Weighty Issues

o-WOMAN-SCALE-facebook

When I was first diagnosed with cancer, amid the fear of death, treatment and hair loss, I managed to have the stupidest, most-vain thought I possibly could: “Maybe at least I’ll get skinny!”

Fucked up doesn’t even begin to cover having such a thought, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t secretly hope I’d lose a little weight during chemo. Getting skinny when you have cancer is not a good thing. It means you’re not eating. It means you’re probably throwing up. It means you’re not well.

Yet there I was, hoping to drop a few pounds. Insane, right?

I’ve never been a super-skinny person. I’ve also never been very overweight. Like most people, I fall somewhere between–not obese, but I could stand to drop a few pounds.

My mother was always overweight. Even as a child, she was chubby. Three pregnancies and the stress of making ends meet while raising a family did nothing to help her situation.

Not to say she didn’t try mightily to change that. My childhood is filled with memories of my mother trying everything–from Weight Watchers to Richard Simmons to that wacky “Stop the Insanity” lady–to drop weight. We ate fat free cheese before they figured out how to make it edible (remember how weird that texture was?). My sister and I played while my mom walked lap after lap around the track of a local school.

But no matter what she tried, she couldn’t seem to shake the extra weight.

And she hated it. I have just a few photos of her because she always shied away from having her picture taken. When we went on vacation, she rarely went out on the beach during the day–staying indoors until evening, when she could walk on the sand fully clothed.

Though she never once did anything to make me feel like I needed to lose weight (even though I went through a pretty chubby period between third and sixth grades), seeing her struggle stuck with me. And it instilled a deep fear of gaining too much weight.

Fast-forward to today. For most of my adult life, I’ve done a pretty good job keeping my weight under control. Sure, I got so big during pregnancy that I’m pretty sure I had a couple of moons orbiting me, but I managed to drop all that weight (and then some) afterward.

But this cancer mess has thrown me all out of whack. Between my oophorectomy-induced menopause and Tamoxifen (apparently, “Tamoxifen tummy” is a thing), the numbers on my scale keep climbing. In fact, just this morning at my yearly physical, I realized I’ve apparently gained two pounds.

Sure, a little weight gain isn’t a huge deal in the grand scheme of things. But when you’re actually trying to lose weight, get in shape and be healthier, it’s a bit dispiriting. I’ve joined a gym and actually go, and I’m keeping track of what I eat, for the most part. I’m actively trying to make better choices.

And honestly, my weight has become more than just a vanity thing at this point. Carrying extra weight can put you at higher risk of cancer–particularly breast cancer, as fat cells have been proven to produce estrogen. If you had estrogen receptor-positive cancer like I did, that’s not a good thing.

So, what am I to do? For now, I plan to push forward and continue the good habits I’ve adopted–regular exercise, more fruits and veggies, less red meat, etc. I’m also really going to try to cut back on refined sugar (a monumental task for someone with a massive sweet tooth).

I’m also going to try my best to stop thinking about the numbers on the scale and focus on ones that matter even more–my blood pressure, my cholesterol, my vitamin levels. Hopefully, even if I never reach my goal weight, I’ll still become a stronger, much-healthier person in the process.

Advertisements

Yes, I’m Writing About My Hair Again

032817-hair-masks-lead

I feel like I talk about my hair too much (I definitely think about it too much), but as a cancer patient/survivor, hair is a really important topic. It gives you something a little healthier to obsess about than fear of recurrence/metastasis–it’s far more fun to research hairstyles on the internet than to constantly consult Dr. Google with symptoms.

This past week, I had a particularly exciting hair development. I went to see my stylist for a routine color appointment. I also wanted her to trim my ends and take some of the bulk out of my hair with thinning shears (I have really thick hair). This was all pretty much my normal hair maintenance routine before chemo.

After doing all that, she asked if I wanted her to straighten my hair. I hesitated–I’d tried this myself at home a few weeks ago and wasn’t crazy about the results–but decided to go for it since her skills are far superior to mine.

