Month: March 2015

True confessions from a cancer patient.

I have to admit something.

Yesterday while at Siteman, I dodged Mary, my favorite ever nurse practitioner, in the cafeteria.  Minutes prior — seven floors up — we had just had a pretty lengthy chat about our daughters, my health, and how cancer patients have a hard time keeping anxiety at bay after treatment.  And although she had just seen me topless as I spilled some of my deepest fears to her, I couldn’t risk bumping into her just then.  So I hid behind the salad bar until she left.

You see, the thing is… I didn’t want her to see the slice of pizza I was planning on having for lunch.  I have always been of the “good student” variety, and by golly, I’m a good little cancer patient.  It would be kind of like cussing in front of your grandma, right?

But here’s the real admission, you guys.

Lately, my food choices, much like my hair, have been more like those of a ten-year-old boy’s.  Or for a while.  Okay, since I started chemo…in June.  To be honest, I ate much healthier before I had cancer than I do now.  Actually, B. C. I was a pretty healthy eater.  Now I eat like I’m a freshman in college and I MAKE THE DECISIONS NOW but I also don’t have a kitchen and can’t cook yet anyway so I mostly eat ramen noodles and chips and the occasional banana.  But not really that bad.

I always figured that if something like cancer ever happened to me, I would do a complete diet overhaul and probably never touch another piece of processed food ever again.  I mean, duh, right?  Because after such a diagnosis, HOW COULD YOU?  How dare you ever eat another ice cream sandwich or personal pan pizza or entire bag of cheetos?

And I have to be honest, I used to be a little judgy about this.

You are a diabetic.  Why are drinking that Pepsi and eating that donut? I would think to myself while sipping on my hummdinger-sized Diet Coke.  Don’t you understand how serious your condition is?  And how dumb those choices are?

I’m a cardiac nurse so I see a lot of people immediately following a heart attack.  A lot of those people continue to smoke and some even convince their families to bring them Big Macs to the hospital.

Oh great, I would think.  Why are you even here?  Do you even want our help?  

Of course they wanted to be there, Heather, but change is hard and denial is a powerful — and often helpful — tool.

For some people, I think a diagnosis is enough to change their entire lives, but for a lot of us, it’s just not that easy.  And believe me, I really wish it was that easy.  Cancer or not, I love carbs.  Red meat and dairy are delicious, and I think MSGs and GMOs might be my favorite foods.

When I was first diagnosed, almost a year ago, I hardly ate anything for weeks.  Not only was my stomach in a season-long nervous knot, but I was actually afraid to eat, to put anything into my body.  I couldn’t understand why I got cancer — Where did it come from?  How did this happen? — so I started to become very suspicious of the environment and the food we eat.  I came to realize that our current food system and standards are MESSED UP, and I became very afraid to eat anything that would “exacerbate” the cancer.  (That’s not a thing, btw.)

But an entire lifestyle shift is a lot of change for someone whose whole being was in upheaval.  Then I talked to my doctors about diet, and they were very wishy-washy about it.  My oncologist had no recommendations other than a “normal healthy diet.”  When I asked (re: grilled) my second opinion doctor about it, he told me that, at this point, it really didn’t matter.  With a tilted head and an ‘I’m sorry’ look on his face he said, “Diet plays a role in preventing cancer, but once it’s in your system, diet doesn’t really matter as much anymore.”

He sensed that I didn’t like this answer and offered, “But overall, the best diet to follow is a Mediterranean diet.  Olive oil, lots tomatoes, vegetables, and some fish.”

WTF, dude?  Why should I even try?  And then I dove headfirst into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s.  Just kidding.  Kind of.

Like mother, like daughter.
Like mother, like daughter.

This new information + a chemo aversion to fresh anything + the fact that the only thing that made my chemo’d (chemonified?) stomach happy was carbs led to me, dietarily, spinning out of control, and I have yet to get back on track.  (For the record, the best ever chemo food was Bread Co’s white cheddar Mac & Cheese.)

Now don’t get me wrong.  I continue to feed my daughters a healthy diet.  I just somehow manage to avoid it for myself.  For example, today for lunch:

  • Homemade mac & cheese with baby meatballs
  • Orange slices
  • Cut-up red bell peppers

What I ate:

  • 5 Fig Newtons (basically, cookies) shoveled in while making said lunch
  • Approximately 6 bites of mac & cheese off of my daughters’ finished plates
  • (And because I was still hungry an hour and a half later) Popcorn

Not too bad for them.  Not too good for me.

