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.

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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?

The Power of Me Too.

A year ago, I could not have imagined the good that breast cancer would bring into my life.  At that time, it ALL felt bad.  I didn’t know how I would get through the coming months, and I couldn’t imagine the big things God had in store for me — the doors He was opening.

Almost exactly a year later, I found myself here…

20150417_200240…five minutes from NYC.  At a blog conference.  On someone else’s dime.  Whaaaaaat?

When I got the official invite from Janssen a couple of months ago, I thought that it might be some sort of scam.  What could they want from me?  But as it turns out, it wasn’t a joke.  This conference was the brainchild of some very passionate people.

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I have to say that I was pretty nervous that first night as I walked into a cocktail reception overlooking Manhattan by myself.  Afterall, I’ve spent the better part of the last five years wiping butts and trying to get people to go to sleep — both at home and at work as a night nurse — and my blog is not professional.  But as it turns out, one coffee + three cocktails is the recipe to loosen me up.  It’s also the recipe to make me pee.

The welcome dinner setup kind of felt like the high school cafeteria all over again — but in a much more chronically ill, hilariously somber sort of way.  See, once I sat down in my assigned seat, I noticed that everyone at my table was a breast cancer blogger.  I looked around, and it was clear.  There was the diabetes table, the rheumatoid arthritis table, the HIV table, the Crohn’s/colitis table and so on.  People were swapping surgical stories, comparing psoriasis patches, and talking common medications.  As if on cue, my table compared ports.

We were grouped by disease, and I don’t know why but I LOVED IT.  It was the funniest possible way to start this conference.  And I’m assuming my table was part of the cooler crowd, though, because BOOBS, you know?

"On Wednesdays, we wear pink!"  Except we're really effing OVER pink...
“On Wednesdays, we wear pink!” Except we’re really effing OVER pink…

I mean, it was also really nice.  My breast cancer girls are where it’s at, and it’s easier to get comfortable with people you don’t know if you have something in common like, uhh, cancer.  But I also felt the weight of being grouped together like this.

In an introduction speech, Ann Silberman’s blog Breast Cancer? But Doctor….I hate pink! was mentioned for its wit.  The speaker read aloud Ann’s tagline, “Terminal cancer can be funny. Just not for very long,” and it was met with an immediate laugh that swiftly turned into a collective “awwww.”  You know the sound.

And when I first spoke with Jen from Booby and the Beast, she asked if I had been stage four from the beginning.

“Oh, no!” I refuted.  “Me?  No.  No, I was only a stage one,” I said a little too firmly and with one too many “no’s.”

A few minutes later, I learned that she was stage four from the beginning.  (She looked so healthy!  Looks can be deceiving — which I learned again and again that weekend — and also, I can be an idiot.)  And her beginning looked a lot like my beginning.  Diagnosed at 32 while nursing a baby with no family history to speak of.  Except I was diagnosed at stage one and she at a stage four.

I laid in bed that night and couldn’t stop thinking about her, about Ann and Vickie and Kathy — who are also “terminal” (Read this to see why that might not be the best terminology.)  I was the only non-metser there.  I couldn’t reconcile my own story against Jen’s especially.  I felt guilty.  I felt lucky.  I felt confused.

img_gs113719861_04182015_113719861From left to right: Kathy-Ellen Kups, RN, Life with Breast Cancer; Jen Campisano, Booby and the Beast; Vickie Young Wen, I Want More Than a Pink Ribbon; Ann Silberman, Breast Cancer? But Doctor…I Hate Pink; and me.

I saw her the next day.

“Hey, I was thinking about you a lot last night.”  <—because I’m a weirdo.

“Yeah, me too.  I read some of your blog.  Your last one was really good.”

“Thanks!  I read some of yours too.  It just seems so… I can’t understand…  I feel bad,” I trail off.

“Me too,” she said softly.  “I know that I’m basically your worst nightmare.”

I don’t remember what I said after that, but it wasn’t much because we had places to go.