Boy, was I glad I made that decision!

Holy moley, y’all! I almost skipped out of the salon. This was the first time I looked and felt like my old self in almost a year-and-a-half. I was practically giddy in the car as I drove back to work. And the pleasantly surprised gasps and compliments my coworkers showered me with once I returned from my lunchtime appointment only further buoyed my spirits.

Of course, I don’t have the skills or patience to maintain or replicate this look at home. A few days after the blowout, I attempted to create the look again myself. I got it sort of straight, but not nearly as nice as my stylist did. But just knowing it’s possible feels sort of magical–it’s almost as though I got a piece of myself back.

I started thinking about my cancer journey through my hair. I feel like I’ve come sort of full-circle. Here’s what I mean:

This was me pre-chemo. It’s hard to believe my hair is almost as long as it was when I cut it just before I started chemo.

And, chemo time. The shot on the left was the day I had my husband buzz my hair off after I started getting bald spots from the clumps falling out. That was my patchy Britney Spears circa 2007 look. On the right is the only photo I ever took and saved of myself completely bald. I know a lot of women who fully embraced their baldness and have lots of gorgeous photos of themselves sans hair. I just never got to that point. I hated it, and when I looked at myself with no hair it just made me feel even more like a sick person.

The shot on the left is from mid-December 2016, about two-and-a-half months after my last chemo treatment. I was also about two-and-a-half weeks post-mastectomy there. I drug myself out of the house for my work holiday party that day because they were presenting me with the Employee of the Year Award. I remember sitting at a table, and a coworker introduced herself to me–she totally didn’t recognize me with no hair.

The shot on the right is about a month later, after I dyed my hair red.

These photos were taken in February and March of last year. March was six months post-chemo. I actually really liked this stage of regrowth. My hair was long enough to style a little, and I thought I looked cooler than I actually was with my pixie cut. Plus, the chemo curls hadn’t come in so much yet, so my hair wasn’t all over the place.

Hello, chemo curls! These photos were from May and August of last year. As my hair got longer and curlier, it got harder and harder to style. I had no clue what to do with it. So I started wearing headbands. They were the only way I could keep my hair relatively tame and in some sort of style. I also fell in love with Not Your Mother’s Beach Babe Texturizing Cream, a product I still use to this day to help keep my curls under control.

IMG_0057

When I’m wearing my hair curly, which is most of the time, I have to do a little work to keep from looking like Bob Ross’ blonde little sister. Though it’s expensive, Deva Curl No-Poo shampoo and One Condition Decadence are awesome. My hair is noticeably softer and less frizzy when I use these products. I also like their Set It Free moisture-lock finishing spray. A few spritzes of this give my hair a little hold without making it stiff.

Another thing I can’t live without these days is bobby pins. When I’m wearing it curly, my routine is to wash it, work in a little of the texturizing cream and pin back pieces on either side so that they lie flat. Then I let it air dry. Or like today, I’ll pull some hair back off my face and pin it back in the center of my head.

One more thing to note: Getting haircuts is a crucial part of growing your hair out. When you go from having nothing, it seems counterproductive to cut what little bit you have. But it is so necessary! I never thought about it until I went through it, but while your hair grows at the same rate on your head, different placement makes it look longer in spots. In other words, if you don’t trim the back you will have a mullet. Nobody wants a mullet (sorry, Mike Gundy). Seeing that precious hair you’ve only just gotten back falling onto the floor with every snip is hard, but it’s worth it.

I remember being fresh off chemo with my peach fuzz head, barely able to imagine no longer being able to see my gleaming white scalp. But here I am. And if you’re going through this and feeling like you’ll never get there, trust, you will, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Year of Growth

0555bbe9368a05bff51437bdc1ff702e_XL

The other day I logged into Facebook and was greeted with a blast from the past via their “On This Day” feature. It was a photo from last January’s Las Vegas Market, my first work trip since my cancer diagnosis.

