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.

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.