Writing Here and There

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If you’ve been reading this blog for any length of time, you may know I’m a professional writer by trade. And even though I’ve neglected this space a bit over the past few months, I’ve been busily cranking out the words for other outlets. I’m really feeling the personal essay genre, writing about cancer but other things in life, as well. Here are a few recent pieces that I thought I’d share:

Protect the Skin You’re In for Cancer Wellness

How My Toddler Taught Me to Accept My Post-cancer Body for SheKnows

Why I Chose to Have Only One Kid for SheKnows

You can also read more of my writing here.

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Life Goes On

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Hey, long time, no see!

I remember when I was first diagnosed, I found this really great blog written by a young woman who’d also navigated a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. I devoured her posts, grateful to read the words of someone who’d already walked the path I was about to take.

But then, her posts stopped. Not because of something bad, but rather, because she was doing well. She was living life and moving on.

That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m two years and eight months removed from my diagnosis. I’m almost two-and-a-half years removed from chemo, and it has been more than a year-and-a-half since my last surgery. Not a huge amount of time, but enough to feel some distance.

My hair is getting long–it hangs just past my shoulders when I straighten it. And it’s getting less curly and easier to manage. In fact, when I got it colored recently, my stylist remarked, “It feels like your hair again. It didn’t feel like your old hair when it first came in, but it does now.” She’s right. It’s softer and less coarse. When I look at myself in the mirror now, I don’t see such a stranger looking back. That has done wonders for my self-confidence. Truth be told, while I was grateful to have hair again, I hated it so much when it was short and super-curly. I felt ugly and unlike myself–it was yet another indignity to suffer after what seemed like an endless stream of indignities during treatment and surgery.

My anxiety is a lot better, too. That first year–whew, that was rough. I feel like I was living in a near-constant state of panic. I certainly still have my bad days, but nothing like that. And when I was in the throes of that anxiety, I never would have believed I’d get to this place–that’s what anxiety does, it whispers in your ear that things will never be fine. It lies.

Am I still afraid? Sure. Do I still worry about recurrence/metastasis? Absolutely. But I’m not preoccupied with it. I’m doing my best to keep moving, keep living.

And that’s why this blog has sort of fallen off. It was a place for me to vent about the painful, surreal process of cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship. I still plan to talk about that stuff from time to time, but I feel a shift in myself that I think should be reflected in this space, as well. My blog’s tag line is “life after cancer,” and that’s what I’m going to focus on from here on out. Not forgetting the past, but certainly not dwelling on it, re-chewing it long after the flavor’s gone.

So, hopefully you’ll hear from me a little more often. And hopefully what you hear will be less about cancer and more about simply living a good life.

 

Timing is Everything

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Three years ago, my boss called me into her office to announce she was leaving her position for another role in our company. Initially, I was really bummed because she and I had a great relationship and worked so well together. But then she suggested something that made me rethink her departure: “You should apply for this job.”

The thought had occurred to me, but I was nervous–this was a position with much more responsibility and a higher profile than what I was currently doing. At my core, I knew I could probably do it, but I had a nagging sensation in my gut that it wasn’t the right time.

But I decided to bite the bullet and go for it anyway. At worst, I would fail but show my company I was interested in moving up. I went through the interview process, and it actually went really well.

But I didn’t get the job. I fell just short of their top candidate, who they’d recruited from a place I’d worked at years before. I knew her, and I knew she was amazing and the perfect person for the job. I was disappointed, but somehow I felt this was right.

Two months later, I was diagnosed with cancer.

As I went through treatment, I couldn’t help thinking how much more difficult the process would have been if I were working in the job I didn’t get. It would have been pretty disastrous, to be honest. I realized my gut was right–it just wasn’t my time.

Fast-forward almost three years, and I was recently named editor-in-chief of the magazine I work on. This was the gig I so wanted, and this time, it’s right.