That trip felt a bit like a coming out party. I’d been off the road for nearly six months, and I was completely changed, inside and out.

Particularly out. At that point, my hair was just growing back in, and I’d decided to dye it red for a change of pace. I had a funky new pair of glasses, and I was trying to figure out how to feel comfortable in my skin again after the world-rocking experience of cancer, chemotherapy and mastectomy.

Looking at that photo, I couldn’t help thinking how here a year later, I once again look completely different. I did a side-by-side comparison for you–these photos were taken almost exactly a year apart, to the day.

IMG_0093

2017 vs. 2018

I can’t help noticing more about the photo on the left than just my hair. There’s a sadness in my eyes in that first shot, and a feeling of trepidation. I look like I want to smile, but just can’t quite bring myself to do it. I’m still too tired, still too fearful, still too worn to even fake joy.

And here I am today on the right. There’s a smirk, but not a full smile. I’m not quite there yet. My hair is wild, curly and blonde. The latter feels like the me I was before all this, but those wild curls seem to represent how I feel about my life now. One of my favorite sayings is: “You can’t control everything–your hair was put on your head to remind you of that.” Ain’t it the truth?!

I have a new appreciation for relinquishing control. Or accepting that I cannot control everything, and that’s OK. Are there days that living that truth is hard? Hell yes. But it’s an important lesson to learn, and even though I hate the way I was taught it, I’m glad for the knowledge nonetheless.

This last year has been one of growth for me on so many fronts. From my hair to my health to my emotional well-being, I’m in a better place than I was in January 2017. And while I still have plenty of growing to do (particularly on that hair front!), I’m happy with what I’ve accomplished thus far. Growth is hard, but growth is so good.

 

Awkward Conversations

One of the things people never really warn you about with a cancer diagnosis are the awkward conversations.

There’s the unpleasant business of telling your family, friends and co-workers. There are the “how are you feeling” questions that during chemo you want to answer, “like a steaming pile of shit just flattened by a tank.” But you don’t because you’re Southern and too polite for your own good. There are the conversations with your oncologist about how menopause is affecting your sex life. SO much awkward.

And the thing is, they don’t end with the conclusion of treatment.

This week, I went to a conference for work. I saw lots of people from the industry I cover who’ve seen me go from a long-haired blonde to a pixie-cut redhead to the blonde, curly mop I’m sporting now.

Because I never made any sort of public announcement about my cancer (because that would have been super-awkward), most of them have no idea what I’ve been through or why my hair has changed so drastically.

One sweet gal remarked how much she loved seeing all the hairstyle changes over the past year. She was genuinely complimenting me, so I just smiled. But inside? So awkward.

Another time, a colleague from a previous job who now works for one of the furniture companies I write about remarked on my short, curly hair. “Is it naturally curly?” She asked, having always known me to have straight hair. “No,” I responded. Later I laughed, realizing she probably thought I’d cut my hair off and permed what was left. She probably thought I’d lost my mind!

I could’ve just told these people the truth. I didn’t cut my hair; it fell out. And when it finally grew back, it was curly. Because of chemo. Because I had cancer.

But like I’ve said before, that’s a giant turd to drop on someone. It stops the conversation. It changes the tone. It makes people feel…awkward.

Just like I’ve learned to talk around my dead mom when new people ask about my family, I’m learning to talk around my cancer. Not out of shame or anything like that, but just to make things easier. When things have been so hard, a little ease is worth any internal awkwardness I may feel.

Tentatively Hopeful

new_year_2018_color

A new year has arrived. Last year at this time, I was positively euphoric for a fresh start. 2016 was one of the worst years of my life, and barring some major catastrophe, 2017 was poised to be better at least by comparison.

