My mind is consumed right now with worries and concerns that aren’t truly mine to bear, yet I feel if I don’t shoulder them in some way, no one will. Some are above my role, so to speak. Some are on my shoulders because others put them there for they don’t know how to carry them, or worse, don’t want to do so.
My mind spins.
I want to scream at the world, but the wind would just blow it back to me.
This is my safe space, my place to process, the place cancer created, but not a single worry and concern on my shoulders right now relates to cancer. I was no evidence of disease at my check up and blood work on Monday. For that news alone, I am grateful. I am humbled. I am relieved.
Yet, I am Sisyphus. The rock I push rolled back down the mountain on Friday, not from cancer. Thankfully, not from cancer. As I look at the rock, I question my ability to shove it, inch by painstaking inch, back up the mountain, for this time, is the burden truly mine to bear? My heart says yes, my gut says yes, and I’ve made it a point over the last three years to listen to my heart and gut instead of my brain. So, I square up in front of the rock, this boulder, this weight upon my shoulders. And, I take a step. The rock doesn’t budge, but I stand here with all my weight pressed into it, willing it to move up the mountain, just a bit because if I move and let go, I don’t know that anyone will move in to take my place, to hold the rock steady, to push the rock, to assume the burden.
This has been my role for as long as I can remember, shouldering burdens that are not mine to bear, taking blame for problems I did not create but feel responsibility.
1. Everything is estrogen, and my cancer was strongly estrogen positive; therefore, I’m doing everything wrong if I’m trying to stop my cancer from returning.
2. I’m 39 years old and still haven’t learned to keep my damned mouth shut.
3. When I think I being helpful, I’m not. See #2.
4. Cortisol, the stress hormone, causes fat storage and if I were less stressed, I would lose weight, and I need to lose weight because fat causes estrogen, my cancer was estrogen positive. See #1.
5. I can’t sleep because I’m not listening to my body. When my body says it’s tired, I should go to bed. The fact that I do and lay there for hours means I didn’t listen well enough.
6. I’m a smart person, and I can solve all my issues by stopping negative thoughts.
7. Since I had my ovaries and tubes removed to stop estrogen production, I’ve thrown my body out of balance, but it was necessary because everything is estrogen. See #1.
8. From now on, every time I reach for a Dr. Pepper or fried food or fast food or TV dinner, I need to remember they are estrogen in disguise. See #1.
9. By choosing to mask my true feelings about my cancer diagnosis in order to protect others, I’m failing at being good to myself, which causes stress. See #4 and #1.
10. I fail at being supportive enough to others. See #1, #2, #3, #4, and #9.
If anyone wants me, I’ll be Dimmesdale’ing myself in my master closet, looking over my shoulder in defiance of God’s warning while hoping not to turn into a pillar of salt, pushing my rock up the mountain, and ignoring the sword hanging over my head.
Facebook On This Day popped up a memory from two years ago today that I would like to forget. I had just had chemo 3, and as typical for my chemo cocktail, by day 5 post treatment, I didn’t feel great, but chemo 3 was different. By then, Taxotere, carboplatin, perjeta, and Herceptin had begun building up in my system. My counts were lowered. I caught a cold. Perjeta can have side effects on digestive systems and skin, and boy, did it on mine. Three days post treatment, the digestive effects were in full swing, and the medicine was barely keeping them manageable. Five days post treatment, I woke up with my right thigh covered in red, angry, painful pustules. I slapped bandages on them and went to work, making sure my other medicines were in my bag. Six days post chemo 3, I woke up with a scratchy voice, still painful skin on my right thigh with more pustules, and a new embarrassing side effect, an extremely painful one, too, related to the digestive issues. I went to work anyway. I slapped on my make up, my wig, my fake smile, a soft pair of gray pants, a grey sweater, a scarf, and no one knew anything was wrong…except my assistant principal who’s known me for nearly fifteen years. She side eyed me all day. Then…day 7 happened. In my sleep, I’d scratched my thigh. I’d opened some of the pustules. They were angrier, redder, more painful. My stomach couldn’t take anything but water. The other digestive side effect, the embarrassing one, was worse. I sat down on the bathroom floor and sobbed. Against A’s wishes, I got up off the floor, I put bandages on, I pulled on a pair of soft