Dear Body, Who the Hell Are You?

A few days ago, I was in the shower and realized that I have not washed my “breasts” since my surgery. When I’ve seen the plastic surgeon to have my tissue expanders filled, he has cleaned the incisions, and otherwise I have not touched them. Despite the fact that they are totally healed, I had the sudden realization that I am afraid of them. They don’t belong to me anymore; they belong to my plastic surgeon. He knows how to take care of them, and I don’t think I do.

And like my “breasts,” I am afraid of the rest of my body as well. My chest, now fitted with a chemo port, belongs to my oncologist. In fact, the rest of my body, considering it does weird things now, belongs to her as well. It hurts in places it never hurt before, and I don’t know if those pains are normal. I find myself asking questions like, “does that mean it’s infected?!” or “is this normal?” on a daily basis. I am waiting for my scalp to start tingling and my hair to fall out. I question what medications I can take and whether it’s safe to wear deodorant. Whether I can use my arms to take out the trash, or if it’s now too heavy and will put me at risk for lymphedema.

I have always been very in touch with my body. I knew what it needed, and I knew when something was wrong. That’s how I ended up finding my own cancer. This unfamiliarity is, well . . . unfamiliar. And scary.

I used to wonder what kind of person can wear a bralette. The answer, now, is me. The tissue expanders feel like a too-tight circular underwire bra I can never take off. I can’t sleep on my side and have only recently graduated to sleeping flat on my back for a portion of the night.

There is something simultaneously freeing and terrifying about no longer needing the an $80 underwire from Nordstrom. On one hand, it’s a simple and positive change to a wardrobe staple: a bralette is significantly cheaper and more convenient than a 32G underwire. On the other, those ridiculous bras were part of what I knew about my body. They sucked, but they were familiar.

This body, the one that wears a tank top with a shelf bra, is not a body I know. I will have to learn about it all over again, and I might as well not start now. So many things about it are temporary: the tissue expanders, the effects of chemo. This is a temporary body, one that isn’t working properly right now. It’s in the body shop (ha), and in a year will come out the other side different.

Even after the chemo, the radiation, and the surgery to replace the tissue expanders with implants, I’m not sure I can trust the stitched-up “final” product. Radiation leaves a 20-30% chance of losing one of my implants in 1-3 years due to complications. And if I don’t have those complications, the implants will need to be replaced at some point, as they’re not meant to last forever.

Before my surgery, I took some photos of my old breasts. I didn’t want to regret not having done so. But when I looked at the photos after I’d taken them, I was a little horrified by them. “Yikes,” I thought, “those are enormous.” The idea of new, perky breasts sounded sort of appealing in that moment, even if I’d never have any sensation in them again.

Little did I know that I’d be losing my sense of security along with those breasts. My sense of knowing my own body. All that’s left of that body is a photo card marked “BOOBS.”

I’m not sure how to feel about that.

A Letter to Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, from a 34 Year-Old with Breast Cancer

Dear Mr. Tyson,

Last night, I spent 20 minutes on the phone with a pharmacist who called me to make sure that my pain needs are covered. Between surgeries and chemo, I had a whole lot of meds from a whole lot of doctors, and he wanted to make sure that I had everything I needed, and that I knew how to take everything that had been prescribed.

There are a lot of problems with healthcare in this country, and I am writing to thank you for running an organization that I see as part of the solution, and not part of the problem.

I’ve been a Kaiser member since my teens. I have always appreciated the ease of dealing with Kaiser; if I have a problem, there’s a clear number to call for advice, and all the doctors are in one place. I’ve also always seen Kaiser as very innovative: I was given acupuncture and biofeedback as part of a trial for migraine headaches at Kaiser San Francisco in my early 20s. I had my daughter at Kaiser Walnut Creek in 2010, where the staff is full of midwives and there are birthing tubs. We paid $200 for my entire delivery and hospital stay, and every one of my daughter’s well checks have been free. As it turns out, she needed hearing aids, and her visits with a top notch audiologist (shout out to Dr. Madory in Novato!) are fully covered. I have always been thankful for how easy everything is, and I’ve always felt that I received quality care.

But in June of this year my appreciation for Kaiser reached a new level when I was diagnosed with breast cancer at age 34. I felt something strange in my breast starting in April, and immediately went to my OB/GYN.

