This is the week. 11 years ago. Cancer diagnosis. The day before Thanksgiving. I thought my life was ending. I was wrong.
It has been nearly 11 years since my diagnosis—so long that I do not have much about my disease to report anymore, which makes me super happy but does not lend itself to populating this blog with cancer content. But here’s something: My baby boys were 3 years old and 18 months old when I was diagnosed, and now, at ages 14 and 12, they are WOWing me with their accomplishments. I am fantastically thankful that I am here to witness their wonder.
Brothers Joey (14) and Danny (12) and their cousins Jordan (11) and Tori (8) received a video challenge from John Donaldson (their dad/uncle) for Summer 2015. The challenge was this: Jordan must play the piano, Joey and Tori must act, and Danny must produce the video and publish it on YouTube. John offered a cash incentive, and all parties jumped on board (although somewhat reluctantly because, well, it was summer, and the assignment resembled something close to homework). After a summer’s worth of work (and fostering sweet baby kittens) and a few months of procrastination, the video is complete. Please enjoy and share!
In a contest of dogs and cats, I have always picked dogs. I think it is because I grew up with miniature schnauzers, and my mom, who lives nearby, still has two of these little gray canines. Leo and Benny have quirks—one incessantly barks at all people, even family members, who enter the house, and the other is obsessed with the roving pool cleaner and any squirrel he spots running outdoors; he also runs away from the leash when it is time for a walk, a little game he plays that drives my mom nutty. Despite their drawbacks, pups are all I have known; therefore, I have always voted for them. Never cats.
Until 12 days ago.
I do not know exactly how it happened, how I agreed to taking home from the Alachua County Humane Society three foster kittens—Owen (OMG, he is so small and cuddly and orange); Olive (she is the spunky, spirited one marked with black and white); and Ofelia (she is the shy, reserved one with a black and brown coat and beige paws). I had no idea how to care for kittens, but my boys, who have long begged for a pet, were so happy that I agreed to foster three sweet babies after learning about fostering opportunities at our Humane Society orientation that it seemed OK that I was clueless. The day after orientation, we headed home with three furry 6-week-old bundles in a travel crate with a litter box, litter, and dry and wet food.
And now, I know how to care for kittens. I also now how to love kittens. When my boys ask me, “Do you like puppies or kittens better?” I do not have an easy answer. The vote is close.
Because one of us has allergies to adult cats (not to kittens, just cats), we say that we will become a foster family; we will continue taking in kittens who need a place to stay and love in their hearts, and we will return them when they are ready for a forever home.
Today, I returned Owen, Olive, and Ofelia to the Humane Society. Twelve days, they lived with us. We fed them, hugged them, played with them, comforted them, introduced them to our friends, and now, we love them. We think they love us, too.
I am heartbroken. I am sad that our houseguests will live in a cage until they are adopted. I am crushed that they will likely be adopted one by one until only one of them remains. I fear that they will miss us like we will miss them. I worry that I will not be able to foster again and again, as planned, because it is too emotionally hard.
In a contest of dogs and cats, I am torn.
Because itty-bitty kittens have touched my heart.
A few little tears filled my eyes when a photo of a luminary (see middle image) arrived via text yesterday from my friend Sharon, who was up all night at the Relay for Life event in Newberry, Florida. (Because cancer never sleeps.) I had no idea this luminary would help light the high school track last night. I am touched. Truly. Thank you for thinking of me, Sharon.
Today, I sat in a chair with a microphone in hand in the front of a classroom filled with 100-plus first-year University of Florida medical students. Dr. Averbuch sat in the other chair, sort of facing me and sort of facing the students whose eyes focused on both of us. Dr. Lynch, my oncologist and professor of the class, sat in the crowd and watched, nodded, caught my eye, and sent non-verbal support in my direction. Dr. Lynch has been in my corner, soothing my soul, for 10 years.
Dr. Lynch’s warmth and compassion are part of what I discussed this afternoon with the med students. My task for the class was to answer questions from Dr. Averbuch, a UF psychiatrist, who aimed to draw from my story the mental health implications of a cancer experience. For 1 hour, he did just that. We talked fear, anxiety, depression, therapy, medication, and the weepiness that consumed many of my treatment days. I choked up when I recalled the terrifying nighttimes just after diagnosis when I watched my sleeping babies and convinced myself that they would grow up without a mom. Those memories always get me, even though my babies are now 11 and 14 years old.
I also chatted about rebounding, recovering, coming back to life, and helping others through this blog, the wigs I loan out, and the gifts I drop on doorsteps and in mailboxes. Dr. Lynch says my visits with medical students help, too.