And it was. Last year was a pretty great year for me. I had several surgeries and started my adjustment to life as a survivor, but these were all things I could manage. Health stuff aside, things were pretty great in other parts of my life, too. I went to my favorite city with my sister, visited Seattle and Oak Island for the first time, rocked out to a reunited Guns ‘n’ Roses, listened to Andre Leon Talley talk fashion, celebrated my 20th high school reunion and spent so much time just simply enjoying life with the people I love the most.

So, as I approach this new year, I’m…well…a bit nervous. Call it paranoia or superstition, but I can’t help having this sinking feeling that the other shoe is going to drop after having such a great 2017.

I know this is irrational, but irrational thoughts are pretty much de rigueur for cancer survivors, particularly those of us who were already a little neurotic before the Big C wrecked our lives.

That said, I’m trying to seize this year just as I did 2017. I’ve decided that this is the year I “take my body back.” With pregnancy, motherhood and nursing, then cancer and the ensuing treatment, I feel like my body hasn’t been my own since 2013. So, I’m really focusing on being as healthy as I can be. I’m joining the gym in my office park so I’ll work out regularly, and I’m really trying to be serious about changing the way I eat.

I’m also trying to continue the practice of self-care that I’ve dabbled in this past year. That includes things like evening baths, massages, meditation and acupuncture. These things just make me feel good. I’d also like to get back to yoga on a regular basis, too.

I know that I will not always hit the mark with these goals. But, I’m really trying to stick to them and be as healthy and strong as possible. There are few things in this world I can control, but I can at least buttress my defenses in case I need to fight.

Another Milestone

041717_trainingsurgery_THUMB_LARGE

One year ago today, I was on the operating table, undergoing the most intense, invasive procedure of my life–my bilateral mastectomy and lymph node removal.

I knew going into this surgery that it would be tough. I knew the recovery would be long and arduous. But man, I just really had no idea how rough it would actually be.

I remember waking up in the recovery room in horrific pain. I was on all kinds of pain meds, but they only seemed to dull the ache. This was definitely worse than my c-section.

I ended up spending two nights in the hospital because I passed out the first night attempting to walk to the bathroom (I did have help, and I’m pretty sure I scared that poor CNA half to death when I collapsed in her arms).

Once I got home, I spent the next several weeks camped out on our couch, which mercifully has an electric recliner option. As the days wore on, my pain decreased and I got stronger and brave enough to empty my drains myself (blech) and actually look under all the bandages to see the wreckage. Turned out, it wasn’t all that bad.

The best thing of all, though, was getting that call from my surgeon that my pathology report came back clear. No cancer. It’s probably the best phone call I’ve ever received.

Looking back now, it’s kind of hard to believe a year has passed since I finished active treatment (I consider surgery the last step in my treatment). I feel good, I look pretty normal and I’m enjoying life.

Is everything perfect? Of course not. I still have my struggles. But I’ve come a long way, and I’m proud of surviving all this and coming out on the other side. And I’m grateful that I was lucky enough to have such a good outcome.

I never know who exactly is reading these posts, but if you’re someone facing a mastectomy, know that it gets better. Yes, it’s scary and painful and not something you ever thought you’d have to endure. But you can do it. You can get through it, and there is life on the other side.

 

Thankful

Today is Thanksgiving. I love this day for so many reasons. It’s a time to be with loved ones without all the pressure of gifts and such. It’s a time to eat lots of delicious food. And it’s a time to look at your life and count your blessings.

I’m feeling especially grateful this year. A serious health crisis really puts things into perspective, and this last year I’ve learned to appreciate what really matters–good health, the love of family and friends, a place to call home, a job that allows you to pursue your passion.

This time last year, I was in a very different place. I was facing terrifying surgery, and I was trying to find my footing after chemotherapy. I didn’t know what the future held, but I was very afraid it wouldn’t be good.

This is me today. I’m healthy. My hair is growing like crazy. My chemo port is gone–only that scar below my collar bone remains. I’ve lost body parts and gained a bunch of scars. But I’m here. And I’m well.