jeans, a navy blue sweater, a scarf, minimal make up, my wig, and my brown boots, and I went to work. I made it until second period. I had to walk my class to an assembly. I made it down my hall to the main hall, and I just couldn’t walk any farther. It just hurt too much. No matter what I did, friction hit the painful places. Skin to skin. Jean fabric to skin. Bandages to skin. My skin, all of it, just hurt. I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t be the person I wanted to be -the cancer patient who breezed through chemo without missing work or sliding on their obligations. I couldn’t do it. I leaned on the wall and burst into tears. My AP who had been side eyeing me for days and my head principal saw me. Both came to me immediately, concern etched on their faces. They surrounded me, and I told them I was ok, just tired -my usual answer to “How are you?” I really don’t believe anyone asks that question for any reason but polite speech. Fortunately, neither believed me, and even as my face burned red and my skin ached, they got me to tell the entire tale. They sent me home and made me promise to call my doctor. And, I did. I called Dr. O. I sent her pictures, at her request. She put me on very strong antibiotics, some skin cream, and made me an appointment with a colon specialist for the next day. I missed work that Friday to sleep, to let the antibiotics work, to let my body try and heal, and to see the colon doctor. By that next Monday, I finally, finally, felt better. I went back to school. The antibiotics worked their magic, the colon doctor worked some magic, and I still felt typically terrible, tired with a bad taste in my mouth, but at least my skin didn’t hurt as badly.
I needed people to look out for me. I needed people at work who truly, deeply cared for me, who cared enough to look beyond my mask and to see I was not ok. Sending me home that day, making me promise to call Dr. O, probably saved me from a hospital visit. I didn’t realize the skin problem was as bad as it was. I did though when I picked my antibiotics up and the pharmacist explained them to me. I didn’t realize how close I was to a systemic infection, but I knew how devastating one was to a person with a compromised immune system like mine was at the time.
I needed people who cared enough to look beyond my mask, to break my code, and they did…they do. They are some of the few who care enough to try. For that, I am grateful.
School lunch lines get a bad rap sometimes, and it’s probably deserved sometimes. Thankfully, I’ve never had a negative experienced with school food. I’ve always enjoyed food from the hot lunch line in my school district. When I was little, Fridays were chili days for my elementary school. I remember my dad giving me two dollars every Friday so I could buy my lunch. Throughout middle school, I often bought my lunch. By high school, I bought it every day.
As a teacher, I still buy my lunch from the hot lunch line. It gets me in the cafeteria where I can talk with, joke with, and laugh with students. It gets me out of my classroom. It gives me the opportunity to thank our cafeteria workers.
In November, my school district serves a Thanksgiving lunch. It’s a small thing, but today was that day, Thanksgiving dinner in the hot lunch line.
(I don’t like gravy…I know. I’m weird.)
Two years ago, this time of the year, I’d just had my third chemo treatment and was in the throes of a horrible reaction to Perjeta. I was miserable. My sense of taste was screwed. It constantly felt like I had brushed my teeth then drank orange juice. It was just an awful, awful time. I was barely eating because everything tasted so bad…but, this Thanksgiving dinner at school actually tasted right. I remember sitting in my classroom crying because something finally tasted normal. I was normal for those few minutes of eating. I was bald. My thigh was covered in red, angry pustules. My skin hurt. My heels were agony. I was exhausted. That school cafeteria meal made all the difference for me that day. For those precious minutes it took me to eat, I didn’t feel as terrible. And, I ate. I ate every bite of it. It was the best thing I’d tasted since starting chemo.
Today I went through the hot lunch line, collected my thanksgiving meal, went back to my classroom, and I smiled at the memory. The meal brought me comfort two years ago at a time when very little brought me comfort.
Today is the first day in five days I have not woken up with a headache. It’s been a dull headache, not often in the same place. Yesterday, it was my left temple. Day before, it was around the top of my head. Day before that, it was at the base of my head and top of my neck. I bet anyone can guess what my first thought was -brain mets. I’ve taken Excedrin Migraine on and off all week.
