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?

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

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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.

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.

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

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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!)

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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).

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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):

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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.

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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.