.
Last week, I gave it a try. The process was pretty simple. My stylist first washed my hair with a clarifying shampoo to remove any buildup. Then she applied the solution and blow-dried my hair, using a round brush to straighten as she went. Then she used a flat iron to finish, leaving it bone-straight.
And then she washed it again. Weird, I know, but that’s part of the process. After washing and conditioning, she repeated the blow-drying process. Only this time, my hair was dry and straight in what seemed like a matter of minutes. She then flat-ironed it just a bit for extra smoothing, but honestly, that wasn’t totally necessary. Y’all, my hair is SO straight–even in the back, which is a really hard place for me to totally straighten.
I went three days of sleeping on it, walking around in the rain and humidity, and it stayed pretty straight. By the third day, I decided to test out the washing and styling process.
I did purchase the Brazilian Blowout shampoo and conditioner from my salon, but I don’t know for certain that it makes a ton of difference.
After washing it, I noticed my wet hair was slightly wavy on the ends, but nothing like the ringlets that normally form after wetting it. I combed it out and did my usual blow dry straightening with a round brush. I noticed immediately that it was far less poofy as I dried it, and it was straightening much faster and easier. Once I’d blow dried the hair (in sections–I use clips to hold the upper layers to get the hair underneath), I went over it with my flat iron. This also was much easier and it seemed to get much straighter than usual.
Here’s how it looked after I finished styling it myself:
I didn’t get it quite as straight as my stylist, but pretty darn close. Each day since I’ve had to straighten it just a touch in the morning after showering (I haven’t washed it again, but it still gets a little damp in the shower). And I just took a walk outside in the super-thick humidity, and it has taken on an ever-so-slight wave, but for the most part, it’s still straight.
Y’all, this is a revelation. This is about more than just my hair. It’s like I got a piece of my old self back–I feel like me again. And with all the changes I’ve experienced in the past two years, that is a very welcome feeling.
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.
Breast Cancer Advocacy, Education, and Community
Promoting awareness and heightened appreciation for excellence in the literary arts throughout the Piedmont Region
Wait. What? Grief, loss, survival.
My cancer fighting journey
A journalist's journey through life.
Not only still alive, but actually LIVING - despite cancer!
a restless state of being
A gender journey with my past husband and my present wife
Just Show Up