I have a family history of breast cancer (two aunts, two grandmothers, and — last year — my mother), and Kaiser completely paid to have my genetic testing done. Everything came back negative, but I was still put in a High Risk “Clinic” where I was given access to a talented breast surgeon in San Francisco (Dr. Langer) and started on a regimen of early screenings. Dr. Langer took time out of her extremely busy schedule to explain early screenings and personally called me when my baseline MRI came back “funny.”

Dr. Christopher Cappelen, a radiologist in San Rafael, was the one to do my diagnostic ultrasound and biopsy. He was the one who had the very unfortunate job of, at 4 p.m. on a Friday, telling a 34 year-old single mom that what she had wasn’t “funny:” it was breast cancer.

I laid there on that table, tears streaming down my face, telling him cancer wasn’t part of my plan, and he was so, so kind. I look back on it now, and I know that the ultrasound techs knew something was very wrong when they brought me into the screening room, but they thoughtfully explained the number of people in the room in a way that was designed to not scare the crap out of me. I was technically alone, without a single member of my family, but they gave me comfort in a way that I can’t describe. Dr. Cappelen talked to my parents on the phone and explained what was happening. I can’t tell you how much this meant to me, and how much anxiety it relieved over the coming weekend.

It is now November, and I have had a bilateral mastectomy with tissue expanders inserted, and just finished my first round of chemotherapy. When my chemo is over, I face radiation and at least one more surgery. I am Stage 2a. If I hadn’t gotten an early screening through Kaiser, I would likely not have lived through my 40s. What a terrifying thought.

Everyone from my extremely talented plastic surgeon Dr. Gurjala, to the nurses in the hospital in San Francisco (especially Michelle, Vera, Jimmy, and AJ), to the entire staff in the San Rafael chemo clinic, has treated me like a human being. My oncologist, Dr. Greyz, is so forward-thinking that she “prescribed” walks with tweeting birds because studies show this helps chemo patients, right alongside my chemo drugs. Your breast care coordinator, Vicki Landes, has provided me with emotional support, free resources, a support group, and a heart pillow for after my mastectomy. Your advice nurses have made me cry with their empathy.

It is abundantly clear to me through every step of this horrible, horrible experience that people at Kaiser honestly care about me, and that as an organization you are truly working toward an ideal healthcare model. The payment plan you provide at zero percent interest was another shocking discovery I made that relieved a suffocating amount of stress for me.

I am sure that not everyone has had the best possible experience with Kaiser (I mean really, read the comments section of anything, people have complaints about rainbows these days), but I wanted you to know that I, for one, have. I wanted to thank you and tell you that I trust Kaiser’s doctors and nurses, and I wouldn’t want to go through cancer with any other health insurance.

Health care in this country is a mess, Mr. Tyson, but I recognize how lucky I am that I have Kaiser, and I am immensely grateful.

Thank you to you and every single Kaiser employee who has treated me with respect and kindness. Because of early intervention and excellent health care, I’m going to beat this.

Sincerely,

Sara Olsher

The featured image is a photo a snuck of my breast MRI. Syonara, cancer.

Why We Shouldn’t Judge: What is Strength or Bravery, Anyway?

