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.

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.

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.