Category: coping after cancer

I’m not crazy; I’m just a little unwell.

I stopped going to my support group seven months ago.  I stopped going because I thought everyone else there was doing better than me.  And I was embarrassed.

Last night, over tacos and tea, I told them this.  I shared that I’ve been struggling with depression and not a single person didn’t nod along.  We talked for two hours about the emotional aftermath of breast cancer.  We bonded over the intense anxiety, the pressure to “not let it come back,” the frustration that comes with not being able to “live life to the fullest” everyday, or even most days.  We commiserated over changed bodies, changed sex lives, and how to answer the once (but nevermore) innocent question of “How are you (*head tilt in full force*)?”  We agreed that the getting well after being sick is harder than the being sick.

And I wasn’t embarrassed anymore.  I was home.

This blog used to be my home, but I think I left it for the same reason as I did the support group.  I was embarrassed.  I was proud of how I had handled my cancer experience and not so proud of how I’ve fallen apart since.

You see, I have intense mood swings, and I don’t know if it is caused by Tamoxifen (a medicine that blocks estrogen) or my own innate craziness.  Chemobrain continues to haunt me, and I’ve been sleeping too much.  I have little patience with my family especially after 5pm.  I have gained twenty pounds, but I still have no breasts.  I’m generally a mess.

Buuuuut.  I mean, I’m also happy.  I like my job and I am so in love with my kids.  Like, if I could actually eat them up, I would.  Well, you know, when they’re not fighting each other or wiping boogers on my couch or calling my stomach “so squishy!” or locking the cat in the closet.  Seriously, you guys, the other day I found, like, 1.2 seconds to cozy up on the couch with my favorite blanket and a book, and Penny walked up and said, “Mom, you know I’ve wiped like a thousand boogers on that blanket, right?”

Umm, no.  No, I didn’t.

But I love that little booger picker.

As unwell as I still am, I am also well.  Kind of.  And I’m no longer embarrassed to say it because I know I’m not alone in this and, you guys, this is hard — all of this post cancer bullshit.  And life.  Life is hard.  Especially when you have to start a load of laundry asap and take an unplanned mid-afternoon bath lest your linens and you remain covered in a thousand boogers…you know, but it’s also dinnertime and your three-year-old just ran outside naked.

 

 

I just can’t seem to share in your excitement.

It’s been almost a month since I’ve been here, and to tell you the truth, I thought about never coming back.  Now that treatment is over, all that is left is me.  And I’m a mess.  I didn’t want to share my mess because it makes me feel vulnerable, and I’ve had quite enough vulnerable for the time being, thankyouverymuch.

I also didn’t want to examine what I’m feeling right now enough to blog about it because, you guys, it’s kind of like being 14 all over again — without all the hormones, of course.  Estrogen is, obvs, my kryptonite.  I can go from content to depressed to elated to super anxious in an afternoon.  It’s tiring, and it’s even more tiring trying to figure out the feelings behind the feelings.  So lately I haven’t even been trying, partly because I’m also tired of thinking about cancer.  I’ve just been riding the wave.

To be fair, it’s not as extreme as I’m making it sound.  Generally, I am happy, but I’m not as level as I once was.  I really think it’s all par for the course in life-after-cancer, but I’m not sure everyone recognizes that there are still struggles to be had after you “beat” the Sumbitch.

I went to my husband’s 20 year class reunion (He’s pretty much geriatric, I know. 🙂 )  last weekend and met a lot of really cool people who had been following me via Josh.  As nice as they were — like truly loving and supportive  (Thank you, AHS class of 1995!) — they said a lot of really weird things to me.

“I’m so proud of you for beating cancer!  You did great!”

“You kicked its ass!  Way to go, girl!”

“I’m so excited for you!”

At the last one, I looked around to my brother and husband to see their faces.

This (super nice and well meaning) guy just said he's excited for me, you guys!  Can you BELIEVE that?   Guys, DID YOU HEAR HIM???
This (super nice and well meaning) guy just said he’s excited for me, you guys! Can you BELIEVE that? Guys, DID YOU HEAR HIM???

But there was not a crack in either of their smiles, not an understanding eye roll to be found.

And therein lies the problem for me in blogging about life-after-cancer.

As much as I appreciate the sentiment — and I really do — you would NEVER tell, like, an assault victim that you are so excited for them.

You know, like, girl gets held up at gunpoint, threatened, beaten down, and robbed.  She makes it out alive.  Then you tell her that YOU’RE SO EXCITED FOR HER.

Way to go, girl!  You kicked ass!

I’m so proud of you!

And then, a year later when she’s still suffering from anxiety and depression on account of the event, no one says, “Oh, I though she’d be happy now.  I mean, it’s over.  She beat it!  What’s her deal?”

Because I’ve also heard a few forms of that last statement as well.

And I get it.  I probably would have thought something similar before my own dance with the big C.  You’re DONE (not realizing that a cancer patient is never “done”)!  It’s all parades and confetti in the air now, right?!

