Making Peace with Cancer

Today was my last day of radiation, and for all intents and purposes my “active treatment” is over. No more chemo, no more radiation; the hardest part of this “journey” is (hopefully) behind me. I keep thinking I should be celebrating or feel more of a sense that things are over.

I realized this afternoon that I don’t feel like cancer is over because I don’t think cancer ever ends. And I don’t mean that in a depressing way. I just mean that cancer has become a part of who I am, and there’s no putting it behind me. You can’t ever be done with cancer, because it changes who you are, fundamentally.

The word “survivor” implies that the thing you survived is now over.  That was hard, but I survived it. Like it’s a marathon or something. The truth is, at this point I am no closer to or further from death than anyone else is. I have faced my own mortality a lot younger than most people, and I’ve learned a heck of a lot as a result. But every day I go to bed alive, I have survived, just like you have.

Accepting that cancer has been part of your life is scary. Once it’s been there, it never leaves, and there’s a real loss of control there. There is no going back to “normal.” Normal is gone now. Cancer changes who you are, physically and emotionally, forever. Something you did not choose changed you forever, and if you don’t like how it’s changed you or you don’t quite know how it’s changed you, it can be a real struggle. You cannot ignore it, and you have to find a new identity. You can fight that, but it’s the truth. At some point, you have to make peace with cancer.

I have found peace in my cancer diagnosis, because I truly believe that my purpose in life is to conquer some really hard stuff, so that I can help other people do it, too. It has changed the way that I approach my life for the rest of my life, and I am so grateful for that. It has made me more comfortable in my skin.

Every moment that I have, I am living to the fullest. And I don’t mean that in the cheesy inspirational-quotes-on-Facebook sort of way. I mean, if I am laying around on the couch, I am 100% laying on the couch. I am totally okay with that choice, and I am really enjoying it. I am not making myself feel guilty for what I “should” be doing. If someone else has a problem with my laying on the couch, I truly don’t care. My life is much easier and more peaceful now that I’ve mentally gotten out of my own way.

And quite honestly, I have cancer to thank for that.


The featured image is me on the radiation machine (a photo Bear captured covertly, as it was totally against the rules). Crazy, right?

What Happened to My New Relationship When I Was Diagnosed with Cancer


Have you ever noticed how quickly people fall in love during action movies? They’re brought together during times of extreme stress, and at the end they live happily ever after, simply because they survived a hijacked bus or a zombie apocalypse.

But the truth is, healthy relationships aren’t based on surviving a common disaster. What happens when you get off the bus and Macho Man doesn’t help out around the house? Or you try to have a kid, and you realize that you can’t stand his parenting style?

There are other pitfalls to relationships that start this way, too. When you don’t like someone’s behavior, it’s easy to attribute it to their heightened level of stress. “Oh, I really wish Macho Man would stop shooting people . . . he’s not a killer, though, he’s just being chased by the FBI, it’s not his fault.”

But sometimes (in fact, most of the time I’d venture to guess) people show their true colors during times of stress. If someone calls you names because they’re having a hard time at work, they’re probably a dick.

The truth is, a lot life is dealing with stress. Work is stressful, money is stressful, kids are stressful. At some point in a long-term relationship, you have to face the death of a loved one. One of you might face a life-threatening illness. If your partner’s behavior makes the situation worse instead of standing beside you and working cooperatively, you’ve got a problem.

When you get married, you pledge to care for one another “in sickness and in health,” hoping that the “sickness” part doesn’t get much worse than a man-cold. But in my case, I’d been dating Bear less than a year when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. We hadn’t taken any oaths.

I’m not sure how I expected Bear to react to my diagnosis, but he had a much stronger reaction than I expected. In part, I think my own denial made me think “this isn’t really cancer, so why is everyone so upset?” I know him and his values, so I didn’t expect him to leave me, but I definitely didn’t expect his immediate level of total dedication.

The first things he said to me the night I was diagnosed were: 1) I will find you beautiful, no matter what, 2) You will not fight this alone.