Last year, my mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. She had a lumpectomy and radiation and was very quiet about the whole thing. She put her head down and got through it without saying much of anything. At the time, it seemed like I was more upset about it than she was (I mean jeez Mother, I’d already informed you that you were not allowed to get it, and you were not following directions!).
Meanwhile, my diagnosis has upended my entire life. I’m off work. I’m telling everyone and their dog what this experience is like. Was she braver than I am for pushing through without saying a word? Should I be quiet or attempt to work through my treatment? Would that make me stronger? Or am I braver than my mom for sharing my experience? What is strength, anyway?
A lot of people get cancer. I’m sure everyone reading this has been touched by it in some way or another — if not personally, then by someone you know well. Five girlfriends of mine had/have it (four breast, one thyroid). My mom, two aunts, and two grandmothers had it (all breast). My cousin had lymphoma. And there are lots of acquaintances, too.
Yesterday, my earliest childhood friend came to visit. She had a different type of cancer at 29, and she handled it differently than my mom and I did. And last night, I talked with two friends who currently have breast cancer as well. Emotionally we’re all coping in different ways, and on top of that, we all marveled at how different our treatment regimens are. Three different women with three entirely different treatment plans, all tailored to our specific types of breast cancer. Thank God for modern science and how far we’ve come.
To me, one of the biggest lessons of this experience is we should never, ever judge another person or the way they handle a diagnosis like cancer. No two types of cancer are the same, no two people are the same, and no two people handle their diagnosis the same way. No one is stronger or braver than anyone else.
Some things make my experience worse, and some things make it better. The overall picture is that it is different, how I handle it is different and there is no “right” or “strong”  way to handle cancer, or anything else in life.
  • Getting cancer in your 20s or 30s is more serious than getting it later in life . . . AND I caught my cancer earlier than many people catch theirs and my survival outlook is far better than other people’s.
  • Losing my breasts and all my hair in the prime of my physical life is devastating . . . AND my hair will grow back and I am a candidate for reconstruction.
  • Having cancer when you have small children is different than if you’re single or have grown children  . . . AND I already have an amazing child, and I have not been robbed of the experience of motherhood.
  • Having cancer when you’re a single parent is scarier than when you’re married or have a partner you trust  . . . AND if something happened to me, my child does have a father and wouldn’t go into foster care, which would be way worse.
  • Having a double mastectomy, chemo, and radiation is different than having just one or two . . . AND my chemo regimen is not as aggressive as it could be, so it won’t be as hideous as it could be.
This list could seriously go on and on, and I am making this list specifically to shine a light on the fact that if any of these things were different, my experience would be entirely different than what it is now.
Everyone’s cancer, and their experience of it, is different. It differs by the age you get it, what type it is, the stage it is, the treatment you have, your support system, your marital status, whether you’ve had or want children, and your experience with the healthcare system.
No person’s way of handling their pain – emotional or physical – is any better or worse than anyone else’s. No one is stronger or weaker. We are all different, and we all handle things differently.
In the hospital and at every visit since, doctors and nurses have asked me to rate my pain on a level of 1-10. In the hospital I had a really hard time with my medications. They couldn’t seem to get my pain under control; if a medication worked to control the pain, it caused unbearable nausea.
At one point a nurse came into the room and apologized that they’d had such a hard time finding the right drug combination for me. At Kaiser, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to pain control, and there is zero judgement. I believe their philosophy can apply to anything in life, and I think it’s really important. Here’s what the nurse said:
We don’t ever attempt to judge people’s pain. We ask them to tell us how they feel, and then we alleviate people’s pain according to how they judge their pain. Who are we to say that one person’s pain isn’t as bad as another’s?
Everything in life, cancer and pain tolerance included, is relative to your own life experience. We all have different experiences with cancer before we get it. Having a good friend die of my same cancer profoundly impacted the way I have coped with my own. Had I not known her, this experience would have been different. Having a family history changed the way I dealt with it. So very many things affect how we handle every problem we face in our lives, and no way of handling it is better or worse than another.
So here we are, back to my original question – is my mom braver than I am because of how she handled her cancer? We’ve come to the conclusion that no, she wasn’t any more or less brave than I am.
We are all doing what we can to get through our lives, cancer included, and we’re choosing to do it in the way that feels the least traumatizing to us. For me, cutting my hair short wasn’t an act of bravery; it’s less scary to me than shaving it all off in one fell swoop, or letting it fall out in clumps. Sharing my experience with all of you isn’t an act of bravery; writing is how I cope with any experience in my life, and this (unlike my divorce) is something I feel comfortable sharing publicly.
I am starting not to believe in strength or bravery. We all do what we can, to the best of our ability. What do you think?

The gorgeous flowers in the featured photo were sent along with a yummy candle by one of Bear’s coworkers, Maddi, who I fell madly in love with last summer (shh…not sure if she knows the depth of my feelings). They allegedly came with salted caramels too, but I will DENY EVER HAVING SEEN THEM because OMG they were delicious.</small>

Cancer is Sorta Like SoulCycle

I’ve never been much of an athlete. After 35 years my dad still gets a chuckle out of his joke that I’m “allergic to exercise.” For the record, I’m convinced is totally genetic from his side (take that Dad!).

But a couple of years ago, I signed up for something called ClassPass. If you know what ClassPass is, you can skip to the next paragraph. If not, here’s how it works: you paid (at the time) $99 a month, and you had unlimited access to a whole bunch of different exercise classes. You could to Pilates, yoga, aqua aerobics, you name it. If you wanted to go 3 times a day, you could. It was unlimited. I started working out 4-5 times a week and started to love exercise. I liked most of classes, never got bored, and was open to trying other classes that weren’t part of the ClassPass program.