If there’s one thing this disease has taught me, it’s that timing is everything. It’s hard not to get frustrated when something you’re really hoping for doesn’t work out. But I’ve really come to believe that there’s a reason and plan behind why things happen when they do. Whether you believe it’s God, the universe or whatever (or you may believe I’m full of shit, and that’s fine, too), I feel there’s a higher being looking out for me. And when things like this happen, it confirms those feelings for me.

So right now, I’m enjoying it being my time. I’ve certainly endured enough bad times, so it’s nice to be on the upswing.

Sparks of Joy

Pardon the title–I promise this isn’t about Marie Kondo.

Today I had my annual checkup with my surgical oncologist, who performed my mastectomy. It’s totally routine, but even the most ordinary of appointments can feel fraught after cancer.

Visiting my surgeon’s office is especially triggering, since it’s housed in the same building as the breast center where I had my first ultrasound and biopsy, the first moments I realized that lump was more than just a cyst. Just driving into the parking deck makes me nervous.

But today’s visit was pretty much the exact opposite of that day.

Me, my snazzy granny drape and some intestines.

After the usual intake routine, I was shown to an exam room and given one of the little drapes to cover your bare chest. These always crack me up because they look like little shawls made of the curtains from someone’s granny’s house.

But I digress.

After performing his exam, my surgeon declared everything looked and felt great–no weird bumps or lumps on my chest or my lymph nodes. Great news!

Once I was all covered up, we chatted a bit about my checkup schedules, as well as the challenges of parenting small children (he has a three-year-old).

Before leaving the room, he shook my hand and told me how much he enjoys these appintments as opposed to those first ones when things are so scary. Since the moment he happily delivered the news that my post-surgery pathology was clean (I swear I could hear him smiling through the phone that day), he’s always seemed so genuinely happy and excited to see me doing well.

I couldn’t help thinking how hard his job must be–delivering terrible news on a regular basis, coming up short sometimes no matter how hard you try (because cancer is a beast), seeing women about your age with kids around the age of yours feeling utter devastation at such a terrifying diagnosis. It has to weigh on the soul.

And even though I really have very little control over how my situation turned out, I’m glad to be able to bring him even the slightest bit of joy. Honestly, after all he’s done for me, it’s the least I could do.

Looking Forward

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A friend of mine posted this on Facebook the other day, and it kind of blew me away at how completely spot-on it is for my life.

In 2014, I was completely transformed, getting pregnant and giving birth to my son. The following year was completely eye-opening as I settled into motherhood and transitioned to a new role at my job.

Then came 2016. Fuck, 2016. The death of loved ones. Watching friends endure unbearably painful experiences of loss. The election. Cancer.

In 2017, I had to rebuild, mentally and physically. It was a long, incredibly difficult process (and I’m still working on it).

I was nervous for 2018, but it has been a year of growth in so many ways. I’ve gotten to a pretty good place mentally. I still have tough days, but overall, I’m doing so much better. And I’ve achieved some goals in my professional life, and I feel inspired and excited for what the coming year may hold for that part of my life.

So on this 2019 eve, I feel happy. Hopeful. Ready.

I wish you all a fantastic new year full of good health, happiness and prosperity. Here’s to 2019! May it treat us all well!

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

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A former colleague of mine recently got the terrible news that she has breast cancer. I’ve followed along as she shared her experiences on social media, and my heart has really ached for her this past week as she underwent a bilateral mastectomy.

Two years ago today, I was in that same position.

I remember lying in my hospital bed that night after my surgery, suffering the most intense pain I’d ever experienced, when I noticed something. The whiteboard bearing my nurse’s name and call number also held one more important bit of information: the date. November 28.

I stared at the numbers, and then I began thinking about my recovery in those terms. On the 29th I’d be a little better–maybe I’d get to go home. On the 30th I’d be a little better. And so on.

Having cancer and going through treatment really makes you slow down and take things one day at a time. That’s not easy for most of us, and honestly, it was one of the things I struggled with the most during my ordeal. But once I finally surrendered to the rhythm of cancer treatment, learning to take each day as it comes and not think too far ahead, I found the whole experience to be far more palatable.