And most importantly, I’m grateful. To God, who most assuredly saw me through this. To my family, who stayed at my side, picked up the pieces and held me up when I started to fall. To my friends, who love and support me like family. To my doctors, nurses and modern medicine, for saving my life. To complete strangers who’ve touched my life in ways I never expected.

Instead of feeling fear and dread, I’m filled with hope and joy this holiday season. I still don’t know what the future holds, but for now it seems bright, and I am thankful.

The Green-Eyed Monster

hqdefault

Jealousy is a peculiar emotion. It strikes at the most inopportune times, and often, it makes you feel like a total jerk, or at the very least, kind of pathetic.

As a kid, I was jealous of children with better toys, nicer houses and less embarrassing parents. Through my teen years, my envy centered on girls I deemed thinner or prettier than me, and those who somehow managed to land boyfriends. Often, those girls were my own friends, and it left me with a weird hollowness in my gut to constantly compare myself to them.

We all feel jealousy–it’s one of those utterly human experiences. And with social media allowing everyone to project their best possible selves/lives to the masses, it’s even easier to fall into the trap of envy.

Since my cancer diagnosis, I’ve found myself envious of people for weird things. Once in a restaurant, a very elderly man sitting near me exclaimed, “it’s terrible getting old!” as his family literally placed him into his seat. Instead of seeing his struggle, all I could think was, “but how lucky you are to have lived this long!”

The other week, my boss non-chalantly told me about some back pain she’d been having. She was going to do some yoga stretches to work it out. There was no cloud of fear on her face, no panic in her eyes. Oh, I thought, what I wouldn’t give to brush off an ache in such a carefree way.

I’ve been having recurring back pain for several months now. I put off getting it checked out because it’s pretty mild, and honestly, I had to mentally prepare myself in case it led to bad news. I finally made an appointment to see someone last week.

I ended up seeing the same PA I visited several times last fall with my Taxol fever/headache. Though kind, she also seemed ever-so-slightly exasperated (I imagine her days are filled with paranoid people afraid their cancer has returned/spread) because my pain is so mild. But thankfully, she decided to send me for x-rays just to be sure everything was OK (at least, cancer-wise).

So, I scurried over to radiology, donned a hospital gown and climbed onto the table. X-rays are so different nowadays. I remember huge, clanking machines and heavy lead aprons, but there’s little pomp to the procedure now–just hold still for a few seconds, and poof! You’re done.

Of course, the hell is in the waiting, so I spent the rest of the day nervously checking my phone every five seconds to make sure I hadn’t missed the results call. Finally near the end of the day, I got the call–everything looked good. No sign of tumors or fractures. Giant sigh of relief. Sure, it could be arthritis or whatever, but that I can deal with.

It’s at this point that I feel like an even bigger jerk. Sure, I’ve been dealt a shitty hand. But I’ve somehow managed to make the cards work for me. There are so many people who aren’t that lucky, whose scans aren’t so positive, whose bodies continue to turn against them.

I know that I should be thankful (and I am). I know I should just chill the fuck out (I’m trying). I also know that I should stop being jealous.

Everyone has their own struggles, their own crosses to bear. Just as I look perfectly normal and fine now to the casual observer, I’m covered with scars–both physical and emotional–that few see. The same goes for everyone else. Very few people live truly charmed lives free of worry and pain, so the next time I’m envying that seemingly carefree person, I need to remember things might not be so rosy below the surface. Just as jealousy is an all-too-common human affliction, so is pain.

 

October

1455041_10152027204009314_1111059072_n

October is my favorite month.

I was born in October (as were both my parents). I got married in October. I gave birth to my son in October (he was due Sept. 30–I instinctively knew he’d wait to make his debut in his mama’s favorite month).