My worst nightmare though?  No.  But YES!  But nooooooooooo.  Well, yesssss, kind of.  But not you personally, no.  Gah.

The event made me confront some things that I didn’t really want to confront, and to be honest — and to my surprise — it was good for me (after a little processing of my feelings because I definitely did think, at one point, that I had found a new cancerous lump in my armpit that weekend).

The point of this conference, though, was not just to let us hob knob and such.  It was to empower online health advocates.  (Did you know that I was a health advocate?  I did not.)  They wanted to give us some tools to help us make a bigger difference with our crafts.  We listened to brilliant speeches by inspiring people, like Dr. Zubin Damania “ZDoggMD” (who is also hilarious).  We attended sessions on bloggy stuff and had discussions about the legal side of things and social media analytics and measurement.  We got to talk shop with other bloggers.

While I learned a lot of really cool things, the biggest takeaway for me was something we talked about in terms of the power of “me too.”  It was something that was almost palpable at the conference.  It’s something we all long for, and it’s what a lot of really great friendships are built on.  It’s a sense of validation.

Just yesterday at the park, I saw a plaque on a picnic table that I read as ‘John Stamos’ at first glance.  It made me laugh and start talking to my friend about my excitement over ‘Fuller House’ (YOU GUYS!).  Then our other friend showed up and said the exact. same. things. based on the same misreading of the plaque.

“ME TOO!”  Hahaha.  “I’m pretty sure that’s why we’re friends!”

Just think about how excited you get when you find out someone loves Harry Potter as much as you do.  Or had the same pink and purple popple in 1989.  Or, like, has a scar in the same place on their knee as you.  We love even the smallest of commonalities.  Instant bonds are formed among parents of small children, Hanson fans (ahem), runners, motorcycle riders, vegans.

You see someone on the road in the same car as you.  Instant connection.

Someone else has their quilts on a rotation schedule so each blanket has its time to shine and none of them gets their feelings hurt?  YES!  It feels so good to your soul!

When I was in a room with dozens of other people who UNDERSTOOD the weight and effects of illness (cancer or not), it felt great, and more importantly, I realized why my blog is important.

Up until that point, I didn’t quite understand why I was there.  Some of these people were doing really great things with their websites, and here I am over here just trying to make myself laugh.  To be honest, I do do (doo doo!) this mostly for selfish reasons.

I started this blog because I couldn’t find one that didn’t scare me in the beginning.  I started it because I was tired of repeating myself.  I couldn’t keep up with the constant flood of texts and calls from my friends and family.  So damnit, here it is.  Here’s how I’m doing!  (And also, you know, thanks for caring.)  I started it to stop my head from spinning — to nail some of my thoughts down.  It became part of my therapy.

What I realized at the conference is that storytelling is important too.  People (who are not my dad and my best friend) are now coming here to find something — the me too.

Just the other day, I got this comment:

“Thank you for your blog and honesty. I am 6 out of 16 treatments through this mess (surgery and radiation to follow) and really needed to find a blog written by somebody not stage IV and a mother in her 30s. I read all of your posts either laughing, crying, nodding along or all three combined. I’m glad to read you’re doing well.”

That’s a “me too” that goes a little deeper than a shared love of Scattergories.  And not just on her part.  Every time I get a similar comment or email, I feel connected.  I feel stronger.  I feel less alone.  It makes me realize that what I’m doing by telling my story is important.  It’s important for her and for me.  So I guess that’s what I’m doing here — calling out into the internet for my people (re: cancer allies, people who like to laugh, and anyone who just knows that I’m generally awesome) to join me at this lunch table…err, blog.

 

Disclosure: Janssen paid for my travel expenses for the summit. All thoughts and opinions expressed here are, as always, my own.

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.

Do these jeans make my boobs look small?

Consider me $1000 richer, but, like, in memories because that check burned a hole in my pocket and then bought me a new pair of jeans.