One of the things I tried with my friend Tuba was SoulCycle. SoulCycle is like riding a stationary bike, but to very loud music and with candles. It’s like extreme biking with a spiritual twist. And it’s hard.

Every time I went to a SoulCycle class, my self-talk went something like this:

  1. OMG I’m scared, this is gonna be so hard.
  2. Hey, this isn’t so bad, what was I worried about?
  3. Okay, this is getting a little harder.
  4. My butt hurts.
  5. OMG what if I have an asthma attack? What if I fall off this bike?
  6. I’m not going to make it!
  7. Turn up the resistance?! NO! I’m not going to make it!
  8. Wait, there’s only 10 minutes left. I can totally do this.
  9. It’s over. I DID IT!
  10. I rock!

I wish I could tell you that I stopped having this internal dialogue and remembered how this worked the previous 5 times I’d been to SoulCycle, but I didn’t.

Instead, SoulCycle taught me a very valuable lesson that I didn’t know before: intense physical exercise is as much a mental challenge as it is a physical one. In fact, it might even be more of a mental challenge than it is physical. Working through the “I cants” is really hard. It take practice – lots and lots of practice – to learn that your body can do more than you think it can. If I’d gotten off the bike, I never would have learned that.

I’ve now had two cancer- related surgeries. One giant one (double mastectomy with reconstruction) and one baby one (I had a chemo port installed). Both times, I had moments where I thought, “I can’t do cancer. It’s too hard. I just can’t.”

Unlike SoulCycle, though, you can’t get off the bike. You have no choice but to keep going. Truly, my only other options are jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge or dying a slow and horrible death, and I don’t consider either of those options. And so I keep going.

I realized yesterday while two nurses were stabbing me eleven times trying to get a vein, that my biggest enemy is my own anxiety. My fear of the future and all it’s possibilities is the cause of the vast majority of my misery right now. I couldn’t calm down, was shaking like a leaf, and kept going waaaaaay too far in the future with the what if’s:

  • What if I have a bad reaction to the chemo?
  • What if the double mastectomy wasn’t the worst part, and the chemo is?
  • What if I have an emergency and end up in the hospital?
  • What if I have an emergency in the middle of the night and I’m alone with Charlie?
  • What if I go through all this and have a recurrence?
  • What if I have to go through this again?
  • What if I have to go through all this and die anyway?

I’m sure we can all agree, those are some pretty horrific “what ifs” compared to “what if I have an asthma attack or fall off this bike?” Needless to say, it’s really hard to stay in the moment and maintain positivity when you’re facing cancer instead of a 45 minute biking class.

But the lesson here is that I wasn’t even having chemo in that moment, and I wasn’t even going to get chemo for another week. In that moment, I was sitting in a hospital bed, surrounded by my parents, my boyfriend, and two nurses, and I was totally safe. All they were trying to do was put an IV in, which I’ve had done dozens of times. In that moment, my biggest problem was my own fear of the future.

I talked to a reiki healer today (because I’m a hippy in case you didn’t know it), and she suggested I look at things a bit differently. Instead of thinking of chemo as a negative poison that will cause me all sorts of problems, look at chemo as a detox.

I already slew the dragon (i.e., the cancer), and I am currently cancer free to the best of anyone’s knowledge. Now I’m flushing my body of any possibility of any remaining cancer cells. When they put the drugs in my port, thank them for doing their job. If I throw up, think about it as expelling the cancer. My job is to let the drugs do their job. Rest, drink vegan protein shakes, drink lots of water, and I will do very well.

I have a long, healthy life ahead of me, and this is a dark valley. I’m almost out of it.

I really liked her perspective.

By the way, I have a new mantra to replace the old one: I am cancer free, and always will be. There’s something stronger about this one.

The featured photo is me, after my minor surgery yesterday. The artistic additions are by Bear. And to answer your questions: the port is basically an IV. You can have your blood drawn and drugs given through your port, but you cannot be fed mashed potatoes (or kale).

I’m About to Lose My Favorite Physical Attribute, and Here’s How I’m Coping

vanity-funny-meme-pink-poodle

Raising a daughter, I’ve always wanted to show Charlie that her personality and her soul are more important than her physical body. I want her to feel good about herself and see that she’s worth more than her gorgeous face & body. I will pray to whomever is listening that she gets through her teenage years without choosing an abusive boyfriend or shorts that show the bottom of her butt cheeks. (I MEAN REALLY GIRLS STOP IT.)