Well, frankly, no.  I feel like the girl who has recently been violently mugged.

In the days after diagnosis, I remember trying to explain what I was feeling to my husband.

“It feels like someone is holding a gun to my head!” I said with every nerve ending in my body on high alert because that’s the only way you say something for about a month after you’ve been diagnosed.

Cancer certainly threatened my life.  It beat me down, with a scalpel and chemo-style.  And it definitely robbed me.  Of so much more than I’ve copped to here on this blog — money, sex, self esteem, the surety of a future.

But here’s how I can best explain the fear in life-after-cancer.

What if that crazy gunman left the girl to live but whispered in her ear, “Watch your back, dear.  I might come back for you.  It may be tomorrow, it may be in five years, or it may be never.  You’ll just have to wait and see.  Just know that whatever you do, you can’t hide from me.  I will always know where you are.”  Creepy, no?

And then, she has to WATCH NEWS STORIES OF THIS PSYCHOPATH KILLING OTHER PEOPLE!  In movie after movie, this gunman shows up.  People think she wants to hear stories of others who’ve met the Sumbitch.  It’s all around her.

So she joins a support group.  Those people understand, but now she has to WORRY ABOUT THEM TOO.  The gunman told them the same thing, and statistically speaking, he follows through one out of three times.

You wouldn’t tell that girl that you are excited for her.  You would realize that she’s still “fighting” a battle.  That what she went through was straight-up traumatic.  You would be scared right along with her because it’ll never be over for her.  A shadow is never just a shadow anymore.

So that’s my truth.  A headache will never just be a headache, and my worry is forevermore.  Although, I’m sure as the years go by (and hopefully, the years do go by!) these feeling will dull.  It’s a little intense, I know, and that’s why I haven’t been around.  I didn’t really want to put words to what I’ve been feeling because then I’d have to think about it and stuff.  Instead I’ve just been pushing it back and letting it pop up in weird ways in my life like in my spending habits or in me not taking care of myself.  And after I did do the thinking, I was hesitant to SHARE it with the internet at large so people could throw their two cents in because that’s always super fun.

The thing is that you guys will never know what it’s like without someone telling you (unless you’re here too, which is a bummer) so that’s what I’ve decided to do: let you in on my mess.  Pretty much so you know that being excited for someone who recently “beat” cancer is super sweet but also really weird.

Boob shopping.

I’m not a decisive person.

Wedding dress shopping, for me, was kind of a nightmare.

I named my youngest daughter ‘Stella’ for a night, woke up the next morning all like, “Nah Josh, I don’t think she’s a Stella. Let’s go with Alice,” and then it took us the rest of that day plus another to settle on a middle name.  But my husband is pretty used to how I roll.

“Well, I better call my mom,” he joked that morning after Stella/Alice was born, “before anyone has anything monogrammed.”

Josh and Alice Jolene
Josh and Alice Jolene

This is why I’ve never wanted a tattoo.  I just know that two months later I would hate it.

I buy shirts that are *so me* for, like, three weeks before I hate them forever.  “Were my eyes closed when I bought this?” I think to myself.  “Who am I?”  (But I have to continue to wear them because WHAT AM I MADE OF? MONEY?)

I tell you this so you will understand my struggle right now.

I’m 99 percent sure that I’m going to go ahead with reconstruction (Always leave a little wiggle room, no?), but now I have to decide how to go about it.  Like what kind of boobs I’m going to get.  That’s a big decision for someone who clams up at the dollar menu.

I had my last Herceptin infusion last week (!!!!!) and after an emotional bell ringing — it was strangely more much emotional than the bell ringing to mark the end of chemo — I headed down one floor for a consultation with my reconstructive plastic surgeon.

Herceptin COMPLETE!  And then I hugged the nurse assistant and had a cry by the elevators.
Herceptin COMPLETE! And then I hugged the nurse assistant and had a little cry by the elevators.

I had only met him once, two days after my diagnosis, and my impression of him was probably influenced heavily by the haze that I was in.  I remember him as being cocky and maybe even a little loud and apathetic.  Nothing is further from the truth.  I mean, Dr. Build-A-Boob (let’s just call him that) is definitely confident but in a surprisingly quiet kind of way.

But first, I met with the fellow.

I had stripped down — and when your boobs are detachable, those have to go too — and covered back up with the hospital gown, and just when I started to get comfortable, in walks the fellow.

He was cute and charming and caring.

I knew immediately that I didn’t want to disrobe in front of him and hugged my gown a little tighter.

This had happened once before, at my last echocardiogram a few months ago.  The technician was a guy about my age but not as cute as this plastic surgeon in training.  At that appointment, I decided to treat it as a social experiment, and as I opened my gown for the ultrasound, I studied the technician’s face.  HARD.  In fact, he’ll probably request to never care for me again.  I don’t know if I was waiting for him to flinch or start crying or run away screaming, but I do know that I was ready to detect even the slightest amount of disgust in his eyes.   To my disappointment (but also really not), I saw nothing.