I woke up this morning without the headache. A’s been very sick most of this week. He has bronchitis, and the cough he has is ridiculous. It kept me up most of last Sunday night and Monday night. I slept upstairs on the air mattress on Wednesday and Thursday nights. I didn’t sleep well there either. That mattress is too hard. Last night, A insisted I sleep in our room. So, before I went to bed, because I still had that dull headache living in my temple, I took 2 Aleve…and, for the first time in a very long time, I took my anxiety medicine. It’s not something I take regularly. I have it for an as needed basis. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been fighting a low level panic attack for awhile. Two women I follow on Twitter and Facebook with Stage 4 breast cancer died this week, both young women. Neither with the kind of breast cancer I had nor diagnosed at the same stage or grade I had. Still, every breast cancer death I hear of hits me hard.
It reminds me I’m always one blood test, one scan away from another cancer diagnosis.
The headache I’ve had kept me in a low level of panic. What if it’s brain mets? That was my question every morning. And, yes, I Googled symptoms of brain mets. Nausea. Vomiting. Progressive headache. Weakness on one side. Loss of appetite. Vision disturbances. Distorted sense of taste or smell. Seizures. I don’t have any of those. The headache isn’t progressive. It’s been the same every day until today when I woke up with out it.
You know, before cancer, I would attribute a headache like this to Texas weather. Our weather in DFW this week has been stereotypical Texas weather. We’ve gone from a cold front with sleet to record setting highs to normal fall weather and back to summer weather. It’s so stupid. Before cancer, I would curse Texas weather messing with air pressure and all that. But, I had cancer, so every ache and pain gets side eyed. Is it a recurrence? Am I okay?
My head doesn’t ache today. It does feel full…a little pressure. But, it doesn’t hurt.
I’m still side eyeing it.
I fear normal aches and pains. I’m nearly 40. I know there are going to be aches and pains, but dammit, I had cancer. That makes everything suspicious, and I freaking HATE it.
Either Sunday evenings or Monday mornings, lately, it’s Monday mornings, I fill my pill holder with the pill I need to survive, the pill I need to help my allergies and stop bone pain, the two pills I need to counter my mostly uncontrollable hot flashes, and the pill I take to combat hair loss caused by the pill I need to survive.
Five pills. Every. Single. Day.
I’ve forgotten to take them exactly once. That happened when I switched to arimidex. I had a panic attack in the hospital after my DIEP reconstruction when my plastic surgeon told me I couldn’t take my tamoxifen because of a potential side effect with bleeding. I made my plastic surgeon tell me every single day I was in the hospital why I couldn’t take it. He ended up bringing me literature to read about it. I still called Dr. O, who assured me the few days I would be off tamoxifen were negligible because of its long half-life.
I’m positive if someone told me to stop taking these pills, I would panic. I know it can’t stop the cancer from returning if it’s determined to return, but it’s the best chance I have, along with zometa, which I still haven’t heard if my insurance has approved it, to keep my body an inhospitable place for ER+ cancer to reside.
That and losing fifty pounds. And drinking more water. And exercising.
I have the day off today. My house is quiet. AJ and S are out with A. I chose to stay home because I have a crazy busy week ahead of me. I see Dr. H tomorrow for my six month check up with her. It’s strange, but appointments with her don’t cause my anxiety to rise even though she’s the one who told us exactly what kind of cancer I faced and what my treatments would be. She’s the one who told me my cancer had spread to my lymph nodes.
She’s also the one who came to see me early the morning after preforming my mastectomy because she said she needed to see me. She said she knew I would be heading down the worst case scenario train in my mind and she wanted to talk me through everything she knew at the time. She’s the one who told me that the cancer in my lymph nodes and lymph channels was not necessarily a death sentence.
She’s also the one I call, most of the time, when something isn’t right. A new lump. A strange place on the skin. She sees me almost immediately. She’s the one who sent me for imaging last year when she wasn’t 100% sure a lump in my left foob was fat necrosis and asked the radiologist performing the ultrasound to tell me exactly what he saw because she would not send me home knowing nothing because I was terrified. It was fat necrosis.
She’s the one who Dr. B, my longtime OBGYN, sent me to see after I asked her who she would see. She said Dr. H’s name and said, “MY doctor.”