And here’s what I’ve realized: if I could just feed myself as well as I feed my own daughters, I’d be doing okay by myself, right?  It’s really how I should be approaching this whole diet situation anyway because when I found out I had cancer, my first thought — before I feared for my own life or realized I’d lose my hair or fertility or breasts — was that I COULD NOT leave my girls motherless; they need me.  With this in mind, why would I not take care of myself FOR them?  I should treat my body as I would treat their bodies.  If not for me, for them.  Duh.

Because whether diet really helps to prevent recurrence or not is kind of irrelevant.  I got lost in my world of cancer and forgot to look at the big picture.  Yes, I ate pretty healthy and got cancer anyway.  That doesn’t mean I should just give up.

Just because I had breast cancer doesn’t mean I’m immune to, say, heart disease (of which my own mother died of at 46, mind you) or an autoimmune disease or a different kind of cancer.  In fact, because I had cancer, my chances of all of those things are increased.  So diet absolutely does matter.  (Also, my oncologist says it does.  She doesn’t say much else, but she says, “Diet and exercise — they are important.”) Ugh.

I won’t make any sweeping declarations because I know better than that, and it would only serve to embarrass me in the future.  What I will say is that my current goal is to feed myself as well as I feed my daughters.  It seems simple.  If I cut up strawberries or peppers for them, I eat some too.  If they get carrot sticks with their lunch and peas with their dinner, so will I.  I will eat what they eat, and if I tell them they can’t have cookies, I am not allowed to binge on them after they go to sleep as a reward for a hard day.  Not that I do that or anything.

It’s not a perfect plan, but it’s definitely a step in the right direction, and at this point, that’s what I really need.

And as long as I’m confessing things, I might as well tell you guys that I also quit the non-toxic deodorant.  You know, the hippie stuff.  I’m back to slathering on the toxic, nasty chemicals every morning, and it feels so good.  It smells even better.

It lasted a good seven months though.  I only went back to the good stuff after I went back to work in November.  I was kind of okay with stinking out my family and the people who choose to be in my life in the name of non-toxic deodorant, but once I was at work, I thought, “This odor is unprofessional!”

On my first night back, I had a patient have a STEMI (a serious heart attack) in the middle of the night.  While I kept my cool and remembered exactly what to do, my sweat glands and the Primal Pit Paste I was wearing betrayed me, and for the rest of the morning, I was in my other patients’ PERSONAL SPACE — repositioning them, walking them to the bathroom, leaning over them to listen to their hearts and lungs — with the funky smell of the night’s “excitement” on me.  Unprofessional and embarrassing.

I guess I’m back on the juice.  On the upside, I haven’t had a single Diet Coke since diagnosis.  I did kind of cheat when I was sick the day before my birthday with some Diet 7 Up, but I’m at peace with that.  I will tell you, though, that SODA HAS NEVER TASTED SO GOOD.

Man, it feels really good to get that off of my chest.  (See what I did there?)  Maybe I was meant to be Catholic because I feel like I should make this a thing.

Couch pillow talk.

I want a new couch.

I really want a new couch, and while cancer has clarified many things for me, it has made this couch wanting so confusing.

B. C. (before cancer), it would have been so easy.  Either, “Nope, we can’t afford that,” or “Yes!  Let the couch shopping begin.”  Let’s be honest though.  For the big stuff, like a couch, it was almost always a big fat no because we don’t have wads of couch money just laying around or stuffed in our mattress or hidden in a shoebox or whatever.  We’re a youngish family, I usually only work one night a week so I can stay at home with the babes (sacrifice, yo), and organic milk is expensive.

Besides, Josh and I — babies of our own families that we both are — aren’t great with money.  We’re not horrible with it either.  We don’t have any credit card debt and are always on time with our bills, but we could definitely be better.  And I knew that even B. C.

Dolla dolla bills, y'all.
Dolla dolla bills, y’all.

In fact, just a month prior to the diagnosis, I got very organized about it.  There were charts detailing debt payoff, envelopes for a cash-only system, and long bedtime chats about how we would “snowball” the student loans.

Then my whole world changed.