October is when the stifling heat of a Southern summer finally breaks, and crisp air turns the leaves eye-popping hues of crimson, orange and yellow. The mouth-watering aroma of fair food seems to hang in the air all month, beckoning with the promise of once-a-year delights like sugary funnel cake and forearm-sized turkey legs. Children (and adults like me) delight in the thrill of a ghostly tale told by the warm glow of a grinning jack-o-lantern. And football really hits its stride, with some of the year’s best match-ups hitting the gridiron.

It’s really quite magical, when you think about it.

Last year, I felt sort of robbed of my October experience. I spent half the month sick and afraid (and not the good Halloween kind) from my bad reaction to Taxol. The rest of the month, I was still in recovery mode, trying to get my sea legs after chemo and mentally preparing for my bilateral mastectomy. Sure, I still took my son trick-or-treating and watched scary movies, but it wasn’t quite the same.

This year, I feel like I’ve gotten my October mojo back. I kicked off the month with my son’s birthday on one of those glorious fall days that makes you wonder why other seasons even bother. He’s really into Halloween this year, so he and I have decked out his room, our house and backyard with all manner of creepy decor.

I’ve gotten an eyeful of peak N.C. mountain fall foliage while watching the Appalachian State University Mountaineers take the field (while eating a funnel cake, I might add). I’ve watched spooky shows (I highly recommend Lore on Amazon Prime), drank pumpkin beer and delighted in scoping out Halloween decorations with my son.

Tomorrow is my birthday. And this weekend I have plans to hit up some Halloween funsies with my kiddo–a pumpkin festival, trunk or treat–and have lunch with my dad and sisters. Then on Sunday, I get to hear the amazing Andre Leon Talley speak as part of the Ebony Fashion Fair exhibition at the North Carolina Museum of Art. And, of course, it all wraps up with Halloween.

It feels good to enjoy all these simple pleasures again. Though my mind and body are very different now, on a crisp October day, I feel like the old me.

Hair Envy

2016-08-02_461pexels-photo-54566-large

A strange thing has started to happen–people are telling me they love my hair.

This is not a completely new occurrence. Friends, family and coworkers who’ve witnessed this journey over the past year often comment on my wild mane of chemo curls. They know how excited I am to have some tresses of my own again, no matter how unruly they may be.

What’s odd is strangers or people who’ve met me since treatment and don’t know about my cancer making positive comments about my hair.

It happened the other day at Jersey Mike’s, of all places. I was in line and the shop owner–a chatty guy who gabs with all his customers–made a comment about my hair. He throws out compliments generously, so I wasn’t really surprised by his statement. It was the response of the woman standing in front of me in line that left me speechless.

She told me how she always noticed my hair when she’d see me in the restaurant (I have a weekly sandwich habit), wondering if she could make that cut work for her own curly tresses. She genuinely wanted hair like mine, hair that I’m often struggling to love.

It happened again at work. A new coworker has several times remarked how much she loves my hair, asking if it naturally curls like that. To avoid the awkward cancer explanation, I just smiled and nodded. “I’m so jealous,” she replied.

There are few things stranger than having someone tell you they’re jealous of your out-of-control chemo curls.

I recently got an actual haircut (adios, poufy mullet!), which has given my mane a bit of shape. I’m back to my old blonde, and I’m able to pin back pieces with bobby pins to give it some semblance of a style. All this to say: I don’t really hate my hair right now. I kind of dig it, actually.

But, it still feels weird to get compliments. I think it’s because for so long now, my bald head/short hair has been a symbol of my illness–an obvious clue that something is wrong with me.

Now it has gotten to a length that looks as though it were cut that way on purpose. And to the passing stranger or unsuspecting coworker, it doesn’t look any different than any other short hairdo.

It’s just another piece of the puzzle of putting my normal (whatever that means now) life back together. To the rest of the world, I no longer look like a cancer patient. It’s no longer obvious something terrible happened to me. And while part of me has a hard time reconciling that–since the trauma of it is still pretty fresh in my mind–I’m mostly glad to just look like everyone else.