With Dr. H, I don’t feel like a patient, a statistic. I’m a person with a name and a need, and she knows it. Her whole office staff is that way. I’m sure tomorrow my anxiety will flare, and I’m sure walking into Methodist tomorrow afternoon will be hard because I pass by radiation oncology to get to breast oncology, and as wonderful as the radiology oncology department was to me, radiation is a level of hell I never knew existed.
I relive my diagnosis every single day. If it’s not the pills, it’s the doctor’s appointments. If it’s not the doctor’s appointments, it’s the news and social media. If it’s not the GOP destroying health care in America, it’s something.
Every single day reminds me of what I’ve lost and what I stand to lose, and the hell of it is, there is nothing, really, I can do except take the pills and go to the doctor’s appointments. I could do everything right and the cancer could come back. I could
do everything wrong and live to be 101.
I’m a pawn in the chess game of Fate. Forever in limbo, forever reminded of what cancer has done, can do, and might do. Forever wondering what the next move will be.
I’m constantly, continuously tired. I’ve told all my doctors, and they all agree it’s a combination of several things- insomnia, back to back to back to back to back surgeries (I had five -two major, two minor, one sort of minor- surgeries in a one year span…I’m still not a year out from my last surgery), a solid year of cancer treatments, radiation, and the whole PTSD resulting from diagnosis, treatments, surgeries, and follow ups. Every so often, it catches up to me in a major way.
Yesterday afternoon, I decided to lie down. It was 4 pm, and I figured I could take a quick nap before going to dinner and the football game. I woke up at 6:41…a lot later than I planned because that 6:41 came this morning.
Y’all, it’s Pinktober, and I get it makes people feel good to donate or help out breast cancer awareness, but the thing is…we’re all aware of breast cancer. What we aren’t doing, what we’re failing at with horrific and deadly consequences is finding new treatment options, finding cures -breast cancer is more than one type of cancer, providing support to those living with breast cancer and those living after cancer treatment, and realizing the happy narrative of breast cancer awareness month fails in so many ways.
There is an underlying arrogance of breast cancer awareness, if you’re aware, you won’t get cancer or if you do, it’ll be caught early. Fair enough on early detection, but early detection doesn’t save anyone from Stage 4 -one in three diagnosed at Stages 1-3 go on develop Stage 4. 40,000 will die THIS YEAR from Stage 4 breast cancer, the only kind of breast cancer that kills. That number HAS NOT CHANGED since the birth of Pinktober.
We have to do more than be aware of breast cancer. Awareness is not changing the statistics of survival, particularly for Stage 4. Research is. Clinical trials are. Doctors are. Science is. Advocacy is. METAvisor is. Stand Up to Cancer is. The American Cancer Society is. The National Cancer Institute is. Breast Cancer Research Foundation is.
Most of the time, lately, my anger towards the fact I developed breast cancer at 37 years old is on a slow simmer, but like any simmer, it can become a boil very quickly. Pinktober has my anger on boil 24/7. Breast cancer is more than a month and more than a pink ribbon. Breast cancer is millions of women and men. Breast cancer is 40,000 funerals and memorial services a year. Breast cancer is treatments year-round. Breast cancer is short term planning. Breast cancer is bankruptcy. Breast cancer is a game to politicians. Breast cancer is too many people’s reality.
I slept nearly 11 hours last night not because I was out late or had a hard day or week or because of any fun sort of reason. I slept 11 hours because I had breast cancer.
That’s my reality. That’s my January through December. It’s not just a rah-rah, feel good, pink-all-the-things time. It’s my life.
A year ago, I had my port removed. It served its purpose.
A year ago, we started getting ready to move, again, because our dream house was a month from being completed.
My husband’s motto for us is the cliche “You only live once” because the two of us know the fragility of life. It changes in an instant. So, a year ago, we started doing the things we’d been putting off -selling our house, pursuing career options, planning family trips. We are a lot less focused on the intangible.
A little over two years ago, I made the decision to return to the classroom as a teacher. I’ve never looked back, never questioned the decision, and I’m happier for it. This year, A made the decision to find a new job closer to home, scrapping his hour to an hour and a half commute. He found a position which challenges and fulfills him as much as his other job did.