One night, just a day or two into the cancer mess, I looked around at all of our stuff and felt empty.  For the first time in my life, I realized how worthless stuff is, and I felt sick at the hours I wasted trying to “decorate.”  The only thing that mattered in those days, immediately following the diagnosis, were the people in my life, my relationships.

And I mean that literally.  It was the ONLY thing that mattered to me.  Within minutes of finding out that I had cancer and with such ease and surety, I decided to have a double mastectomy.

“Take them!  I don’t need them.  Just please take them,” I begged the nurse coordinator on the phone that morning.

“I haven’t eaten anything this morning,” I lied.  “I can come in for surgery now.  We can leave now.”

I would have given up anything that morning (and even now) to know that I could stay here with my people.  To raise my daughters.  To grow old with my husband.  To tread the line of friend and mother that only an aunt can for my niece and nephews.  Caring about what I looked like or, even worse, what my house looked like seemed like an impossibly irresponsible waste of time.

But just as the chemo fatigue is fading so, too, is the rawness of those emotions, and I find myself in need (want?) of a new couch.

The problem is that cancer, while making me realize the importance of living in the now, murkied my future and then MADE ME PAY FOR IT.  What I’m left with is total confusion regarding money.

Half of me wants to save every cent we have leftover just in case this happens again because, truth be told, cancer was/still is pretty hard on us financially.  It’s really not just the medical bills that make illness so expensive. (Protip: Get cancer in January so you have a better chance of not paying your deductibles twice.)  It’s also the missed work — spouse included — and little known costs like new underwear.  Word on the street is that when you realize that your friends and family might be doing your laundry for the foreseeable future, you go out and buy all new underwear.  Or so I’ve heard.

Anyway, this is the half of me that also wonders if I should work more to really build up our savings and quickly.  But isn’t the point the people?  To be with my people and not at work?  Gah!

The other half of me says, “Let’s do some living, baby!”  This is the party half.  The half that tries to get you to do shots on a school night.  It wants to spend any disposable income on whatever makes me and mine happiest.  This half wants us to go to Disney World and the Grand Canyon and to buy memberships to all area pools, the zoo, the children’s museum, and anywhere else a family can go have fun, and it definitely wants a new wardrobe because its self esteem recently took a pretty hard hit.

I’m trying not to let either side win and just be normal, but I don’t think I know how to be normal anymore.  [Insert obvious joke.]  As far as the couch is concerned, I’ve almost convinced myself that even if The Sumbitch does come back, I won’t regret its purchase.  After all, during chemo, couches were my bffs.

A new couch would loosely mean a better life for my family.  You see, I want a sectional to maximize seating in my small house and to encourage snuggling and game play.  I want a place for my family to really hang out and cuddle up, and I want my couch to invite my friends and extended family in.  I want it to say, “Welcome!  Take your shoes off and jump in.  Stay a while, have a laugh, take a nap.  Whatever.  This is the place you want to be.”

And while I’m giving a script to my new couch, I’d also like it to say, “Heather and Josh are adults” because I’m sure no couch has ever said this about us before, and dammit, I’m a grown woman now.  If birthing two children didn’t solidify the fact, I’m sure Chemo Summer did.

Josh and I started dating when I was just 22, and although I was doing all of the things I should have been doing, I wouldn’t call 22-year-old Heather a grown up.  In the eleven years since, we have inherited couches from my husband’s parents and brother and actually did buy a clearanced floor model that my daughter blew her nose on last week.

I want a couch without snot stains and pre-existing scratches.  I want a couch without tufts because, really, they are just cute crumb catchers.  I want a couch that doesn’t already have my mother-in-law’s butt divot.  Basically, I’m ready for my big girl couch.

My dream 'big girl' couch.  And that's actually a slipcover so I can WASH IT.  So much swooning.
My dream ‘big girl’ couch. And that’s actually a slipcover so I can WASH IT. So much swoon.

A year ago I thought couch shopping was all fabric swatches and measurements.  Now it’s all, “Should I be saving this money in case I get cancer again?  Or is buying this couch like putting stock into my future?  How much would it cost to get a couch that actually talks?  Or entertains my children?  Or makes dinner?”  Because that’s a couch I could really get behind.

Yeah, maybe I should invest my money in visiting a therapist’s couch instead.

Hi, can you tell me where the emergency exit is?