But real talk, I like mascara, bright lipstick, and cute hair. Getting dressed in the morning is like, totally a highlight of my day.

So this morning, when I realized that I likely washed my long hair for the last time in a very long time, I was feeling pretty damn sad.

I previously said that I wasn’t feeling too bad about losing my hair. In the comments of my last post, my new friend and fellow cancer survivor Grace said that losing her hair made her feel like her outside finally matched her inside. I think deep down, this is why I wasn’t super upset about the idea. Right now my cancer diagnosis is invisible, which I’m sure is a blessing in its own right. But most of the time, it makes me feel like something Huge and Life Altering has happened to me and no one can see it. Somehow it feels dishonest, which is an odd feeling considering I’m a total blabbermouth.

It takes about 2-4 weeks for your hair to fall out from chemo, so I made a plan that I thought (at the time) was super fabulous. I’ll get my hair cut into a cute pixie (or who knows? Maybe a wild mohawk!) before chemo starts, get used to shorter hair, and then I’ll shave it all off once it starts to fall out. I’ll do something wild, fun, and, most importantly, distracting. I’ll turn this whole hair loss thing into an exciting party on my head and make it through with as little trauma as possible.

I decided to do this the weekend before I start chemo. Bear’s mom is a talented stylist, and she’d agreed to fly up from Los Angeles to give me my fabulous new cut.

But I start chemo in 9 days. Single digits. The weekend before chemo is this coming weekend. So I did the only logical thing: I had a meltdown and called my mommy.

A few weeks ago, Bear’s mom colored my hair, so it’s been looking extra beautiful lately. (Here we are in my bathroom, me wearing a black trash bag & looking really glamorous. Thank you so much for doing this, Pam!)

sara-and-pam

Ever since, I look in the mirror and I am reminded how very much I love my hair. 

I love everything about my hair (except that it grows out of my head 40% gray, but that’s neither here nor there). Nature randomly gifted me with perfect loose curls, and chemistry gifted me with perfect color. It is one of my favorite parts of my physical self, and I don’t know what the hell I was thinking when I thought I wouldn’t miss it.

What follows is an ode to my hair.

I have a long history with my hair. In elementary school, I was known for my exceedingly long hair — like, past my butt long. Check it out (this is me in 5th grade. Do you like my headband and my tucked-in, oversized tee?):

sara-with-long-hair

In late high school, I had a really short cut. See below (sorry to all the North Salem High folks I’m bringing down with me in this photo – it couldn’t be helped).

sara-with-short-hair

After that, I let it grow, and when I moved to San Francisco in 2014 something magical happened: my hair changed texture and turned into perfect loose curls. I was in heaven.

My hair was gorgeous. It was my crowning glory. I loved it. My ex-husband joked (at  least, I think it was a joke) that he’d leave me if I ever cut it. Check this out (and my beautiful friend Lisa):

sara-with-long-hair-with-lisa

Then a couple of years ago, I randomly decided that I identified too much with my long hair and decided to cut it short(-ish).

On Halloween 2015, I went to see a new and fabulous stylist named Sara who was dressed as a unicorn. I felt like I’d met my spirit animal, and she chopped my hair into something short and really fab. Here Charlie and I are, post-chop:

sara-in-the-stylists-chair-original-short-cut

It was fun, kind of flirty, and something I emotionally needed to do (check out the warrior ring I’m wearing in that photo, btw). I was glad I did it, but I’ve been growing it out ever since.

Bottom line: I like myself with long, red, curly hair, and I think cutting it all off may not actually be fun. It might be traumatizing and include a lot of crying. At this point, my emotions change minute to minute, so I have no clue whether it’ll be The Shit or a Shit Show.

I ended up asking Bear’s mom to work her magic later, when my hair starts growing back all ugly after chemo, which will be a totally positive experience and OMG-the-horror-is-behind-me-and-I-have-nothing-but-happy-feelings.

For now, I have an appointment for next Saturday with Sara, my spirit animal. If I keep the appointment, this time next week I’ll have short hair. But the truth is, whether I keep the appointment or not, this time next month I won’t have any hair at all. You can’t stop the cancer train once you’re on it, unfortunately.