We keep making changes, some big, like career changes, and some little. We’ve lived in the shadow of cancer and reoccurrence for two years now. So far, it’s no easier. Reminders from On This Day catch me off guard. Answering innocent questions about my port scar on my neck make me cringe. Today, AJ asked me about it. He’s forgotten about my port and those surgeries. Those were little surgeries to him. I was home within hours of those.
Oncologists talk about survival rates in years, in appointments in years. As a HER2+ cancer recoverer, I don’t get to go to six months and once a years until I’ve been no evidence of disease for seven years, or that’s Dr. O’s standard. I graduated to twenty week check ups with her, was yanked back to twelve week check up because of Arimidex, and am now to sixteen weeks because of my anxiety at my last appointment. I might return to twenty week check ups, but not until next summer. If I make it to three years with no evidence of disease, I’ll still be on twenty week check ups. Same for four years. At five years, Dr. O said she would go to six month check ups. Same for six years and seven. If I make it through year seven with no evidence of disease, I graduate to one year check ups…for the rest of my life.
Cancer is a never ending marathon.
Maybe one day, my picture quote will ring completely true for me. It’s not right now.
I’m not strong and full of fire.
My passion does burn, though, but not brighter than my fears.
Today was Pink Out for Breast Cancer Awareness day at my school.
I didn’t wear pink. Instead, I wore one of my Stand Up to Cancer t-shirts. It’s orange and white and gray. It’s pretty much the antithesis of the bright pink of breast cancer.
I came thisclose to wearing my black and blue wig. If my wigs weren’t still in storage, I would’ve.
Look, I understand that for many, the Pinktober and all the pink gives them hope, fills them with emotion, and unites them. I get it. I really do.
I’m just not one of them. I hate the sight of the pink ribbon. My 12 year old daughter can’t stand the color pink or the pink ribbon.
It’s painful for me, for us.
It’s a reminder that breast cancer puts my life at risk every single day. It’s a trigger for me, and I don’t say that lightly. My oncologist is pushing through a referral to a Baylor Dallas psychologist who deals solely with those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer because for the two weeks leading up to my 3-month checkup, I became so anxious and scared it truly affected my quality of life. Both Dr. O and Dr. H, who I see next week for my six month check up with her, see symptoms of PTSD in me. I can’t put into words how awful that makes me feel about myself -cancer and severe anxiety? Yet, I’m supposed to revere the pink ribbon and celebrate Pinktober…Are you kidding me?
I live with breast cancer and its aftermath every single day. I consistently return to places that are painful -Sammons and Methodist. I have had literal panic attacks stepping out of the elevator to the 4th floor of the Sammons building. I have sobbed stepping into Dr. H’s office. I guess that makes me weak, the fact I can’t get over the fact I had breast cancer. That I became a pre existing condition. That I became a liability. That I became a statistic.
So, in all sincerity, forgive me for my inability to participate in pink outs, to see good in the pink ribbon, or to celebrate Pinktober.
*This is a raw post. I wrote this on Sept. 28, 2017. I published it for a little bit, but then I deleted it. I’m posting it now because I’m better with what I wrote.*
Two years ago today, I sat at Baylor Dallas Charles A Sammons Cancer Center from 8:00 am until 7:00 pm undergoing my first of six TCHP chemo treatments. I sat in a private infusion room, thanks to a former student, and I graded essays, pretending I didn’t care that poison dripped into my body as long as the poison killed the other poison growing inside me.
I cared. I was scared. I was terrified. I acted like it didn’t matter. I didn’t want special treatment. I wanted to be normal.
Cancer isn’t normal. Nothing about life with cancer or after cancer is normal, and screw that whole happy, cheery “find a new normal!” Chemo and radiation and surgeries and pills and infusions and constant surveillance check ups should not be normalized.
See, that’s where I get angry about our society and breast cancer. Pinktober approaches where suddenly, everything is pink because we need to be aware of breast cancer. I don’t need a reminder to be aware of breast cancer. I’m a freaking walking human advertisement for breast cancer awareness.