Before all these cancer shenanigans started, I would sometimes wonder how I would do in “the fire.”  You know, like, what kind of stuff am I really made of?  Could I give an ass kicking to whatever it was that threatened me and mine?  Or would I just crumble at the weight of it?  (Am I the only one who has thought about what it would be like to have cancer?  Or to be paralyzed?  To lose a child?)

An unrelated but super cute old pic of Penny "fighting fire."
An unrelated but super cute old pic of Penny “fighting fire.”

To be honest, I’ve lived a pretty cushy life.  I’m not saying that I haven’t had my fair share of adversity and heartbreak, but it’s pretty first world problem kind of stuff.  Middle class white girl stuff.  I’ve never broken a bone, have always had a roof over my head, and if I was ever in any real trouble, which — besides the cancer — I really haven’t been, there’s an army of friends and family who I could rely on for help.

Like these guys.
Like these guys.

I have to say that being in the fire was nothing like I imagined.  I now almost flinch at the constant comparisons of cancer patients to “fighters” or “warriors” or “survivors.”  To me, it implies that we have some sort of control over the outcome if we can just rise up enough, and it implies that those who ultimately die of the cancer somehow “lost” or weren’t good enough.

The way I see it is that the only “battle” that I really fought was with myself…and I’m still fighting that battle, fyi.  Because cancer is the biggest mind eff there ever was.  (Well, I’m sure that’s an exaggeration, and I can absolutely think of worse things, but for me, right now, yes, the biggest mind eff.)  There was nothing I could do about the cancer except to go along with my doctors’ treatment plans.  No amount of positivity would will the cancer away, and for that matter, no amount of kale juice or turmeric or cannabis oil would either.  It was, in fact, my doctors who were fighting that “battle.”  I was merely the battleground.

I heard a lot of “Heather, you are so brave!  I don’t know if I could do it…”

What?  Arrive at your doctor’s appointments on time?  Because if I had ANY choice in the matter, I’d run the other way screaming.  If it was the same either way, I’d choose to never have a day of chemo in my life.  And surgery?  Wouldn’t. Have. Happened.

I actually really appreciated those kinds of kindhearted words.  Don’t mind my internal quips because I really do know people were just trying to build me up…and maybe doing that whole “How would I handle this situation?” thing with themselves.  It actually did give me strength (Thank you!), but I was never really sure how to respond because I didn’t feel particularly brave.  I felt trapped.  I felt forced to do awful, awful things that I didn’t want to do.

Looking back (because five months out from chemo is such a long time), I think I was missing the point.  I think I was being a little hard on myself and possibly you guys.  Just like the cancer “fight” is largely a mental battle, I think being brave is also a mind game.

Sure, I absolutely, unequivocally did not want to have a double mastectomy, but I did it.  And that morning, my only goal of not freaking out was accomplished.  Instead of focusing on what I was losing, I managed to keep my mind on what that surgery was giving me — my life.  I convinced myself that this surgery was pretty much the best thing to ever happen to me (besides my husband, my children, Mmmbop, the Frito Burrito, jeggings, this blog, and my eyelashes growing back).

Thinking back on that, I realize that I am super brave, so take that, fire!  Not only did I send my beautiful breasts to the bad boobie graveyard (RIP, righty.  Screw you, left boob.), but I did it with a smile on my face and a gratefulness in my heart.  I may or may not have — but, for sure, definitely did have — some pretty rough chemo days that I wouldn’t call “brave.”  In fact, I did crumble.

But now I know what that feels like, you know?  The gifts cancer gives are pretty few and far between — it’s categorically an asshole — but if cancer ever did give me a gift, it was the gift  of knowing who I am.  I learned more about myself in this last year than I have in a lifetime.  It was like I woke up and saw myself.  I learned who I love (There are exactly six friends who really, REALLY matter to me.), what I believe in, and even what I like to do.  I learned that I am not so patient, Josh and I really do make a good team, and bald is not my look.  I learned what the fire felt like.  I learned that, even if I crumble sometimes, I am brave.

Still, I don’t want anymore fire in my life for a while or for, like, ever.  So friends, good gifts ideas for my birthday or Easter or next Tuesday are smoke alarms, fire extinguishers, emergency exit signs, etc.  Just kidding.  I’ll take shoes.  (Size 6.)  Besides, you’re probably still trying to figure out if you made the cut anyway.