In any case, my intention is to rock my hair loss. I allow myself pity parties that last approximately 5-10 minutes, and then I figure out how to get over it. I’ve already got a VERY soft beanie, fabulous earrings, and a growing collection of awesome scarves.

Unlike the sensation in my breasts, my hair will come back. This is just another temporary style I’ll be rocking, much like my 80s crimped side-pony or my regrettable 90s spikes. I may not have chosen this, but it isn’t forever, and for that I am very grateful.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

When the Diagnosis is Worse Than You Expected

I’m starting to notice that in life, things don’t usually go as planned. For a Type A Planner like myself, this is really, really annoying.

When I got my original diagnosis of breast cancer, I told the radiologist that cancer wasn’t part of The Plan. “My boyfriend and I are working on blending our families, you see. That takes a lot of work and thought, and I do not have time for this cancer business.” He told me cancer is never part of anyone’s plan, but I totally didn’t believe him. Other people don’t plan like we do. We had The Plan AND THIS IS NOT PART OF IT.

The silver lining to my diagnosis was that it was most likely Baby Cancer. DCIS, or Ductal Carcinoma in Situ, is Stage 0 or Stage 1. It basically means that your cancer is contained to your milk duct. If it’s removed, the cancer is gone. You don’t have to have chemo or radiation, because it hasn’t spread at all. So in the beginning, The Plan was delayed but not totally screwed up.

If cancer is a scary movie, DCIS is basically Scooby Doo. You can get scared going into the Haunted Mansion, but at the end of the day, it all works out and you know what’s going to happen: everyone’s gonna be all right, Scooby will get his snacks, and everyone goes home happy and proud of themselves for surviving. There’s no better breast cancer diagnosis than DCIS. They warned me that they couldn’t diagnose DCIS “for sure” until they removed my breast, but it looked pretty good. “Baby Cancer,” I thought.

But it turned out that I don’t have DCIS. During my surgery, my breast surgeon found cancer in one of my lymph nodes, which meant that at age 34, I had invasive breast cancer. We had to wait for my pathology results to come back to find out what exactly that meant, but my initial reaction was two-fold.

First, I wasn’t surprised. I felt changes in my breast leading up to my surgery, and I had a feeling the cancer was moving. Secondly, I was pissed. This is not Scooby Doo. I was promised Scooby Doo and this is not effing Scooby Doo and I really don’t like scary movies, let alone horror movies, and if this turns into The freakin’ Exorcist, I’m going to lose my shit.

So here’s what I know, in list form, now that I’ve got the pathology results back and have had time to talk to a hundred doctors and my boss:

  • I’ve abandoned The Plan. We have no plan and are living day to day. This might be a Big Life Lesson about “living in the moment” or some crap (ugh, Big Life Lessons are always such a pain to learn).
  • I never felt a tumor, but I had one. It was 1.2 centimeters. I’d give it a name (because I name things), but I hate it and it’s dead and I’m not going to give it the dignity of a name.
  • Part of my surgery involved checking my lymph nodes for cancer cells. Turns out, that stupid tumor was already traveling, and they found cancer in one of my lymph nodes. They removed it and 14 other lymph nodes.
  • I am currently cancer free (this felt good to hear, but I don’t totally trust it), to the best of anyone’s knowledge. My treatment going forward is about preventing recurrence.
  • My positive lymph node means that I need to have chemotherapy. Chemotherapy will last 5-6 months. I will lose my hair. I start November 1, which is the day I was planning to return to work.
  • I will not be returning to work during chemo.
  • My cancer is Stage 2a. It is ER+ PR+ HER2- in case that means something to you. To quickly summarize, hormones helped it grow. The years I spent on birth control were not helpful, and I can never use hormone-based birth control again.
  • If I hadn’t caught it, it would have killed me. Hashtag blessed, hashtag grateful. Seriously.
  • I might need radiation, but they’re not sure yet (I’m guessing this is a yes for no reason other than I want to drop an atomic bomb on this problem).
  • My reconstruction will take longer than I expected, which I am not happy about because I hate the temporary tissue expanders I have in my chest.
  • Once chemo/radiation/reconstruction are over, my doctors will medically induce menopause, and for fifteen years I will have to take medication meant to block hormones. I will not have any more kids. Honestly, more kids were not in The Plan, but having that decision made for me still made me sad.