This time, Dr. InTraining didn’t ask me to disrobe (Thank the good Lord.), and instead sat with me for at least twenty minutes discussing my boob plans and options while I made slightly inappropriate boob jokes.  I had lots and lots of questions (a plus to delaying the surgery until you are past the “I HAVE CANCER??! fog), and he patiently answered them all.  By the time we were done talking, I felt optimistic about surgery and kind of like I had a new friend, and I was stoked that he didn’t ask to see the war zone that is my chest.

Then, he went to get Dr. Build-A-Boob, who definitely would need to assess my situation, which was fine by me.  Dr. BAB is a little older than me, not quite so cute, and frankly, saw what I was working with before they were gone.

What I didn’t anticipate was Dr. InTraining coming back in the room as an onlooker.

So here’s where I’m going to tell you about my two real options.  I basically have to decide between implants and a type of breast reconstruction know as DIEP, where they basically craft new boobs out of skin and fat from your lower belly.  There are pros and cons to each, but in order to give me a real picture of my options, Dr. BAB needed to also take a look at my belly fat, and when he said, “Can you unbutton your jeans, please?” I knew it was going to get real real up in there.

It is embarrassing enough having someone inspect and poke around your belly fat under FLUORESCENT LIGHTS, but to have a bystander involved is downright humiliating.

I uncomfortably muttered things like, “Yeah…haha…chemo made me gain this weight,” “I’m fifteen pounds over my normal right now,” and “I’ve never weighed this much not pregnant.”

So yeah, I was suuuper cool about it.

But Dr. BAB didn’t just, like, see if he could ‘pinch and inch’ or whatever.  He pushed and pulled and squeezed and contorted my little (but bigger than ever before) belly every which way.  At one point, he put his hands on exactly half of my lower stomach and simultaneously squished them together and pulled them out in order to get an idea of how big of a breast he could make out of it.  So I guess he was feeling me up in a way?  Jk.

Anyway, after that emotional trauma, we again went through he pros and cons of implants vs. DIEP.  I am a candidate for both, and I have to be honest, even though the surgery for DIEP is a bigger deal, recovery is much more brutal, and it just sounds kind of gross, I was leaning toward that option.

That is until Dr. Build-A-Boob informed me that he wasn’t sure if he would be able to build me back up to my natural size.

Ahh gee, well, thanks…

But wait, I’LL BE DAMNED IF I HAVE THIS SURGERY AND END UP SMALLER THAN BEFORE.  Oh, hell no.

Is that vain?  I don’t care.  It’s true.  After all this, there is no way in hell that I’m going to settle on a A or barely B cup.

“So you want me to gain twenty pounds?” I ask.  “Cheeseburgers all around in the name of bigger boobs?”

He agreed that that’s a possibility, but I’m not sure it would work.  A cup size of belly fat would, at least, quadruple the junk in my trunk.

And before you go there, my mother-in-law and husband already beat you to it.  Yes, they could use other sources of fat (my badonk), but Dr. BAB doesn’t recommend it.

So what I’m left with is my pros and cons list.

The route to implants starts with expanders — to literally expand my skin and create a space for boobs — that would have to be ‘filled’ every two weeks or so for about four months (I think?).  I imagine that hurts 50 times more than tightening braces, but I don’t know anything about either.  Then it requires a ‘swap’ surgery to replace the expanders with the implants, and surgery every 10-15 years forevermore to replace the implants themselves because implants expire.  Did you guys know that?  Weird.

Although it’s more surgery, it’s an easier surgery, taking only around two hours each time (DIEP takes 10-12 hours!), AND I can go bigger.  I’m not trying to get crazy here, but I can’t swallow being smaller than before after having to deal with so much crap.

But implants are not a perfect fit for me either.  Since they are literally just mounds on your chest — and I have no fat or breast tissue to surround them — they would be just mounds on my chest, and one of the things that currently bothers me most is the concavity of my chest, especially my upper chest.  In fact, it was this upper chest hollowing that led to me considering reconstruction because it is noticeable in a lot of clothes.

This is embarrassing for me to show, but it's the truth of mastectomies.  Check out the concavity and hey there, prostetic!
This is embarrassing for me to show, but it’s the truth of mastectomies. Check out the concavity and hey there, foob!

As far as DIEP is concerned, it’s potentially only one surgery and done.  It uses my own tissue so I wouldn’t have anything foreign in my body and the infection rates are much lower as such.  It would address the concavity and the look is more natural.  Also, the procedure includes a free (??) tummy tuck.  I mean, not that I really need it, but it’s definitely on the pro list.  On the other hand, it would leave a pretty mean scar from hip to hip.

There are lots of other pros + cons, and Dr. BAB really tried to help me nail it down.  Like, in a nice, caring way.  He tried to help me decide which would work better for me, but it was like the time I tried to choose between JTT and Joey Lawrence.  At eleven, I. just. couldn’t.

