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.

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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.

On Shoes Dropping

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Last fall when I was really sick after my first dose of Taxol, my dear friend Carla sent me an incredible book to help wile away the hours of headaches, fever and worry.

The book was “In the Body of the World,” a memoir by Eve Ensler, the writer and activist best known for creating “The Vagina Monologues.” It details her fight with uterine cancer, while giving a healthy dose of perspective in the form of harrowing tales of the horrifically abused women she advocates for in the Congo.

While I related to her words and experiences on so many levels, one point she made really resonated with me above all others. Ensler talks about her cancer diagnosis and dealing with the feelings of “why me?” She explains that having survived sexual abuse at the hands of her father, as well as abusive relationships with other men, she sort of felt like she’d been through her really bad thing. And now, even though she’d already been through hell, she was being put through it again.

Yes! I know it’s unrealistic, but after my mom died, I sort of felt like I’d paid my heartache dues. Sure, I knew there were plenty of bad things that could and would happen to me, but I felt like maybe I’d earned a pass to not have to experience anything really catastrophic for a while.

As Ensler and I both learned, unfortunately, life doesn’t work that way. Bad things happen to good people. Bad things happen to people who’ve already been through more than their fair share of bad things. Bad things happen on top of other bad things. Bad things don’t have a rhyme or reason. There’s no real pattern. And that’s what makes them so damn scary.

As I walk this path of survivorship, it’s hard for me to keep the fear at bay knowing this truth. There are no free passes. This shit could come back. It could come back today, next week, next year. There’s no guarantee.

I made a therapy appointment today. As I wrestle with all these feelings, I know this is the right move for me. Thankfully, the cancer center has counselors on staff to help people like me make sense of all this and try to move on with our lives. I’m excited to take the first step.

 

Smoke and Mirrors

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Searching “vintage magic” to find this image was super-fun. 

In the past month or so, I’ve gotten a lot of compliments. Some of them are on my hair (the chemo curls are coming on with a vengeance) or how healthy I look. But most of them go something like this:

“You are just so strong. There’s no way I could have managed all this.”

“You are holding up so well; I would be  a mess if this had happened to me.”

You get the picture. But the truth is not very inspiring.

Inside, I’m a complete mess. Truly. I just do a good job of hiding it.

This same thing happened 17 years ago when my mom died. I was so composed (at least publicly) throughout the months following her death that I actually had two friends take me aside to tell me they were worried I was in shock and on the verge of a breakdown or something. Little did they know I’d cried a river of tears almost every day, just behind closed doors.

My people are a stoic bunch. I’ve seen/heard my dad cry exactly four times (three after my mom’s death, the other after his beloved dog died). I don’t think I ever witnessed my grandmother shed a tear, despite burying her husband and two children, as well as several grandchildren. Tough as nails. But it’s not that we don’t feel these emotions–we just rarely express them publicly. (I’m sure this is a conversation to have with a therapist one day.)

The truth is, I still cry often. In the car. At night after everyone’s asleep. Holding my baby in my arms in the dark as he dozes off. Even sometimes after doctor’s appointments.

And if you could see my Google search history, well, you’d know what an overly-paranoid freak show I’ve become. I consult Dr. Google on a nearly daily basis. Every little pain or twinge could be something in my mind. I read symptom lists. I read message boards and blogs, looking for people who felt the same things I do but were OK. It’s totally unhealthy, yet I can’t stop.

So, yeah, I look like I’ve got it all together. But don’t be fooled–I’m still a mess inside.