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.

 

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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.

Eighteen

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The strangest thing happened today.

It’s Easter, so we rose relatively early this morning to see if the bunny visited our house last night (he did). We enjoyed a leisurely breakfast. We played outside in the balmy spring sun with my son’s new Easter goodies.

It wasn’t until late in the morning when I checked Facebook on my phone that it hit me–today is April 1.

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This photo showed up in my feed via the “On This Day” feature. Of course, I shared this two years ago today. It’s April 1, the day my mom died.

For the last 17 years, I’ve dreaded this day. This box on the calendar, with its power to transport me to the past, to the single worst day of my life (yes, even trumping the day of my diagnosis). This date that changed my life and my family forever.

But this morning, I spent hours blissfully unaware. I blame the fact that Easter fell on April 1 this year, providing a happy distraction. For a few moments, it felt like just another day, and not a reminder of what I’ve lost.

I think this would make my mother happy. I think she’d smile seeing me play with my son, enjoying every moment of his joy over his Easter basket, and my elation at being able to provide that joy.

I think she’d be thrilled to see me spending part of this day at my in-laws’ house, sitting in the sun with my mother-in-law, who loves me like one of her own. I think it would do her heart good to know that I have these incredible people–who’ve welcomed not only me, but my entire family into theirs–in my life.

Briefly forgetting what today is doesn’t say anything about my grief or how much I still miss my mother. What it does remind me is how incredibly blessed I am to have this family and this life that can produce enough joy to, even if momentarily, blot out the searing pain of her loss. I think that’s something that would make her very happy, indeed.

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

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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.

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.

October

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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.

Re-entering the World

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This past weekend, I had my 20-year high school reunion. I’m one of those weirdos who actually enjoyed high school (at least, as much as a person can), and I’ve even stayed friends with a core group from those days.

 

At points when we should’ve gone our separate ways, life has thrown curve balls that brought us back together. Our freshman year of college, a dear friend’s younger brother died in a car accident. My mom passed similarly in the middle of our college years, and several other friends lost parents or close loved ones in the couple of years following college graduation. We all rallied around one another in those times of strife, drying tears, offering shoulders to lean on and laughs to help dull the pain.

And from there we continued to see each other–weddings and all the accompanying hoopla turned into baby showers and christenings. Sure, sometimes years will pass before we see each other, but we’re the type of friends who can get together and it feels like no time has elapsed since our last meeting. We just pick right up where we left off.

As I danced and laughed and reminisced with them this past weekend, I experienced that strange feeling of being back with a group that was my world for a time, even though they no longer hold that status in my life. It’s strange to return to a place/group of people you once thought of as a sort of home when that’s no longer your day-to-day neighborhood.

I had this same sensation last week at the cancer center. For so much of this past year, that place has felt oddly like home to me. Its inhabitants–the doctors, nurses, staffers and fellow patients–they were my people. Just like my high school friends, they get me in a way few do. They understand a very important time in my life the way no one else really can.

But as I sat in the waiting room, my mass of chemo curls spilling around a headband’s tenuous grasp, I began to realize I no longer belong there the way I once did. And as my oncologist went over my whistle-clean lab work and told me I was going to be just fine, I felt this even more acutely. I don’t look sick. I don’t feel sick. I’m not sick.

And just like that guy who graduated five years ago and still hangs out at high school parties, I need to move on. I need to re-enter the world. I need to take cancer patient off my list.

My high school experience is a big piece of who I am, and those friends will always be a part of my life. Same thing with cancer. This disease has changed who I am. There will never be a time that I don’t return to this place, never be a time that it’s not part of my life. Just as my adolescent years helped shape me, so has my bout with this disease.

I don’t want to go back to high school or my teen years, and I don’t want to go back to being a full-time patient. But knowing those who were there for me during both those times will be there for me now, and in the future if I need them, is a great comfort.

One Year

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One year ago today, my life changed forever.

One year ago today, I got the news no one ever wants to get: “You have cancer.”

My first “cancerversary,” as it’s called by so many who’ve dealt with this nasty disease, felt almost like groundhog day. Last year, when I got the news, I was en route to Chicago for a business trip. The thing is, it’s a trip I make every year at the same time. So, once again, I’m in Chicago. And I feel almost like I’ve been reliving the events of last year.

Just like last year, I spent my layover in the Atlanta airport. And I spent today walking the furniture market in Chicago. I’m staying in the same hotel. Even the weather is eerily the same–hot and stormy.

Looking around this hotel room that looks exactly like the one I retreated to last year, those feelings of terror and despair feel closer to me than they have in a while. And yet, in this same space, I remember good things, too.

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The Chicago sky, last year

In that first awful night after getting the news, I holed up in my room to wallow. I cried–my body heaving with sobs that left me practically breathless. And then, I began to pray.

I’m not a particularly religious person. I don’t go to church. I don’t read the Bible regularly. But, I’m definitely a spiritual person. I pray a lot. I talk to God. And I have a pretty strong relationship with him.

That night, I begged. I bargained. I reasoned. “Please don’t take me now. My son still needs me. Please let me see him grow up.”

And in the midst of my agony, I suddenly felt calm. A strange feeling of peace washed over me, and somehow, I knew everything would be OK.

While some will say it was merely my mind playing tricks on me or whatever, I truly felt it was God letting me know things would be alright.

I’ve carried that moment with me throughout this past year. When things got really hard, and I feared the absolute worst, I returned to that night in this hotel. That moment of peace has sustained me through this ordeal. And though I’m still fearful, I keep that peace with me to calm the worry and anxiety that simmers deep within.

I’ve lost a lot this past year: My breasts, my hair, my ovaries, my peace of mind. I lost my innocence in the sense that I no longer trust my own body. It has betrayed me, and I’ll never be able to feel an ache or pain without that voice in my head wondering if it’s a sign of something much worse.

But I’m still here. And while I’ve lost so much, I’ve gained so many things, too. Perspective. A new sense of gratitude. A renewed appreciation for the gift of life. The knowledge that I am stronger than I ever thought.

Today has certainly been bittersweet, but mostly, it’s been a good day. I’m thankful to be here. To be well. To be alive. And for today, that’s enough.