He told me to go home and discuss it with my family, but what exactly does that even mean?  I tried to talk to Josh about it, but (1) he also doesn’t really know and (2) if he even hints around the visual or tactile benefits of one over the other, I basically accuse him of not caring about what’s best for my health.  Oh Heather, haha.

So what am I supposed to do?  Call my dad?

I know for sure that my mom would support me in not being cool with having a boob job to go smaller so there’s that.  And my mother-in-law definitely has her opinions, but they aren’t usually based on what you would call facts.

It’s been over a week, and this is where I am still.  Unsure and struggling to make a decision.  And it’s not exactly like I’m trying to decide between fajitas or pizza for dinner.  This is just phase one you guys.  Wait until I have to decide what to do about nipples.

The Angel on My Shoulder

When people say things like, “When one member of the family has cancer, the whole family has cancer,” my first instinct is to be all, “Um, no.  It was me who was forced to shave my head lest my newly crawling baby choke on my hairballs.  I was the one who had to endure the inexplicable, horrifying, gut-wrenching mix of constipation and diarrhea from chemotherapy, and it was definitely my life (and my boobs) on the chopping block,” but I know better.  I know that cancer does affect the whole family.  Boy, do I know it.

Baby isn’t ready to wean?  Cancer doesn’t care.  Your three and a half year old is putting on a special program at church for parents and wants you to be there?  Cancer doesn’t give a shit.  Between working full-time, taking care of two small children, a house (kind of), and a wife whose hormonal state that can only be described as “erratic,” your husband looks like he’s about to break?  Yeah, cancer couldn’t care less.

It really is brutal on the whole household.  Our cat ran away in the middle of my chemo.  Even she couldn’t take it.

We miss you, Ellie, the dumbest cat there ever was.
We miss you, Ellie, the sweetest and dumbest cat there ever was.

(As an aside, I just read the most brutally honest, touching piece about a husband’s experience with his wife’s cancer and ultimate death.  It’s a longer read, but well worth it.  I got lost in it the other afternoon and came out with a greater sense of humanity.)

In ways, I think that I have been able to move through this cancer business — feeling all the feels that I’m supposed to feel, dealing with what is in front of me — faster than my family because the world has been helping me.  You guys were helping.  I got cards (so many wonderful cards), gifts, visitors, open invitations to talk about my feelings.  You lovelies did a little doting on me, and it helped me get along and sort things out.

But my family… well, my family had to give up a lot and didn’t have a lot of time for sorting.  They had to focus their attention on me.  They had to pause their lives, or maybe put them into slow-mo, and put my needs ahead of their own. (Okay, maybe my baby didn’t, but believe me, when I compare those months of Alice’s life to Penny’s, it breaks my heart.)  My family had lots of feelings too — confusion, fear, anger, exhaustion, annoyance — but, while we did what we could, we just didn’t have the time or ENERGY to deal with their feelings like they deserved.  We all got swept up in cancer, and I was at the center of that.

Aside from family and friends, there are a lot of resources out there for cancer patients and survivors.  I am currently in a sort of young woman’s cancer support group, and I can’t tell you how helpful this has been for me.  It’s the whole “me too” factor.

The last time the group met, we were talking about the merits of different types of reconstruction (because I’m now entertaining the idea), and one of my friends (who has an implant) was all, “Here, feel mine” so I giggled a little and then I felt her up.

It just felt right, you know?

Like, her boob.  It felt pretty good.

Well, that and the connection I feel to these other young women who have gone through the same things as me.

Although I have only met up with them a handful (See what I did there?) of times, I feel like they understand me in ways that no one else in my life can.  In those few meetings, we’ve talked about things I’ve only thought about blogging about.  Things my other friends can listen to but just don’t quite understand.  (One day I’ll tell you about the kind of funny, kind of heartbreaking quiet confusion that ensued upon my husband’s and my first ‘meeting’ in the bedroom after my mastectomy.)

But, although they have had cancer too, in the way that the whole family does, there aren’t quite as many resources out there for the families of cancer patients.

That is why when the people at Angel on My Shoulder, a non-profit organization, got a hold of me recently and asked if I would help them spread the word about their (amazing) programs, I was all, “Yeah, you had me at hello, guys.”

Because as soon as I read about what they are doing — bringing relief to family members and caregivers dealing with the challenges of their loved one’s disease FOR FREE — I knew that I wanted to help them get the word out about their camps.  Because free relief, guys.

So basically, they offer five different weekend camps for kids whose lives have been affected by cancer through the illness or passing of a close family member (parent, sibling, or grandparent). Camp Angel is for kids ages 7-12; Camp Teen Angel is for teens ages 13-15; Camp Angel Adventures is for older teens ages 16-18; and Camp Angel Adventures Extreme is for 16-18 year olds who want to experience more extreme activities, and Camp Hozhoni, is a family camp for families with a child 18 or younger who has cancer.

My kids aren’t old enough to do this, but if they were, I would be so game.  It was hard enough for me to understand what was happening to our lives when cancer came along.  I can’t imagine how confusing or frustrating or scary it would be for a child to watch a mom or dad or sibling go through it.