I find it hard to believe anyone in the US is unaware of breast cancer. What I find easy to believe is that few know that 40,000 people die of breast cancer every year. Did you know that number hasn’t changed since Pinktober began? What I find easy to believe is that few know Stage 4 breast cancer’s, the only breast cancer you can die from, research is severely underfunded. Did you know Komen designates little of the money it raises to Stage 4 research? What I find easy to believe is that few know there are many subtypes of breast cancer and treatment options for some subtypes are limited. Did you know there are no immune therapies or targeted therapies for triple negative? What good is awareness of breast cancer if we’re not doing more to fund research, find treatments, and provide support to those with breast cancer?
You want me to be happy I had breast cancer? Have several seats. Over the last two years, I’ve been told I had a good cancer, that I got new breasts out of the deal, that I’ll beat it.
No cancer is good, I was perfectly happy with my real breasts, and what if I don’t? Stop placing unrealistic pressures on those with cancer. It happens to anyone through no fault of their own, and that’s why I despise the battle metaphor of cancer. No one loses to cancer. Cancer isn’t defeated because someone fought harder. Cancer doesn’t look at someone and go “Oh damn, maybe I should’ve picked a different body because this person is tough.” Stop it. It sounds ridiculous because it is ridiculous. The battle metaphor is all about making someone without cancer feel good, feel like they’re being encouraging, feel like they’re being supportive. Ok, fair enough, but look at the other side. If you tell your friend or family member they’re going to beat cancer and they don’t, you really want to put the shame of losing on someone who died from cancer? Really? Few things get to me as a person recovering from breast cancer like Pinktober and the battle metaphor.
I still don’t understand why this happened, what lesson I’m supposed to learn, and why I should be grateful this happened. I’m bitter, I’m anxious, and I’m paranoid because my cancer could come back at anytime no matter what I do. I can take all the medicines, do all the exercises, eat all the healthy food, and it can still come back. So, yeah, I’m not more gracious, I’m not more humble (I’m humbled by my friends and family and the sisterhood of longtime friends and my coworkers because they care about me as a person, not just a person recovering from cancer), and I’m not more patient. I’m not a better person.
I’m none of those things the pink myth of Pinktober perpetrates. That is one of my many failings, I suppose. Or, I guess I just didn’t learn my lesson, something I’ve heard on and off my whole life when I’ve gone in a different direction than the one I was supposed to choose.
Funny thing, though, those choices, those different directions led me to A even though, on the surface, we had little in common, yet he, in very real ways, changed me for the better as much as he says I changed him for the better, and that choice led us to S and AJ. Those choices led me to UNT where I earned both my Bachelor of Arts in English and my Master of Education. Those choices led me into teaching. Those choices led me to my current campus where the love, support, friendship, and sense of family is unmatched.
I think today, knowing today is the day I sat for eight hours receiving TCHP for the first time is the second of the three hardest cancerversaries -the day I got the call, the day I started TCHP, and the day I had my mastectomy.
I’m glad, ecstatic to be NED right now. I want to stay NED. But, I also want more treatments, more research, more support. I’m alive because of the research from the American Cancer Society that led to Herceptin. I’m alive because of the research from Genentech that led to Perjeta. I’m alive because of taxotere created from the bark of the yew tree thanks to the research of Pierre Potier, and I’m alive because Michigan State University discovered carboplatin. Almost all components of my treatment plan were discovered in the last fifteen years. I’m incredibly grateful for their discoveries, but we have to do more.
As Pinktober approaches, I implore you to think before you pink. Ask where the money goes.
Cancer is hard. Fighting it, living with it, living after it. No cancer is easy.
I had no intention of writing half of what I’ve written tonight. I was going to just write that today’s the two year anniversary of my first chemo treatment. But, thinking back on this day two years ago, I remember myself sitting in that infusion chair wearing jeans and a maroon shirt with long hair and grading papers. I remember getting up the next morning and going to work, finding get well cards from my classes. I remember the blinding headache I woke up with, the horrid taste in my mouth, and the strange red rash on my chest. I remember acting normal. I didn’t want pity or sympathy. I just wanted to be.
I guess that’s why it’s hard for me to quantify this cancerversary. Without it, I’d be dead. Because of it, I’m a different person.