I know I said that I would let you guys decide how I spent it, but I had to get cancer to win this money so I figured you wouldn’t hold it against me.  (Yeah, I pulled the cancer card again.  I also parked in the “cancer patient parking ” yesterday when I took Penny to the doctor because there were hardly any spots, Penny is so sick I had to carry her, and my hair is still short enough to look the part.  It’s really one of the only perks I get.)  I will, however, give you a short rundown.  It’s actually really easy to spent a grand.

There were the aforementioned jeans because I lost a pair.  Literally.  I don’t know where they went.  Josh is sure they’re at my boyfriend’s.  I’m sure I haven’t seen Taylor Hanson in over a year.  IDK.

Also, I bought a round of drinks for some girlfriends.  That’s mostly because I was showing them my budoir session photos, and I wanted to make sure (1) the photos appeared extra blurry. (2) they wouldn’t remember what they saw. (3) they would tell me the truth…that I’m super beautiful and, really, should be a mastectomy swimsuit model.  Also, because I love them, they make me laugh, they’re supportive and just really, really pretty.

With the rest, I paid some bills (or bill because, let’s be honest, I just couldn’t bring myself to be 100% responsible / boring with my cancer-earned money), and then I swept my husband off his feet or whatever.

The Monday after Valentine’s weekend (because it’s cheaper — you know, like how all the boxes of chocolate are 90% off now.  See, I was a little responsible.) Josh and I boarded a train to Chicago.  I really wanted to do something nice for Josh.  The weight of everything landed on him a month or two ago, and it has been hard to give him much of a break between me going back to work, our two girls, and my ongoing (but much improved) chemo fatigue.  So to show my true appreciation for him so steadfastly taking care of me and our littles, I whisked him away.  And then, promptly got sick on him again.

That’s just how I do.

Ugh.

Monday was a pretty glorious day.  You know, the “Yay!  We’re kidless!” kind.  You barely know what to do with yourselves, and you’ve kind of forgotten what the other person’s face looks like.  Over the poopy diapers, stacks of cancer bills, and sinks full of dishes, sometimes it’s hard to see.

“Oh hey, it’s you.  I forgot I kind of like you.  And look how handsome you are!”

After the train ride — which was waaaay more fun than driving, btw — we found ourselves at our hotel/spa with no real plans.  We filled our evening with food, bowling, drinks, dancing, singing, and a contest to see who could slide farther in their socks.  We made all kinds of plans for the next day and fell asleep.  So imagine my surprise when I woke up to relive the previous night’s dinner.

I know you’re thinking the same thing the hotel staff probably thought when we had to shamefully call them to pick up the bathroom trash can full of puke.  But no, I was not hungover.  I wondered this myself, but the truth is I only had two drinks (albeit, I’m not much of a drinker in the first place) and it lasted all day and into the next, when we went home.  It was definitely a bug.  And that bug kind of ruined Josh’s romantic getaway by, again, forcing him to be my caretaker.

He’s a pretty cute little nurse, though, and he said he still had fun.  He said that Monday night paid it forward for the whole trip, and if I had to get sick, at least it was when we had no children to care for, a king sized bed, and cable TV.

By the train ride home on Wednesday, I was feeling much better but hadn’t left the room since Monday (you know, for reasons other than the good kind of not leaving your hotel room for a day and a half).  It was there, on the train ride home, that Josh and I developed a new addiction: RUMMY.

Ha.  I know.  We are basically eighty years old (which is really kind of a goal of mine anyway) and super boring and surely there are cooler card games (Magic?  Uno?), but we have been having all sorts of “tournaments” and trash talking and scheming and sneaking in games while the kids are asleep or parked in front of a show or destroying the house or whatever.  The other night, Josh had a spray bottle full of water that he sprayed Alice with every time she tried to interrupt our game.  Before you call DCFS, let me tell you that she LOVED it.  She thought it was a hilarious game just for her, and really, how else are you supposed teach your children good game play habits?