There are two possible timelines for my treatment. As we know now, plans don’t actually work out as planned (grrrr), so these are subject to change:

Timeline 1:

  1. Chemo, November 1 – April/May 2018
  2. Second Reconstruction Surgery, June/July 2018

Timeline 2:

  1. Chemo, November 1 – April/May 2018
  2. Radiation Therapy, June/July 2018
  3. Second Reconstruction Surgery, December 2018/January 2019

 

NOT PART OF THE PLAN.

So how am I feeling about all this? Both pissed and scared, as you can probably tell. But also grateful for the lessons this is teaching me and the support I’m learning to accept.

I’m not thrilled about this being the next year of my life. The surgery and recovery have not been fun for me. I am not physically comfortable and don’t have clearance to do any of the activities I used to do, including drive, cook, or do dishes. The loss of independence — especially for a single mother who has been doing every single thing for the past six years — has been really hard to swallow. I’ve had to be vulnerable, let go of guilt, and rely on my partner, family, friends and strangers.

Oddly, I’m not too upset about losing my hair. For some reason I feel like I can “own” chemo and losing my hair and feel strong through it. I have a lot of cool scarves and a vision of what my “chemo style” will be. The double mastectomy on the other hand, is difficult to feel strong through. I’ve had to spend much of my time inactive on the couch, which is really hard for me. The recovery has been painful and emotionally scarring, and it’s invisible. Security guards are holding elevator doors for me and getting irritated that I don’t run for the door. I look perfectly healthy, and it’s been hard for me to figure out how to turn recovery (which apparently means a lot of “taking it slow”) into a source of strength.

One of the bigger issues I’ve had to work through is constantly identifying my cancer with the cancer of my friend who passed away in January. Before her metastasis, she was diagnosed as Stage 2b, with a positive node too. After she went through the same treatment I’m doing, she thought she’d been cured . . . and learned it had metastasized. And given she’s one of very few young women I actually know who had cancer, that positive node scared the shit out of me. In my mind, that node put me in her league, and she didn’t make it. To put it bluntly, I don’t want to be in her league (and I know she wouldn’t want me in it, either). As time has gone on, I’ve been able to absorb that women with later stages have gone on to live full and healthy lives. But this fear still lurks behind dark corners, even if it isn’t torturing me like it was before.

I think one of the biggest lessons I’m learning is that cancer is a constantly evolving experience. It is terrifying, and battling fear is something that we cancer patients & survivors have to handle on a daily or near-daily basis. There are a half-zillion “what-if’s” and absolutely none of them are helpful. As my wise friend Kate said last night, fear is the real battle. Battling against fear is what truly takes strength, and it’s a day-to-day and minute-to-minute fight sometimes.

So there you have it. My diagnosis was worse than I expected and the road ahead is longer than I expected. The Plan is dead, the tumor is dead, and now we’re taking things day by day.

When I was 35, I kicked the shit out of cancer, and it never came back.

The featured image is basically where I’ve been spending my last five weeks – on my couch, under this gorgeous and cozy blanket from my friend Heather. Thanks Heather, it’s sooooo hygge.

What Being a Warrior Means to Me

This post originally appeared on Instagram and Facebook.

warrior-ring-for-women

When I went through my divorce, I never took off this warrior ring. It was a reminder that I could get through any battle I faced (and there were many). Soon after I met Bear, though, the ring broke. I was devastated. It felt like I’d lost something that had been part of my body for four years. I decided to look at it as a sign that I didn’t need to battle through life anymore, and I set it aside.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I fixed it. That’s how you get through cancer, right? Like a warrior? But when I put it on, it didn’t feel right anymore. I couldn’t figure out why, and then suddenly I realized that there are two reasons this ring no longer works for me.

First off, I am choosing to look at my journey through cancer as healing, not fighting. I don’t need to be a warrior, I need to cuddle up in a soft blanket and let the drugs work & my body heal.

Secondly, the warrior on this ring is facing battle alone. Divorce can be a very isolating experience, and you’re alone a *lot* of the time, which you’re not used to. It is sad, and you need a reminder that you’re a warrior and you’ll get through it. But cancer has been different for me. I am privileged not to be alone at *all.* My friends and family and complete strangers have rallied around me to support me. I am not going into a battle, and I don’t need an army, because I have a tribe.

So with that, this ring is going back into retirement. It’s served its purpose, and I’m grateful for the support it gave me when I needed it. But I’m going to lean on my incredibly loving and generous friends and family now.

Thanks warrior, but I don’t need you anymore.