My message was just what they needed to hear, he said.
I do hope he is right.
Hi. I am a journalist from Mumbai (formerly Bombay), India. I have followed your blog for years. It wasn’t by chance that I saw it. Since my sister was first diagnosed and passed away three years after complications from breast cancer in 2000, I have been reading about it. It was during one such search that I came across your blog. I have been reading it since then. In fact, you inspired me to start my own blog, called thinkpinkforindia.blogspot.in
I work for an English newspaper called Mid-Day and would like to interview you about your blog and your journey from diagnosis to being cancer free. The interview will, of course, be on email though I would have loved to meet you. Please let me know if I could send you the questions for the same on this address.
I told her that YES, she could send me the questions. And she did. And I answered them. And this just published:
‘I needed to dry my tears’
Thank you, Ashlesha Athavale, for the opportunity to share—and for committing to the breast cancer cause in honor of your sister.
I could not get enough of the TV show “Breaking Bad.” I loved everything about it. (Well, not the reminder that meth and murder are real problems in real life.) I was captivated by the characters, the stories within stories, the edge-of-my-seat moments, the humor. Yo. I binge watched that show whenever I could, although I never did cheat and watch without my husband, who was also hooked. I was sad after the last episode. Lonely. I longed for more. Sometimes, I still crave more. But mostly, I have rebounded.
I could not get enough of the book “Berlin Dancer.” You may not be as familiar with this novel as you are with Walter White and Jesse Pinkman, but this gem should most definitely grace your bookshelf because it is gripping. And here is the thing—I would not have picked up this book all by myself because I typically put everything in my life before reading. I need to change that. But my badass breast cancer friend Cindy Hurst wrote “Berlin Dancer.” She poured her heart and soul and many years into her masterpiece, and I wanted to witness what she created. I am so glad I did. No spoilers here because that would rob you of the fascinating journey of reading Cindy’s beautifully and powerfully crafted words, but I am pretty convinced that you will devour the twists and turns of this story of a young girl growing up in post-war East Berlin. This 368-page book weaves together mystery, history, hardship, war, love, loss, revenge, and more. I am sad that I have read the last word. Lonely. I long for more. I have not yet rebounded.
So that you can see that I am telling you the total and complete truth here, I assign you this homework:
Read “Berlin Dancer.”
Throw a paperback or Kindle edition in your Amazon shopping cart, visit your favorite brick and mortar bookstore and have the folks there order you a copy AND/OR leave a comment sharing the name of your most favorite book to date, and Cindy will gift TWO of you with your very own delivered-to-your-mailbox copy. Giveaway rules are as follows:
- Leave a comment on this post sharing the name of your most favorite book to date.
- Leave your comment no later than 5:00 p.m. EST on Thursday, December 11, 2014.
- You may enter only once.
- Open to legal residents of the 50 United States and the District of Columbia who are 18 and older.
- Two winners will be selected in a random drawing via random.org.
- Two winners will receive one copy of “Berlin Dancer.” Book is currently listed at $13.95, with the suggested retail price of $16.95.
- Winners will be notified by email, so make sure to check next week to find out if you have won!
WROTE A BOOK.
(Which, in Kindle version, happens to cost just .99 cents right now.)
My true test of a good book is making it through the first few pages without putting it down. Cindy Hurst—your book has passed my test, and I cannot wait to keep reading.
Amazon Book Description:
In New York City, 1989, after a man is murdered in cold blood, world-renowned prima ballerina Andrea Brandt is accused. She admits to her attorney that the devil got what he deserves, but tells him that she cannot remember what happened. As her attorney presses her for more information, Andrea begins to tell him her story, taking him back in time to WWII, in what would eventually become known as East Berlin. Step into the past, in an unforgettable journey spanning two generations, in a story of survival, love, revenge, mystery, and murder. See what readers are calling “great historical fiction,” “well-crafted,” and “hard to put down.” Berlin Dancer is guaranteed to keep you guessing until the very end.
Ten years ago TODAY, on November 24, my phone rang at 10:00 a.m., and the doctor who had performed my breast biopsy the day before told me that my pathology report was back. “Unfortunately, cancer cells were found,” he said. TEN YEARS. I am lucky.
That girl. In the pink wig. And the tutu. And the date 8-19-14 written on her shirt. That is my friend Jenn. She received her breast cancer diagnosis just after she returned home from dropping her fifth- and eighth-grader kids for their very first day of school. She rang me shortly after her devastating call arrived. Still in shock following a previous opinion indicating that it was highly unlikely she had cancer, she asked me, “How did you stay calm?”