So that’s that.  $1000 spent and a new card addiction gained.  What would you do with an extra “I had to go through hell for this” $1000?

Also, an updated hair pic for those of you on the edges of your seats.  jk.  But there have been requests…

Hair 5mos

Driving is hard and so is my mother-in-law.

The other day I was pulling into my driveway, and I hit the house.  I hit the house with our car.  Again.

What?  That’s never happened to you?

Don’t worry.  I’m okay, and the kids weren’t in the car to scream their bloody murder at my back.  I know that’s your concern right now, our safety.  You’re surely not wondering how one hits their house with their car.  Twice.  I don’t know what to tell you.  We’ve lived here for five and a half years. Turning into a parking space is hard.  It was just a little scrape.  GET OFF MY BACK!

After I, you know, hit the house, backed off the house, and then properly parked, I reached for the handle to commence my walk of shame, but Josh was already in the driveway — laughing at me.

Now I know some husbands wouldn’t be too keen on their wives peeling up a small portion of the corner siding of the house (twice), but Josh, well, Josh is accustomed to this sort of wifely behavior.  His mom is also known for her mad driving skills.  In fact, the first time I hit our house, Josh shook it off.  “My mom used to do that all the time,” he told me.  To this day, my mother-in-law’s chosen merging technique is to close her eyes and hope for the best.  No joke.

When I first met my future MIL, I was surprised by her candor — her frank nature.  So much so that, in the beginning, I was a even little intimidated by her because I was never sure what she’d say next, but it was probably going to be the truth, according to her.

Sometime in the first six months of our relationship, Josh’s parents went out of town for a couple of days, so naturally, we took up residence at their place that weekend.  When I next saw his mom about a week later at an in-home birthday party or somesuch, she entered the kitchen with MY BRA in her hand.

“I found this.  I figured it had to be yours.”

“Uh, yeah, thanks…” I muttered at the floor while shoving my bra into my coat pocket.

WHERE DID SHE FIND THAT?  Gah.  At 22, it was one of the more embarrassing moments of my life.  (By now, that would barely register.)  I mean, I had cleaned up my things before departing.  She could have only found it, like, on the ceiling fan or shoved under the mattress or in a kitchen cabinet or something.  And why didn’t she just give it to Josh or shove it in my purse?  Why were we having this “conversation?”

But that’s not how she rolls. Nope.  I was once a party to Josh’s sister trying on some hand-me-down jeans that ended up with my mother-in-law suggesting to her (beautiful and slim) daughter that she lose some weight.  We were all, “Oh, those look nice.  Yeah, maybe untuck the shirt.  Oh yeah, lookin’ good.”  And my mother-in-law was all, “[Daughter], those are just a little too tight, and I can really see your belly in those.  You’ve really been gaining some weight.  I think these would have fit you better a couple of years ago.  They don’t look very good on you.”

Whoa.

On the other hand, two weeks ago, she called me at 10pm in a half-panic, just to check on me and, more probably, Penny.

“Hello?” I answered.

“Heather?  Oh, good. You guys made it home.  I just saw on the news that there was a shooting at Chuck-E-Cheese’s, and I got so worried and my heart started beating really fast and everything.”

“Yeah!  I saw that too.  Isn’t that crazy?  We were at the other one, though, the one in Fairview Heights.”

“Well, good. I didn’t know which one you guys were going to, and I got so scared.  I just wanted to make sure you all were alright.”

“Oh yeah, we’re good.  Penny had fun.”

“Okay.  Well, I never want anything bad to happen to you guys, you know?  I’ll talk to you later.  I love you.”

“Love you too.  Good night.”

Yes, really — a shooting at Chuck E Cheese’s.  I don’t know if it was a skee ball game gone bad or the woman was driven mad by “the band,” but that happened, and we were, like, kind of, sort of, but not really at all, almost involved.

But that night, after getting off the phone with Nana, as we call her around here, I started thinking about how much our relationship has changed over the last eleven years, but in all that time, Nana hasn’t really changed.  I have.