Since then, his sense of humor, positivity, and kindness have helped keep me afloat. When I was trying to eat a mostly plant-based diet, he brought me a bouquet of vegetables instead of flowers. He slapped a “Fight Like a Girl” sticker on the back of his car and sports a “Fight Together” shirt. He made me a boob cake for my 35th birthday (laughter keeps you alive!) and helped my 7 year-old daughter shave my head after I started chemo. On my hardest days, he has helped me to set small goals so I feel like I’ve accomplished something – which makes long, tedious days much easier. He’s helped me physically recover from surgeries, has attended every appointment, and has made sure that I feel supported every step of the way. He has never assumed to know what I am going through, and has allowed me to process this in the right way for me, without telling me what I “should” be doing. I can imagine that, in and of itself, is difficult.


To me, though, what he said to me the night before my double mastectomy really sums up the kind of man he is. He took a long walk with me, held me as I cried, and said, “I don’t want you to worry that this will affect how I feel about you. I’m not here for what you look like, I’m here for you. You’re going to have scars, but I’ve been thinking about it, and I actually think that’s pretty cool. Every scar tells a story, and the good thing is that I get to be part of your story.”

He wants to be part of my story of survival. And he is.

If I’d had any remaining doubts about him (which I did not), his actions during this process have solidified that I have found a Unicorn.

Cancer, as much as I hate it, has shined a spotlight on all aspects of our relationship and forced us to support and understand one another in ways that life wouldn’t have required us to do for years. We’ve had to talk about uncomfortable things, deal with really complicated emotions, and be empathetic to the other person’s needs.

Bear doesn’t have a big ego, and he doesn’t like attention. So I share this not because I think he will love it (guaranteed he will turn bright red), but because as a partner he has shown up for me every day, and I am so grateful for him. I wish that every cancer patient had a partner that is half as amazing as he is.

Last Valentine’s Day, he told me he loved me for the first time. This Valentine’s Day, I will have my last chemo infusion with this man by my side. This man, who has shown me with his actions every single day that he loves me.

I may be right in the thick of breast cancer treatment, but I feel like the luckiest human on the planet to have found this man. I am so grateful.

Happy New Year from the Cancer Patient: Here’s What I Have to Say


You could fill stadiums and football fields with the stuff I don’t know. I am terrible at names, for example. I am one of those ignorant people we’re ashamed of who can’t name most of the people in power. Math (especially common core) is not my strong suit.

But what I do know is this:

There are good people in this world. So many of them. There are people who are truly selfless. They don’t do kind things because of the likes they’ll get on Facebook or because they get something out of it. They do it because they are generous, good people.

Since my cancer diagnosis, these people have come out of the most unexpected places. My babyhood best friend. Someone I didn’t know well from high school. A lovely woman I met on a press trip to Hawaii. The group of women I blogged with a decade ago. Moms at school I never even spoke to. There are countless community programs run by volunteers who really, honestly care about the people they serve.

Other people have shown up in ways I never would have expected. Friends who sneak food into your refrigerator and arrange get togethers so you don’t get depressed. Friends who leave a bag of unicorn-themed things on your doorstep, bring scarves for your head, an incredibly expensive wig, and lemon treats because they heard you’ll lose your tastebuds. Friends who say truly thoughtful and caring things to me, online and in person, to lift me up.

And there’s the people you hope will stand by you – your parents, your aunt, your partner – who go above and beyond every single day. Who support you as your hair falls out, you melt down, or you simply don’t know what to do next.

Cancer has shown me that I will never be able to properly thank all of the people who have done kind things for me. That the two survivors who work at Charlie’s school will never know how much their thoughtfulness means to me. That there’s no way to describe how much the weekly cards from my boyfriend’s parents brighten my day every single time. That my cousins, aunt, and two close friends will never know the gratitude I feel every time I put on one of the scarves they gave me.

This is not because I don’t thank them – of course I do – but because I truly can’t express just how much it means. To know that you are cared for, and thought of, by people who expect nothing in return.

Since this journey began, and I began sharing my experience, I’ve been told that I have inspired people. But all I’ve done is share my experience. What is truly inspiring to me is the absolute breadth of giving I have witnessed, with no ulterior motive. It truly has changed my life and inspired me to be a better, more generous person myself.

Before I had cancer, I didn’t know how many amazing people I’d surrounded myself with. I didn’t know how to let people help me. I didn’t know how to let other people carry me. I thought I was the helper, but all this time I’ve not known the first thing about what truly giving is.

These people have inspired me and have shown me a generosity that I will absolutely never forget as long as I live. Yes, cancer has changed me. But what has truly changed me is seeing the people in my life for who they are. Good, good people.