New campers get ready for a weekend of fun at Camp Angel.
New campers get ready for a weekend of fun at Camp Angel.

These camps give kids the opportunity to be with their people.  The people who can handle what they have to say, who are right there with them, who can understand them.  Plus, it looks like a ton of fun.  Summer camps include swimming, kayaking, canoeing and fishing.  Winter camps feature snowshoeing, ice fishing, dog-sledding and sleigh rides.  I kind of wish I could go to the Angel Adventures Extreme.

Darci Sullivan (far right) enjoys a wet and wild ride at Angel Adventures.
Darci Sullivan (far right) enjoys a wet and wild ride at Angel Adventures.

Let me just reiterate why I agreed to write this post.  THIS PROGRAM IS FREE, cancer peeps and families of!  Take advantage!  (Well, it’s actually funded through donations, so that everyone who wants to attend may do so.)

And it’s not just for the kids.  In line with my own family needs, they host two different weekend retreats Angel Care and Healing Angels: one for cancer caregivers to give them the chance to replenish and revive themselves (Josh!); the other for cancer survivors to enjoy a safe and nurturing environment for them to continue their healing process (me and my ladies).

Although cancer may not give a shit, there are people out there that do, and I just wanted to make sure that you AND your families have to opportunity to find them before your cat runs away from the stress of it too.

 

**This is a sponsored blog; while the views expressed here are genuinely my own (as always!), consideration was paid to me by Angel On My Shoulder to review this product.

 

 

A Boobless Year in Review.

The fact that I had to amputate my boobs is hilariously ironic (re: terribly tragic) for two reasons.  For one, I had to cut them off when they were DOING THE ONLY JOB THEY WOULD EVER HAVE: breastfeeding.  (I mean, other than snagging a husband.  Hey-O!  😉 )  But seriously, out of all my years, I was only actually going to put my boobs to use for, like, two of them, and in the middle of THEIR ONLY FREAKING JOB IN LIFE, they decided to try to kill me.  Lazy bastards.

It’s also hilariously ironic (re: decidedly heartbreaking) because my breasts were pretty much my only body parts that I didn’t have a problem with.  They were kind of awesome, really.  Smallish but packed a punch, you know?  Quality over quantity and stuff.  I couldn’t have had buttcheek cancer or carcinoma of the stained teeth?  Or needed an amputation of thigh fat?  (JK.  No cancer is good cancer.  Also, I made those up.)

I think a lot of people wonder why I didn’t have reconstruction.  The truth is that I couldn’t handle it.  It was just too much.

What I'm currently working with.  Also, oh nos!  My boobs on the internets!
What I’m currently working with…  Also, oh nos! My boobs on the internets!  Sorry, dad!

Breast reconstruction IS NOT the same as getting a boob job.  Not at all.  So please don’t, “Well, at least you get new boobs!  YAY!” anyone who tells you that they have breast cancer.   She will be silently cursing you and probably giving you some pretty serious side eye.  Because no.

To my surprise at the time, there are many ways to build new boobs, but they all involve lots of pain and often multiple surgeries for a result that probably won’t ever look natural.  And if you go the implant route, you’ve got to swap those out every ten years or so.  Ugh.

I was all signed up to start reconstruction immediately following the mastectomy.  Like, I had literally signed the consent form and had a plastic surgeon on board.  Then something that the doctor said — that they have to say — just didn’t sit well with me.  There was a ten percent infection risk.

Hey man, that seems high, no?

There is very little time to make such an important decision, and your head is not exactly clear.  I tried to get the breast surgeon to tell me what to do because I also had to decide what to do with the healthy breast (Spoiler alert: I gave it the old chop-off too.) and sometimes you just don’t want to have to make the big decisions.

“If I were your wife, if I were your daughter, what would you recommend?” I asked.

“I would tell you that it’s your choice,” he answered as if he has this conversation dozens of times a week — which he probably does.

“No, I mean, what would you tell your daughter to do?” I repeated with what I thought was an edge of ‘It’s cool; we’re friends here’ in my voice but was probably more akin to hysteria.

“It would be her choice.”

“But you’re a doctor.  This is your specialty,”  I pleaded.

“It’s your choice.”

Gah.

Nope.  I couldn’t handle it.  The thought of anything else (besides the cancer) going wrong was too much.  I just wanted to be healthy.  I just wanted to raise my daughters.  I cancelled the reconstruction.

I’m still not sure if that was the right choice.  But that’s easy to say now that I am healthy and back to raising my daughters.

When I woke up from surgery, I couldn’t look down.  When the nurses came to empty my drains and assess the incision sites, I tilted my head and rolled my eyes toward the ceiling as they pulled back the dressing.

At home, Josh took care of everything.  In the shower, I turned my head and averted my eyes and he washed me.  I studied his face for a tell of how bad it was.  He doesn’t have a very good poker face, but his post-mastectomy face is impressive.

It took me almost a week to look.