Over the years, she has remained a constant in our lives, and when we had children, she really kicked it up a notch.  This woman is a career grandma, and that’s no exaggeration.  With eleven grandchildren (and two greats), she’s literally doing something with one or multiple kids almost every day.  My girls are the youngest, and she was disappointed that I wasn’t going to / now can’t have just one more kid.  She wanted an even dozen.  You know, because when bragging — grandma to grandma, kid for kid — an even dozen really packs a punch.

When Penny was born, Nancy seemed to stake a claim on her without my consent, (I’m her mother, afterall!  And at that sweet time, I had no idea what being a mother meant except I GET TO CALL THE SHOTS NOW!) and sometimes, it frustrated me.  Why are you planning her first birthday party?  I’m the mother here.  Why do you feel so free to just feed her whatever you want?  Ice cream isn’t good for her.  There was also lots of unsolicited advice and always, always wanting to know Penny’s “numbers” from her doctor’s visits.  I felt a little crowded sometimes.

Nana

But I was misunderstanding her.  I mean, it wasn’t the hardest thing in the world to do — to misunderstand her.  For instance, that Christmas, three months after having my first child, she bought me a scale.  Yes, a scale.  From my mother-in-law.  I kind of thought it was against the law, or at least highly, very heavily frowned upon to buy someone an unsolicited scale.  At any rate, I opened it and looked up to see my brother-in-law’s incredulous face.  We both kind of nodded and smiled.

Message received.

When I asked her about it recently, though, she said she bought that scale with Penny in mind.  I had once told her we didn’t have a scale (because I don’t like ’em! and, really, scales weren’t much of a thing in my house growing up), and she explained that she wanted us to have one so we could track Penny’s weight gain.  The babe was a preemie, and these things were of importance.

I had misunderstood.  I thought she was trying to keep my thigh gap game in check.  (I will never, ever, ever have a thigh gap though, scales be damned, and I’m at peace with that.)

What I now understand is that she is always acting out of love.  And she was viewing and still does view my children as her own.  And you know what, they ARE hers.  Just as my daughters’ babies WILL BE MINE.  And now that I get it, I AM GAME.  Take them. Plan their parties — that’s a lot of work, yo.  Do what you like.  Feed them whatever.  I don’t care.  Momma needs a minute, and I know you love them.  They are yours.  Can they spend the night?

There’s something really great in her taking on my babies.  Besides me (and possibly my husband, I’m not sure.), she loves my children more than anyone else in this world — and her loves extends to me, their mother, her son’s wife.

Throughout this whole cancer fiasco (and really, in life), she has been our number one.  Whatever we needed.  After my surgery, when I couldn’t hold my eight month old or have my three year old jump all over me, Nana kept the girls for an entire week.  And they love it over there!  I literally don’t know what we would have done without her babysitting and her love and support then, throughout chemo, and last night when I wanted to go to bingo.

My point is that I misunderstood her.  It’s easy to do with people.  This experience really shed light on a lot of my relationships, and I realized something about my mother-in-law.  She’s actually one of my besties.  And I’m as shocked as the next girl.  Aren’t you supposed to hate your mother-in-law?  Also, my 22 year old self wouldn’t believe this recent revelation.

But it’s true.  Case in point: we talk on the phone a lot.  Like, twice a week.  And I hate the phone.  She knows more about my daily life and what I’ve got going on in my week than anyone, including Josh (because she pays more attention).  Sometimes, it gets gossipy, which is fun and what girlfriends do, and at least once a week, we “hang out.” (Okay, I’m usually dropping my kids off or picking them up, but I stay a while to catch up.)  Total bffs, right?

I had a moment, at 21, when I realized this about my own mother.  We were sitting in the living room, watching TV, and I remember it hitting me.  “She’s the best friend I’ll ever have.  No one will ever have my back like she does or love me more.”

