Parenting After Cancer

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Hello there! I just wanted to share some of my recent writings about parenting and breast cancer. I wrote this essay, “How Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mom,” for Good Housekeeping. And I also wrote a similar piece, “Breast Cancer Made Me a Better Mother,” for SheKnows. Check them out!

Checking In

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I had my now annual (down from weekly, monthly, every few months) check-in with my oncologist a few weeks ago. This is an appointment that always makes me nervous.

The visit basically entails getting blood work done and then talking with my oncologist about the lab results and how I’m feeling. He also does a physical exam to make sure there’s nothing weird going on with my chest or lymph nodes.

First, the really good news: I’m fine. My doctor said my labs were perfect, and in his words, I “couldn’t be doing better.”

I don’t know that that’s exactly true.

Returning to the cancer center is always a weird experience for me. I spent so much time there during treatment and in the year after. For a time, it felt comfortable, welcoming. It was one of the few places I felt like I fit in with my bald head or weird chemo curls. I knew how shitty all those people sitting in the chairs in the lobby felt–both physically and emotionally. There was this odd sense of belonging.

Now, that is gone. When I walked in there this week, I felt like an outsider with my long hair and summer-tanned skin. I looked more like a caretaker than a patient, and physically, I felt that way, too. I could certainly still empathize with those struggling through chemo and radiation, but my feelings aren’t so raw and at the surface. And instead of feeling comforted, I couldn’t wait to get out of there.

I realize this is a good thing. This is me re-entering the regular world, finding some sense of my “normal” life. Moving on. Living.

But at the same time, it troubles me. When you go through something so epically traumatic as a cancer diagnosis and months of intense treatment, it leaves you feeling so off-kilter. I know I’ve talked about this a lot, but that’s because it’s important and ongoing–moving on with the rest of your life is really hard.

Going back to the cancer center is really triggering for me now. I can almost conjure the sick feeling of chemo when I’m there. Seeing the people there for treatment–with their tote bags and pillows–I get antsy. I know what they’re in for. I know what the next days and weeks hold for them.

While I was in treatment, I always thought I’d love to come back and volunteer at the cancer center. So many survivors do, and it’s really amazing to see them there when you’re going through it–they made it, and so can you, is the message they send. But I’m starting to think I will never be able to do that. I can’t imagine being back in that infusion room again–the thought of it makes my palms sweat. As much as I’d love to help others, I don’t think that’s the way for me.

Instead, I’m turning to my writing. If you read this blog with any regularity, you know I’ve been writing more about my experience for numerous publications. I’m working on a memoir, too, focusing on how hard it is to get on with your life after going through something like this. Hopefully one day I’ll actually finish it!

Until then, I’ll be here, sharing these thoughts and reminding anyone who is in a similar boat that these feelings are normal, and it’s OK to still struggle. I do, and I want to talk about it so others can feel less alone in this process.

 

Three Years

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This morning I logged onto Facebook and saw a post by a friend, celebrating her mother’s triumph over cancer after being diagnosed 12 years ago today. And then it hit me–today’s my cancerversary, too.

The past two years, this day has filled me with a mixture of dread and gratitude. On July 11 the past two years, I’ve relived those awful moments of that day, recalling the overwhelming fear and grief I felt at hearing those words: “You have cancer.”

At the same time, with each year that passes, I feel so grateful to still be here. And I get excited to think of how much closer each year brings me to that magical five-year mark when my risk of recurrence decreases (although, that’s no guarantee it won’t ever come back).

But this morning, cancer was not the first thing on my mind when I woke up. And as I went through the routine of preparing for work and getting my son off to camp, I still didn’t think about it. During my drive to the office, I listened to a podcast and got lost in the story–cancer was nowhere in my thoughts. Until that moment I logged onto Facebook, I actually didn’t think about what today is and what it means to me. For a while, I forgot.

This is huge! And it’s something that even two years ago I’d never believed possible. I remember after I got the all-clear after treatment, my oncologist told me there would come a time that I don’t think about cancer every day. I had such a hard time believing him because at that moment, the disease was at the forefront of my mind all the time. I couldn’t stop thinking and worrying about it. And while I’m still not quite to the not thinking about it stage yet, I’ve made so much progress.

So this is all to say, if anyone out there reading this is still early on in their journey with this disease, I want you to know it gets better. It never stops being scary or sad or frustrating, but those feelings lessen. And you learn coping mechanisms to deal with them. And eventually your hair grows back and your appointments taper off and you start to feel more like yourself again. It’s a process, and as you go through it, the key is to be gentle with yourself and do what you need to find peace. I never believed it myself, but I can tell you now, it will come.

Summertime Blues

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I’m having trouble sleeping. For the past week or so, I toss and turn in bed, trying in vain to settle so that sleep will come. I take lavender baths, I read, I have a soothing ocean sounds white noise channel playing, but none of it seems to help. I usually end up getting up to take a pill to help me rest.

This is not a normal problem for me. I usually have little trouble falling asleep. Sometimes I even conk out before I’d planned while snuggling with my son in his bed after storytime.

Part of my problem is this is the week before we go on our annual family vacation to the beach, so my mind is racing, thinking of all the things I need to take care of at home and work before being gone for a week. But even as I check off items on that long to-do list, my restlessness remains.

Then yesterday, this photo popped up in my Facebook memories from three years ago:

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My husband and me, sitting on the porch swing at the beach. We were peaceful, relaxed, and on the cusp of a complete shitshow. I didn’t know it at the time, but sitting right there, my body was betraying me. Cancer was growing in my breast, forming a lump that I’d notice just days after this image was captured.

I look forward to summer every year, basking in the warm days and beach trips and pool parties. But there’s also a part of me that dreads it now. Not because of the heat (although, talk to me in August, and I’m sure I’ll have changed my tune), but because of the memories this time of year dredges up. Everything about this season conjures a frightening past–the thick heat, holidays we celebrate, the travel I make for work. It all takes me back to that terrifying time of finding a lump and being diagnosed with cancer. It transports me to those grueling months of slogging through my life, bald, tired and perpetually nauseous from the chemo.

When I saw the photo, I suddenly understood this feeling of angst that seems to be following me right now. My restlessness surely in part comes from that underlying sense of paranoia that I doubt I’ll ever fully shake. There are so many little triggers this time of year, so many subtle reminders like how the light looks in the afternoon and how it feels to walk through a stifling day, that take me back to that place I’ve fought so hard to forget.

In my meditation exercises, one technique is to acknowledge worrisome thoughts, and then push them along their merry way to focus on the moment at hand. I’m doing a lot of that right now, and it’s something I’ll do even more next week while vacationing with my family. I refuse to let this disease steal one more moment of happiness from me.

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.

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!