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.

Banding Together on World Cancer Day

Today is World Cancer Day, which I honestly didn’t realize was a thing until recently. A lot of these “holidays” that seem to happen every day are a bit silly, but this is one I can get behind. For me, it’s a day to honor those struggling with a new diagnosis or through treatment, to remember those lost, and to think about those who’ve survived, but still bear the emotional and physical scars left behind.

I was asked by Nashville’s Sarah Cannon Cancer Center to participate in their Band Against Cancer initiative, which helps provide information and support related to cancer for patients and caregivers. That’s me on top in the middle of the above image.

This initiative feels particularly timely for me personally, as I just found out this week that a friend’s mom was recently diagnosed with cancer. I took some time yesterday to send them a long email full of chemo tips, places to go for support, etc. And doing so took me back to that period at the beginning, being afraid and overwhelmed, searching for every morsel of information I could find to help prepare me for what lay ahead.

That’s why initiatives like Band Against Cancer, and organizations like Metavivor, and the American Cancer Society are so important. Information arms us to better contend with this beast, and support allows us to know we don’t have to do it alone.

On this World Cancer Day, I encourage you to show your support for groups like these. They’re doing the hard work to support the people behind all those ribbons.

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 Managing Breast Cancer, COVID-19 and the Winter Blues How to Fight ‘Caution Fatigue’ and Stay Vigilant about COVID Safety How to Stay Active During Quarantine
Mission Health Blog: The Importance of Mammograms: One Woman’s Story

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. 

Yes, I’m Still Here

Whew, it has been a loooooong time, y’all. Did I miss anything?

Haha, what a year it has been. First of all, let me tell you the good news. I reached my four-year cancerversary in July, and I had the last of my annual check-ins with all my doctors last week. And every one of them said I’m doing great, and I don’t have to see them again until next year. Yay!

Now, the bad news. Of course, we’ve all had our worlds rocked by the COVID-19 pandemic, and my little world is no exception. I lost my job back in April due to COVID-induced cuts at my company. It was a tough blow, but it was also the kick in the pants I needed to strike out on my own and become a full-time freelance writer–something I’ve been dreaming of for years. Six months later, I’m finding my groove and enjoying being my own boss.

One of my favorite new freelance gigs is writing for Healthline. I’ve had the chance to share my experiences with breast cancer, menopause and losing my job. I’m also writing how-to pieces for them, like this one on walking to alleviate menopause symptoms.

I also wrote one other thing that I’m pretty proud of–my memoir. I finished the first draft at the end of December and spent the first six months of this year editing and polishing. I’m querying literary agents right now, hoping someone will take a chance on it. Fingers crossed!

So, that’s the short version of what’s been going on for the past nine months. I hope that you are safe and healthy, and I promise to keep this space updated a bit more often from now on.