I’m not saying that Nancy has replaced my mother.  There is no replacing your mother.  (And I just have to say that my mom was hilariously cool.)  I’m just saying that she has done a damn fine job of loving me like one.  And she’s not about to let her own daughter walk around in jeans that don’t fit her.  OUT OF LOVE.  I promise.

My Imperfect Storm.

As much as I’d like to always just make you guys (and myself) laugh, I’ve got to be honest.  Over the last week, I’ve had mounting anxieties, and last night the fear in my heart erupted.  All over Josh.  In the form of my tears and snot.

You see, lately, I’ve been on the up and up, and, for the most part, I’ve been happy.  Happier than I’ve ever been, actually.  Mostly because I appreciate my life so much more now.  And I really know who I am.  Also, probably in part due to a hefty dose of denial.

But then three things happened, and I came crashing down.

  1.  Sam died.
  2.  I had a dream about an old classmate who passed a few years ago.
  3.  I started reading stories of women who are metastatic — like on purpose.

Let’s just start from the bottom up.

When I was first diagnosed, I wanted NO information.  I am aware of how stupid this sounds and really is, but I just couldn’t handle it.  All throughout treatment, I did the opposite of what most women do.  I avoided doing my research.  Oh, at times, I tried because I’ve always been a studious girl.  I read much of Dr. Susan Love’s breast cancer bible, but it only served to scare the living crap out of me.  The last straw for that book was when it “taught” me that women who found their cancer while breastfeeding had poorer outcomes (or you know, died more often).  Nope.  Just, no thanks.  I can’t do anything to change that so let’s just not even discuss it.  Please and thanks.  And back to the library you go, Dr. Love.

Part of the reason that I started this blog was because I couldn’t handle reading other people’s horrifying experiences with breast cancer.  I think a lot of people draw strength from identifying with others, but for me, it was like watching Friday the 13th before my very own stay at Camp Crystal Lake.

fallon

It is only now that I am trying to peek into the breast cancer world a little more.  I have been researching VERY slowly, and in doing this, I have stumbled across some blogs of women whose breast cancer came back and are now terminal.  And I can’t stop reading them.  They often take my breath away and always strike fear in my heart, but I regularly check on these women.  I feel like I owe it to them.  I feel like I can’t just shut them out because it scares me.  What if that’s me someday?  I’m not sure how much good it’s doing me now though.

Also, I had a dream about a former classmate (who I was friends with in middle school and early high school) who died a few years ago.  In the dream, he really just said hi and said he had to get back to work on the yearbook.  I was delighted to see him because I knew it had been a while.  But when I woke up, I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe Chris was trying to tell me something.  Give me a warning or welcome me over or something.  I also know that this is ridiculous.

But here’s where it’s not ridiculous.  On Monday night, I went to Sam‘s wake.  Seeing that sweet little boy like that knocked the happy denial right out of me.  You don’t get more real than that.  And seeing the grief of his parents reminded me that cancer just doesn’t care.  It really just doesn’t give an eff.  Like Miley Cyrus.  Or my daughter when it comes to wearing pants.  (Again, here’s the link to donate to Sam’s family.)

So for the past few days, all my pains = recurrence.  Because, obviously, pain + wild anxiety = my children growing up without a mother. Gah.  Does anyone have a chill pill?  Not Ativan.  I’m already taking that.  Like, a legit chill pill?

My mind is wild, frantic.  I’ve taken two steps forward, one step back.  And I wonder if that’s how the rest of my life will be.  Will I have to beat back this fear forevermore?  Will I always have moments of wide-eyed panic and silent alarm?  Will I have to learn to manage my ice cold gut every time I have a random ache?  Because, let me tell you, it’s a deep, dark rabbit hole, you guys.

I guess, as long as I’m taking two steps forward, one step back, I’ll eventually make it to a less fearful place.  And truly, in whatever state of mind I’m currently in, I am just so happy to be here.  To be alive and with my family.

But seriously, any advice from you “survivors” out there?  Or anyone else?  Bueller?