Month: November 2014

The Cancer Card.

I have two Thanksgivings to go to this year, and ever since I became a bona fide adult (around the time I had Penny), people expect me to bring things.  I mean, don’t get me wrong.  In that period before I had kids but was a grown, married woman, I chipped in.  I’m not rude.  Soda and ice?  Fine, and I’ll even get some cups if you need them.  Rolls?  I’m all over it, but next time, I’d really prefer not to have to heat anything up.  Now where’s the whipped cream…I mean, pumpkin pie?

Those were the days.

Something very sneaky happens as you get older.  It feels like, one minute, you’re drawing on your grandma’s walls and putting gum under her table with your cousins, and the next, you’re responsible for contributing to making this holiday happen.  And if you put gum under the table, you’re just a gross jerk.  And your little cousins are somebody’s parents.

So for the past few years or so I’ve been expected to bring, like, a legitimate side dish.  The problem is that I don’t have a go-to side dish.  My mom’s signature side dish was her salad.  Every Easter and every Thanksgiving, that was her contribution.  But to be honest, I would rarely put my signature on anything I cook.

This happened, over ten years ago, the first time I tried to cook Josh a meal.  Lesson one:  Don't cook the book.
This happened, over ten years ago, the first time I tried to cook Josh a meal. Lesson one: Don’t cook the book.

For the last few days, I have been mulling over and over what I should bring to these two Thanksgivings.

“I could bring baked macaroni and cheese or corn casserole,”  I would say to myself.  “I’m sure someone is already bringing the green bean casserole.  Ugh…I don’t feel like cooking anything.  I just started making dinner for my own family again, and yesterday we had Arby’s.  Maybe a fruit or veggie plate then.  Oh, who am I kidding?  I wouldn’t go near a fruit or veggie tray on Thanksgiving!  That might even be un-American.  Okay, maybe a broccoli raisin salad.  That’s FULL of mayonnaise so it meets the caloric requirements.  And you know what, Schnucks makes a good broccoli raisin salad.  Maybe I could find a copycat recipe…  Ooooor I could just buy it from Schnucks.  I’m pretty sure no one will say anything.  It’s been a hard year, and I just went back to work.  They know how tired I still am.  Besides, I HAD CANCER!  Schnucks it is.”

You guys, that’s the cancer card.  I hope you don’t have one too, but them’s the perks.

And since I decided to whip it out for Thanksgiving, it got me thinking about some of the times I played my cancer card this year.

  • We all four stopped at this four way stop at the same time?  Well, I’m going first.  I have cancer.
  • I have no makeup on, I haven’t brushed my teeth, and I’m still in my pajama pants.  I’m going to Target anyway.  I have cancer.
  • I’m at an 80th birthday party and no one wants to be the first to eat.  I will.  I’m hungry, and I have cancer.
  • We don’t have the money for me to get a pedicure, but I do anyway.  That’s okay.  I have cancer.
  • I keep not texting my friends back.  They’ll understand.  I have cancer.
  • Josh wants to watch a music documentary, but I have cancer so we watch The Mindy Project.
  • I just ate half my daughter’s Halloween candy.  You can’t judge me.  I have cancer.
  • My library books are late, and now I have a fine.  Can’t you just waive that?  Haven’t you heard? I have cancer.
  • You want me to donate to AIDS research?  No.  I have cancer.  Actually, can you donate to me?
  • There’s “stork parking” at the mall, and I make Josh park there.  I have been both pregnant and chemo’d.  Cancer is worse.  Let them ask me why we parked here.
  • You have to fire half your employees?  I’ll do it.  No one can get mad at me right now.  I have cancer.
  • I have to wait in this checkout line?  Are you kidding me?  I have cancer.

In the beginning, I was super serious.  I mean, I didn’t ever say it to anyone (Except for Josh.  “No, I cannot help bathe the girls tonight.  I HAVE CANCER!”), but it was always reverberating in my head.  I have cancer.  It was unbelievable, and I was indignant.  I almost felt above the law.

These days, the shock has worn off, I guess.  I still can’t believe that this happened to me, but I have digested it.  I have gone through the treatment and come out the other side.  I am feeling better every day.  And I am afraid (umm…ecstatic, really!) that my cancer card carrying days are coming to an end.  In the meantime, please don’t tell my family this until after the holidays because I really, really don’t like to cook.

The time I had to beg a homeless man to take my dollar.