Looking back, it’s almost unbelievable to me that each of those days have accumulated into two years. I remember when I was first diagnosed being told that treatment would be a process, but it also would be just a season in my life (providing it went well and worked, which thankfully it did). At the time, that was hard to imagine, but in retrospect, it’s true.

Yes, I definitely still deal with the after-effects of my diagnosis and treatment. Many things, like the fear and anxiety, will probably never go away. But life on the other side of this is still good. I know my former colleague still has a good bit of road ahead of her, but when I think about her (or anyone in this position), I just wish them to get to this point. It’s so hard to visualize life without chemo and surgeries and radiation when you’re in the thick of it, but it will come.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes

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For many years, I’ve suffered from night terrors. Or, rather, anyone sleeping in the room with me has suffered from them.

The scenario was always the same–a room that’s too dark (I need a little light) and a recurring nightmare that a dark figure has broken into my house and is trying to kill me. I’ll wake up screaming and thrashing, trying to fight off this would-be assailant, all the while terrifying the person (my best friend on a trip, former boyfriends, my husband) innocently sleeping next to me.

I haven’t had one of those in a long time (*knock on wood*). But I do still have recurring nightmares. Only now, instead of a dark figure trying to kill me, it’s always the real enemy–cancer.

I had one of these last night. In the dream, I found out that there were three new tumors in my reconstructed breast. In delivering the news to some friends, I remember crying and saying, “this is going to kill me. I’m going to die, and my son won’t even remember me.”

I woke up in a panic. Like the recurring dreams I have about my mom, these are always vividly real. I lay in the bed for a moment in terror, until I realized it wasn’t real, and there are no new tumors. Of course, that didn’t stop me from doing a quick self-exam in the bathroom just to be sure.

When I wrote last month for HuffPost about my struggles post-cancer, this was one of the things I didn’t mention. I may have some control over my thoughts and fears during my waking hours, but my anxiety is free to run amok in my subconscious when I sleep. I literally have zero control over it. It doesn’t happen every night, but it happens enough to really rattle me–I always feel nervous and haunted by the dream the next day.

Unlike the dreams that sent me into night terrors, I know there’s a pretty solid likelihood that I will experience the monster coming to get me in these dreams. But until he rears his ugly head, I just have to remember monsters in dreams cannot hurt me.

Tattoo You

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I turned 40 last month. It was one of those birthdays that kind of took me by surprise. Like, how did I get to be this old? Wasn’t I just 19?

I imagine most people feel like this. But while some freak out, I felt oddly zen about it all. My brush with death via cancer has given me a new perspective on aging–I’m simply grateful to be here and have the privilege of getting older.

That said, I do believe I’m having a bit of a midlife crisis. Case in point: I got a tattoo.

I’ve never wanted a tattoo. When all the other 20-something girls were getting tramp stamps and ankle tats, I was completely uninterested (thank goodness). I’ve always loved tattoos on other people, but I never thought they were for me.

But then in the months leading up to my birthday, I was overcome with a desire to get some ink of my own. Part of it was noticing my friend’s beautiful, dainty wrist tattoo and thinking how pretty it was. Then I started noticing other wrist tattoos. That led to actively scoping them online.

Once I’d decided on where to put the tattoo, I had to figure out what it should look like. I knew I wanted just one word, and in a typewriter font. I wrestled with what word to choose, but everything felt wrong or hokey. Finally, it hit me–my son’s initials. Just three letters, lowercase. Perfect.

To me, this tattoo represents everything I’ve created. My son, this miraculous creation of my own body. And then the typewriter font represents me as a writer, and what I create through my words.

The tattoo also makes me feel cooler–no small feat.

Perhaps even more than most my age, I feel old and lame. My post-cancer, menopausal body is not hot (except for the flashes–ba-dum-bum!), and I feel like the lack of estrogen is causing me to physically age more rapidly than I’d like. I’ve got aches and pains and wrinkles and sometimes I just feel like I’m 80. It sucks.

But when I look at my little tattoo, I feel marginally cool again. It’s a tiny thing, but it helps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why Beyonce Made Me Cry

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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.