I gingerly unvelcroed my sexy new surgical bra and forced myself to look in the mirror.  I couldn’t do it head on so I met myself with half-open eyes.

I was horrified.

It took me much longer to really look.

In the short year since, I have grown used to it.  I don’t surprise myself in the mirror anymore, and I can face myself head on.

20150512_165138

But I do have conversations like this:

“Penny, do you think I’m pretty?”  Yes, I know.  Probably not the healthiest question to pose to my four-year-old daughter, but cancer was a pretty heavy blow to my sense of vanity.

“Yeah!” she responded thoughtfully.  “I like the sparkle on your eyes.”

Then she looked down. I wasn’t wearing my prosthetics.  She reached out her little hand and swept it across my chest.  She rubbed back and forth a few times before looking up at me.

“Mom, even though you don’t have boobs, you’re pretty when you wear your prosthetics.  When you don’t, you’re not.”

I realized that I don’t want my daughter to understand beauty as purely physical or only by conventional standards.

“Why don’t you think I’m pretty without them?”

“Because it looks like you’re dead.  Like someone scraped off your boobs or something like that.  It makes me sad.”

Whoa.

I muster, “It makes you sad to look at my scars?”

“Yeah.”

And, honestly, I can’t argue with that.  It makes me sad too.

Not having boobs isn’t alllllllll gloom and doom though.  In fact, I made a list of all the advantages of the ‘flat and fabulous’ lifestyle.  It’s short because, let’s be real, boobs are awesome.

  1. It doesn’t feel like you’re laying on a speed bump while STOMACH SLEEPING.
  2. My husband can get to second base without me around and/or noticing OR skip that base all together.
  3. I get to say fun things like, “Put mommy’s boobs down now!  They are not toys.  You know that.”
  4. Because they are now considered ‘medical equipment,’ insurance pays for my bras.

    Free bras for daysssss.
    Free bras for daysssss.

Also, although I may not win a wet T-shirt contest, I can do fun things like this.

BoobCollage

Can you pack your husband a picnic with treats as awesome as your boobs?  Or greet him so kindly at the door?  Comfort your daughter with a piece of you and LEAVE IT WITH HER?  (Jk.  I don’t actually do that.  That’s weird.)  A little surprise for the mailman?

I do what I can.

Two months ago, if you would have asked me if I was ever going to reconstruct, I would have told you probably not.  That I finally feel decent again and more surgery sounds sooooo terrible.  That I was okay like this.

More recently, though, I have been having lots of sad boob feelings.  I’m pretty sure it’s because things are returning to normal.  My hair is growing back.  Family dynamics are getting back on track.  It’s just not so cancery around here, you know?

But really, it’s because I don’t feel like myself without boobs.  It’s not as much about vanity as I thought.  It’s more about not feeling comfortable in my body.  You might think this is a stretch, but, in a very small way, I feel like I can relate with Bruce Jenner right now.  I feel like I understand the transgender community in a way that I didn’t before.  Feeling comfortable in your skin is so important.  It can be defining.

As a child, I watched my mother dress in awe.  Her body, her feminine movements were magical, and I couldn’t wait to also have a woman’s body — like her.  With this “haircut” (which I realize is temporary) and without breasts, I feel uncomfortable in my skin.  I feel like that part of my identity has been taken from me, and like Penny, it makes me sad.

It is for this reason that I am now *thinking* about reconstruction.

All of this to say: I have an appointment with my plastic surgeon in a week.  I am now weighing my options and trying to decide if it’s worth all the pain, time off, and money.  I also don’t know if I hope to have enough abdominal fat for a DIEP or not.  Amiright, breast cancer ladies?

Dear newly diagnosed breast cancer patient:

I know you can hardly believe that I’m talking to you — that YOU are a cancer patient.  Unbelievable, I know.  It took me a long time, too, to truly identify myself as a cancer patient (because these things happen to someone else, right?), but as it turns out, in the future when someone asks you if you have cancer anymore, you will be reluctant to say no.  Go figure.

One year ago today, I, too, was diagnosed with breast cancer, and on this first anniversary of my diagnosis — or on my first cancerversary as they ridiculously say in the cancer world — I wanted to welcome you to the club.  It’s a club that no one wants to join, and I have to be honest.  Initiation sucks.  But membership lasts a lifetime.  (I didn’t make that up.  It’s like a motto or something.  This club is legit and stuff.)

Since you are now a part of my posse (I’ll teach you the secret handshake and give you your code name later, but you should know now that chest bumps are strictly prohibited.), I will impart some of my infinite breast cancer wisdom to you.

…uh, just kidding.  I don’t have this thing figured out either, but I do want to pass on a few things I learned along the way to maybe make this easier for you.

First, though, I want to say that I am sorry this is happening to you.  When I think back exactly one year, what I remember is fear.  Unadulterated panic.  A total loss of control.  I know it feels like someone is holding a gun to your head.  For days, weeks, months on end.  You are an endless supply of adrenaline and grief.  If you could somehow separate yourself from this body that so betrayed you, you would, but instead, you feel trapped inside of it.