I think my eyelashes have PTSD.  They mostly hung in there through the war that was chemo, but now that the official assault is over, they are ditching me, and it’s really bumming me out.  Straight vanity: I always kind of thought that my eyelashes were my best feature.  You know, those and my badonkadonk.  jk.  jk.  (That thing actually landed me the clever and very humiliating nickname of “watermelon butt” in the seventh grade.)  But seriously, my once beautiful mane of eyelashes…  People would ask me what kind of mascara I used.  If I curled them.  If they were fake.  And now… well now, I am desperately coating my remaining ten or so, and it’s ridiculous.  DON’T THEY KNOW CHEMO IS OVER?  Someone PLEASE tell them.

On that note, I really hope I don’t get pulled over right now without my beautiful eyelashes and boobs and what not.  I might actually get a ticket!  Unless I pull off whatever wig or hat I may be wearing and play the cancer card.  Is that too far?  I mean, my mom told me you gotta use what you got.  How about I just try not to speed?

So my birthday was last week, and it was such a strange day.  The day before (because age 32 officially hated me), Josh and I were sick.  Like, real sick.  We spent the night and day playing toilet bowl relay and one of us may have been exerting so hard that she peed her pants a little.  Twice.  But I’ll leave it to you to figure out who has the weaker pelvic floor (because I know that’s the kind of thing you come to this blog to think about).

Anyway, on my actual birthday, I was overly emotional and spent half the day at Siteman getting my Herceptin infusion.  I decided to put on my party face by putting on my party hair, and it actually helped.  I was in a pod (Are cancer patients aliens?  Peas?) with four older men and a couple of wives, and they just LOVED the pink wig.  One of them wanted to know if his hair would come back that color too, and I tell you it was hard to be in a bad mood being surrounded by all those cute, funny old men.

Here’s where the day got strange though.  As I pulled out of the parking garage, I also pulled off the wig because four hours of wig is three hours too many.  I pulled out of the complex and hit a red light.  As I stopped, I looked over and saw a man about my age with a sign that said something like “HOMELESS.  Please help.  God bless.”  All I had in cash was one dollar so I grabbed it and held it out to him.  He walked over, grabbed it, and looked up at me.

“I can’t take this from you,” and he handed me back the dollar.


“What do you mean?  Here.  Take it.”  And then I saw his eyes.  Probably the saddest, emptiest blue eyes I have ever seen.

“No, I can’t take this from you,” and he looks at my baldish head.

“Oh, it’s okay.  I want to help you.  Here.”

“No, no, no.”

“It’s only a dollar,” and I hold my hand out farther.

“No.  I feel sorry for you.”

What the whaaaaat?  You feel sorry for me?  I feel sorry for you!  Excuse me again…whaaat?

“I’m okay,”  I say.  “Just take it.  I’m going to be okay.”

“Are you sure?  I can’t.  I feel sorry for you.”

I nod (even though I’m not really sure I’ll be “okay”), and he takes the dollar, says thanks, and walks away as the light turns green.

I drove away totally confused.  Think what you will, but since my diagnosis, I have driven back and forth to Barnes many times, and I have given countless dollars to the homeless that I see, something I didn’t used to do on the regular.  I didn’t know how to process having to talk a homeless man into taking my money.  It bothered me for the rest of the day, and that night I realized why it bothered me so much…and what I wish I could say to him.

This?  This bald head.  THIS is why I’m helping you.  This is how I know what it feels like to need help.  To really need help.  And this is how I know what it feels like to fall.  This is what taught me that we are all connected.  That we need each other.  This is how I know that I love you, and this let me see you.  This makes me think about you and your sad blue eyes every day and wish that I could have seen them in a better time.  (Much like my eyelashes were my signature, I’m sure that your blue eyes were once yours.)  Please don’t mistake this bald head as a weakness; it is my strength.

It’s such a strange life right now.  I’m trying to move on from cancer, but I’m finding that it isn’t possible.  My eyelashes aren’t letting me forget.  My bald head and discolored nails aren’t letting me forget.  My Herceptin infusions aren’t letting me forget.  Even homeless guys that I don’t know won’t let me forget.  I suppose even if all those things didn’t remind me I would remind myself every ten minutes because it’s most of what I still think about.  What I’m learning, really, is that the battle wasn’t going through treatment or “fighting” the cancer.  The battle has just started.  The battle is in my mind, and it’s to learn how to live with the unknown and the ambiguity and the fear.  I don’t really know how to do that yet.  I feel like if my eyelashes would stick around, my game face might be more convincing though.


Today is my thirty third birthday, and I am feeling grateful and scared.  Grateful, now more than ever, for another year.  (I can promise that I’ll never dread another birthday or celebrate another anniversary of my 29th birthday.)  Scared because I might not get to raise my daughters.  Only time will tell.