Thank you.

I May Be Having an Existential Crisis

For the past few days, I’ve barely been able to control my panic. Something happened the other day in the bathroom. I was passing by the mirror, and I saw my chest. I’ve seen my chest in the mirror a hundred times since my surgery, but something about it really upset me this time. Instead of facing it, I swallowed the panic.

The panic keeps trying to surface. It has something to say, but apparently I have no interest in listening to it. This morning I touched my head and more hair fell out. Panic. Swallow.

We got a very new and peaceful aquarium. Yesterday I was sitting on my hygge couch, staring into the aquarium at the crabs and fish, and all of a sudden I thought, “am I going to die? Will I sit here as I die and watch this peaceful scene and die quietly?” Is that how my story ends? You can say no, but you don’t actually know.

My daily life consists of making it through. Some people work through chemo, and I can’t imagine having to do that, because making it through is all I can do. Taking walks, trying to drink water despite my mouth feeling like it’s coated in something slimy…these things are all I can do. And it is hard to imagine coming out the other side of this and not just “making it through” every day. I am so completely overwhelmed by CANCER that I can’t handle even the most simple of tasks.

I am in pain from the chemo and my email is overflowing. I am supposed to answer these emails from kind people. I can’t. I can’t bring myself to do it because of the panic. I feel like I might start screaming. I am screaming on the inside even when I am not screaming on the outside. Screaming on the outside feels like it would take too much work, which is maybe the only reason I don’t do it.

How do I get to the point where life goes on? Part of me wonders if I might die because I can’t imagine what it will be like to live on the other side of this. When I thought about my future, I didn’t envision myself as an 80 year-old with breast implants sitting in a rocker. Attempting to reconcile this future I didn’t imagine for myself is part of what makes life so totally confounding right now. How is it even possible that I will go through the rest of my life with these scars across my “breasts”? How can I possibly reach 80 when, at 34, I had cancer?

Cancer cut my life in half. Before cancer, I cared about work. I cared very deeply about meeting my goals and worked really hard to meet them. Now my goals feel stupid. Who the hell cares how many clicks we get, how much money we make? On Facebook I see e-books for people looking to get quick results from advertising, or guidelines about when to post inspirational quotes to get in front of more people. Who cares about bento boxes for kids’ lunches or holiday cookies? Who cares if anyone clicks on any of this shit?

I don’t have cancer now. We cut it out, didn’t we? But it could come back. Even if I don’t have any breast tissue left, it could come back somewhere else. We don’t know that it won’t. How do I go forward with my life knowing that I can’t trust my own body? Is the pain in my lower back because I’ve been sitting wrong? Or is it cancer in my bones? How do I go forward knowing that my friend thought she needed to see a chiropractor and get a stand-up desk, when in reality this horrible illness had returned, and that was it: Stage IV? Now she’s gone.


You know the joke, “why did the chicken cross the road?” No one thinks this joke is funny, because it seems too obvious. But last year my friend Michelle blew my mind when she pointed out that the answer is actually really deep: “To get to the other side.” If the chicken successfully crosses the road, he’s on the other side of the road. But if he gets hit by a car, he’s on the Other Side.

I was walking my whole life on one side of the road. Doing my thing, living my life. And then cancer came, and it made me cross the road, and I’m praying I get to the other side instead of the Other Side. I can’t stay where I was, thanks to cancer. But I’m confused. Because everything here looks the same, but everything is different.

My child is in the variety show at school and there are things to be done. I have to pay my rent and I have to pay the electricity bill. I have to pack school lunches and I have to figure out how to do it all without screaming.

None of these things matter. How do I go back to a life where I’m finding things to write about that will get “clicks”? As a fellow marketing friend of mine said, Amazon grows and grows and grows, but why? What is the point of any of this? More than a half million people work for Amazon, day after day, toward the common goal of growing. All their meetings, their phone calls, their emails, their daily stress . . . it all centers around growing the company, but WHY?! To what end?

There’s so much noise, so much superfluous shit and so little of it is important. On this side of the road, I’m looking at all these things I used to look at every day – the bills, the variety shows, the work goals, the office gossip – and I’m seeing it differently. I’m swallowing my screaming. Because even though I know these things are stupid, I know that no matter which side of the road I’m on, they’re still there. And they will be until I’m on the Other Side.

And I don’t want to go there.


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.


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.