It’s painful for me to remember how that felt, and I want you to know that you won’t feel like this forever.  The emotions dull with time and, for me, with medicine.  I’m not going to push drugs on you (because you are probably already sick of having to say no to drugs.  I’ve never had more marijuana offers in all my life because people either think it’s hilarious or that cannabis will truly cure your cancer.  Ugh, neither.)  What I will say is that there is no shame in anti-anxiety medication or antidepressants.  This shit is scary.  Uncertainty is daunting.  And meds don’t have to be forever.

I also want to save you some trouble and tell you that this isn’t your fault.  Intellectually, you know this, but you can’t figure out why this is happening.  In my search for THE WHY, my favorite doctor said, “I’ve asked myself that question about a lot of my patients, especially younger ones like you, and what I’ve come to is that shit happens.”

Shit happens.  It sucks to be on the shit end of this stick, but sometimes, shit happens.  This is one steaming hot, high pile of shit, but it’s definitely not your fault.

Okay, as my first real piece of advice, I want to urge you to stay offline for a while (except for my blog, duh) because I’ve often found it to induce more fear than give reassurance.  Bad outcomes are highlighted, and in much greater detail, online because who continues to blog or visit breast cancer message boards with great outcomes?  The people with the stories we long to hear are busy living their lives.  Women who have gone on to live normal, healthy, long lives aren’t often visiting or running breast cancer sites because breast cancer is not controlling their lives anymore.

But women do go on to live wonderful, long, full lives.

And because we’ve all seen how chemo goes down in the movies, I also know that you’re worried about the treatments ahead.  To be honest, they weren’t as bad as I had imagined.  Not a walk in the park but totally doable.  And just so you know, I didn’t puke once and my eyelashes have already regained their former glory.  Hallelujah and amen.

I have to warn you, though,that people will start talking to you about your attitude a lot, which is weird because when they had the flu last month, never once did you tell them to “keep a positive attitude” or to “look on the bright side” or to “stay strong.”  Instead you let them be sick, called to check on them, and brought soup, 7 Up, and a magazine.

The flu and cancer are definitely not the same — duh —  but my point is that it’s okay to wallow sometimes.  It’s okay to be scared, sad, angry, confused, and generally not so sunny.  You need to feel these things in order to move through this.  Besides, it’s humanly impossible to feel 100% positive while going through an early, chemotherapy induced menopause in a month flat.  (Those not in the club don’t know nothin’ about that.)

As easy as it would make things, attitude does not cure cancer.  Otherwise, we’d all be the happiest damn cancer patients you’ve ever seen.  We would rival Walmart greeters and kindergarten teachers.  People would want to get cancer to see what all the happiness was about and because a good joke is as easy a cure as any.  In my dreams, my friends, and probably yours too.

In real life, don’t let the pressure of being a “good” cancer patient drown you.

What I did learn about attitude is that while it didn’t change the cancer inside of me, it changed my cancer experience.  So my most important piece of advice for you is to BE OPEN.  Be open to making this experience as good as you can.  It’s happening anyway so why not?

Be open to finding the humor. (ALWAYS look for the humor in the cancer world.  You need a laugh, girl, and maybe, like, a margarita and a massage from Ryan Gosling.)  Be open to laughing when your baby tugs at your hair while you feed her a bottle and repeatedly ends up with tiny, adorable fistfuls of it.  (Oh, just me?)  Find the humor in that, lint roll your head again…and then cry in your pillow later that night because, like I said, that’s okay too.

Choose to change the script from “Why me?” to “Could this be any more ridiculous?”  So yes, you might be flashing your ninth stranger of the day, but in that case, doesn’t it kind of feel like Mardi Gras?  Instead of collecting beads, you’re collecting hospital bracelets.

Okay, that’s a stretch, but trust me, make that stretch.  You will end up laughing at things you would have otherwise cried through, and when you look back, you will remember these good times too.  You will remember laughing when the plastic surgeon insinuates that your best girlfriend is your lesbian lover.  You will remember laughing with your husband on the first day of chemo while taking bets on what mutant powers you’re about to get.  You will remember laughing when the hospital sends you a friendly reminder to schedule a mammogram (It’s been a year, afterall.) and you seriously consider making an appointment just so you can open your gown, hand them your prosthetics, and watch their faces.

There’s plenty to cry about too — you already know this — and you will remember the tears too.  In those broken moments, you will come to know yourself though.  Just don’t get stuck there.  Be open to what’s around you.  The hilarity as well as the tragedy.  The blessings on top of your bad luck.

Be open to your friends and family.  Letting people help me was one of the harder things about cancer, and I wish I would have done a better job at it.  You need the help, and your friends and family really want to help.  It gives them power in an otherwise helpless situation, and it gives them a way to show you they love you without really having to say it .  If they are there to help, let them. (But go ahead and buy new underwear now because there will be lots of hands in your laundry and you are more fabulous than your current underwear suggests. I know it.)