When I lay in bed awake at night (something I never used to do–Underhills are of a tribe of glorious sleepers), I think about how all I want to do is be with my family.  Then I think of my mom.

My mom died at 46.  Forty six.  I’ve always known that was young.  The older I get, the more I realize just how young that is though.  And then I think about the fact that I am only 33, and I am desperate to make it to 46 (and beyond).  I have shed many tears wondering if I’ll live as long as my mom did.  Wondering if I’ll get the time to love my daughters the way she loved me.  Wondering if I’ll be lucky enough to leave them with enough of me to get through their lives having known my heart.  A mother’s love is irreplaceable.  It’s something that I am all too aware of.


But I can’t go through this day without just smiling.  I am another year older, and approximately 72 and a half years wiser.  I will always remember 32.  It sucked — and I am still sorting it out — but it was the year that taught me that I can do anything.

My hope for 33 is that it will be the year that I have enough courage and dedication to myself to follow my heart.  To really live the way I want to live and to be who I want to be.

The Chemo 15.

I had a sudden realization whilst at the Halloween parade with Penny.  What happens if I go to New Orleans?  Mardis Gras?  How am I supposed to get beads, you guys?

My girlfriend pointed out that I would never have employed such tactics anyhow, but that’s besides the point.  What if I needed some beads to save my life?  Like, a murderer said he would only let me live if I could get some beads RIGHT NOW, and I can no longer do the international signal for “give me a cheap plastic necklace?”  It’s a problem I’m going to have to add to the list.

Sometimes I hope my daughters will never find this blog.  (Just kidding about almost everything I ever say.  Mommy loves you.  Please don’t flash your boobies.  Use your brains to get what you want.)

Anyway, I went back to work last night.  Kind of.  I only worked a four hour shift, and they let me work with another nurse just to get used to being there again and to learn some of the computery things that have updated since I last worked.  I was really nervous that I had forgotten everything ever and that chemo brain would render me useless, but it’s funny how things just come back to you.  Like, I even remembered the IT help desk number, which I called maybe three times in five years.

I was nervous, too, because there was a massive turnover in the months of my absence and a lot of my friends left.  I didn’t want to show up in my beanie, not knowing anyone, and be only known as “the cancer girl.”  I don’t know if that happened, as there were so many new faces, but I guess I don’t care.  It was just so nice to see and catch up with the people that I do know and love.  Plus, I’ve learned a thing or two about holding my head up and/or mentally blocking stares, head tilts, pity glances, and that look people give you when they’re trying to figure out if your eyebrows are real.  (Since I learned how to fill in my eyebrows a few weeks ago, people keep telling me how much healthier I look.  Smoke and mirrors, my friends.)

Overall, it was a good night at work and with friends, but I do have to mention this.  Because this did happen.

After all the pleasantries of being back:

“Heather, have you gained some weight?”

::Mental pause to see if my coworker really just said this to me::

“Why, yes, I have.  About fifteen pounds.  Thanks!”

“I can see it.  Especially in your face.”

To which, I think I launched into a mini diatribe about how breast cancer specific chemo (and the steroids) actually make you gain weight.  Even though my family was worried I would lose weight in the beginning, my doctor assured them that I would, in fact, probably gain 10 pounds.  And I’m an overachiever.  Don’t people know about the chemo fifteen?  Duh.

And don’t people know not to look you straight in the eye and ask if you’ve gained weight?  Aaaaand then proceed to tell you that your face is fat.

What do you want from me?  When I gain weight, it goes straight to the cheeks.  The ass and the face.

Oh, well.  Although I was initially appalled, twelve hours later, I kind of think it’s hilarious.  I also kind of think it’s time to get to the gym.  Remember when I said I got a gym membership and was working out?  You see, about that…  That stopped after about the second chemo.  With my blood counts so low, I got winded going up one flight of stairs or trying to vacuum or walking into the library from my car.  And then there was the inexplicable soreness.   And just all the other things that chemo does.  I am starting to feel better these days, and being called out like that only reminds me that it is time.  Time to bring it back.

I’m just not sure how to fit everything in.  Even working minimally, my life sometimes feels like a circus of laundry, bill paying, grocery shopping, and itsy bitsy spidering.  Some days I feel like the only thing I accomplished was thrice making a mess of the kitchen and thrice cleaning it back up.  I know that I am not unique in this way so how do you guys do it?  Does anyone have a magic system that suddenly makes it super easy to balance all the adulty responsibilities?  (I’m much more of an adult now, you know.)  And please don’t tell me to wake up at 5 AM while my children are still asleep because that’s not happening.

And please don’t tell me my face is fat.  I just don’t like it.