I don’t know what the future holds — for me or for you — and that’s the hardest part.  I do know that I can’t believe it has already been a year for me.  I can honestly say that, although that was one mother effer of a year, it flew by.  When I think about you, the newly diagnosed, what I really want to do is give you a hug and tell you that you can do this.  It’s not bigger than you.  No matter what happens.

A six month post-chemo checkup.

The other night, I got babysitters so I could go to bingo with my bffs.  (Obviously, we are suuuuper cool and also probably mentally approaching elderly.)  My babysitters are also our friends so they spent the night.  As we drug a mattress upstairs for the girls to sleep on in the living room, all of  sudden, I felt like Superwoman.  I mean, this thing used to be HEAVY.  Really heavy.  Now, I was practically throwing javelin with it.

“This is a lot easier going upstairs than it was taking it downstairs last time, isn’t it Brooke?”

::Blank stare from 13 year old babysitter::

“I mean, it feels a lot lighter, doesn’t it?”

“Oh, uh yeah, I guess so.”

And we plopped the thing in front of the TV.  Me, LIKE A BOSS.

“Unless,” I say contemplating how a mattress could lose weight (and if it could teach me its ways because Tamoxifen is not having the slimming Giuliana Rancic effect on me, bless her), “it really wasn’t lighter to you.  Was it just me?  It felt a lot heavier last time, but I was also pretty chemo’d last time we carried this thing.”

“Yeah,” she concedes, “you were.”

So I’m not Superwoman afterall.  I’m just, like, not half dead from chemo anymore.

Six months ago, moving that mattress took everything I had in me.  Thursday night, I pretty much dougied up the stairs with it.

My babysitter and me (and the rest of our posse) carrying the mattress upstairs.
My babysitter and me (and the rest of our posse) carrying the mattress upstairs.

I have not had a dose of chemo (save Herceptin which isn’t technically chemotherapy anyway) for just over six months and laying in bed that night, I started taking inventory.

My eyelashes and eyebrows have been back for quite some time, but my hair is taking waaaaay longer than I realized it would.  And I’m getting more impatient by the day.  Hair envy is real.  I spent a solid half of Easter Sunday admiring my teenage nieces’ golden hair.

This is what my stupid hair (and beautiful daughters) looked like on Easter.
This is what my stupid hair (and beautiful daughters) looked like on Easter.

While my nails never fell off, they did go to crap.  And by crap, I mean that they were slightly discolored, got super brittle, and were constantly peeling.  They, too, are getting stronger, and I only have slight peeling issues.  My skin is still dry but not chemo dry.  I’m no longer short of breath, but my blood counts aren’t quite back to my normal yet.  Hot flashes still happen but not with the same frequency and, more importantly, not with the same intensity.  My taste buds have long been back to normal, and while some of the “fog” has lifted, chemobrain persists.

What I am really left with and what I notice the most is the tiredness.  It’s not the same crippling exhaustion that I once felt, but I am not back to my former regular sleep-deprived glory.  It’s a tiredness that sometimes makes me wonder if it’s a lingering effect of the chemo or if it’s because I have two small children (and I think it’s a child’s greatest joy to rob their parents of sleep and sanity), but I know it’s from the chemo.  It feels chemo-y, you know?

I used to be a morning person.  Now my children practically have to drag me out of bed.  (“Mommy, can we have breakfast?”  “Mommy, Alice is playing in the toilet!”  Blah, blah, blah.)  Eight hours just doesn’t cut it.  For a while after treatment, I took naps.  Lots of naps.  Almost everyday, I would take a nap with the girls.  The need for naps lessened as the need to vacuum rose so I’ve almost all but given them up.  Hopefully, in time, I won’t feel like I need so much sleep.

I’ve also been able to get off of my anti-anxiety medication.  I was mainly using it to help me sleep as that’s often when panic sets in, and while I still have some, I have much less anxiety at the moment.  To keep it real, though, I am still on an anti-depressant, and I think I will be for a while.  I can still feel the depression trying to creep in, and while the anxiety is less of a problem these days, straight-up depression is probably more of a problem now than it was six months ago.

In the thick of cancer and its treatment, I had this really beautiful sense of clarity.  I knew exactly what did and didn’t matter.  I knew how I was going to live my life after cancer.  I knew where my time and my heart were going to go.  The problem is that the clarity fades.  It has to.  You just cannot live life in such a heightened, raw state.

And truthfully, it’s really hard to reconcile flawless living with real life.

This has been hard for me.  There are so many things that I want to do, but there are also so many things that I HAVE to do — like the laundry and the dishes and paying the bills.  You know.  But I am trying to find that balance, and I am trying to remind myself that I have time (fingers crossed).

So that’s what six months out from chemo looks like.  A little bit of a mess still, but hey, I can carry a mattress, my nails look better, and I can taste stuff again!

Also, if you were wondering, this is probably a more accurate rendering of my dance moves.  Josh’s too.

Dance

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.