I did not stay calm, I told her as I worried that her unraveling emotions may get the best of her. I knew the crushing blow of a cancer diagnosis, the fear of leaving children behind, the weeping and waiting and wondering. I knew that her insides were in turmoil and probably would be for some time. What I did not know was that this girl would emerge an ass-kicker. Now, more than 2 months post-diagnosis and after one lumpectomy, two chemotherapy infusions, and one buzz cut, Jenn is rolling with the punches—the after-chemo bone pain, headaches, sore scalp, baldness, fatigue—and is, on the outside, one truly spunky and spirited survivor.
[See photo exhibit above.]
“You are the toughest cancer girl I know.,” I told Jenn the other day. “Way tougher than I was.”
“I find that hard to believe,” she replied. “But thank you.”
Believe it, girl.
And believe this: You are going to CRUSH cancer. Actually, I think you already have.
Filmmaker Chris Thibault reached out to me today. He shared with me a documentary he is making about HIS breast cancer.
Yes, HIS breast cancer.
He is THAT GUY, and he wants you to know about it.
So do I.
My voice is on the Internet. I am not quite sure how I feel about that, but if you have 45 minutes to spare and want to hear me babble on about breast cancer, well, then, here you go.
World Changer Sessions offer behind-the-scenes access into the journeys of forward-thinking, big-hearted, conscious individuals who are pioneering positive developments in technology, society, food production, education, and more. Listen to additional podcasts here.
Today, I passed on my wig and a bundle of gifty items to a friend who will embark this week on chemotherapy for breast cancer. I do not know if my almost-40-year-old pal will use the wig because she has already chosen one that makes her look like a young college kid. But I do hope that she can use the goodies I packaged together for her in a brown paper gift bag. I selected each item for its significance in the chemo game: A REAL SIMPLE magazine for passing her minutes in the infusion room, a bottle of water as a reminder to hydrate, some Club crackers to soothe a maybe-queasy tummy, cozy socks because they were my favorite chemo gift, a small journal and pen so that she can jot down notes and questions and concerns, and a bling-y little bell she can ring for assistance when she least wants to exert herself. I wish I could give her total peace of mind that she will be OK and that this will be her one and only encounter with a life-threatening disease. But I cannot even give myself that gift; I can give her presents, though. And I can tell her that I am confident she will crush this stupid cancer. Because I do believe she will.
It has been almost TEN YEARS since I stood with a malignant tumor in my left breast and watched my sleeping 3-year-old in his big-boy bed and my sleeping 18-month-old in his comfy crib and tried like mad to crush the panic in my gut that told me I may not see these beautiful beings grow up. And now, tonight, the 6-footer kid, who is dangerously close to 14 years old, is out on the town with a bunch of boys and a few girls and no adult supervision (except during chaperoned trips to and from destinations, which include the movie theater and a local high school football game). His first night without grown-ups orchestrating and helicoptering his every move. That kind of scares me. It also makes me super happy.
I am in awe of this kid who is growing up in front of me, despite cancer’s threat. It is a true joy to watch him take baby steps into the world. He is mature, confident, kind, social, and funny. I am sure he will sometimes stumble along his path to independence because that is just normal, but I mostly expect he will smoothly transition into a life that does not involve constant parenting. I will miss him, like I do tonight, and that leaves a little hole in my heart. That hole, however, is filled with the knowledge that he is one of my greatest accomplishments, and I am honored that I get to witness him spread his wings and fly. It also helps that his 11-year-old brother still plans to live with me forever, maybe even with his wife. I am so not ready to wrap my head around his first night out.
This is me. On paper. In black and white. Defined by numbers. Like 1.1 (size of my breast cancer tumor in centimeters), 1 (stage of my disease), 4 (number of lymph nodes removed), 12 (number of Herception infusions I received), 93 (percentage that predicted my survival for 5 years). The numbers go on and on.
There were enough numbers to cover the floor and tables of the space where I spoke this morning to two small groups of Univesity of Florida medical school applicants. The purpose of my talk was to bring to life my numbers, to demonstrate that for each digit strewn across the place, there is a story. Like 18, which represents the months I spent in counseling trying to wrangle the tears that continually poured from my eyes and anxieties about living to see my baby boys grow up. And 2, which is the sum of my individual hospital stays that lasted for 10 total days. I talked about the first low blood counts (700) that landed me on the bone marrow floor (because the oncology floor was full) and earned me a blood transfusion, the second low blood counts (1200) that recovered much more quickly and without donor assistance, and the 4 infusions of chemotherapy that robbed me of my hair but gave me 10 extra pounds.
I also shared some happy stories. Like how my blog reaches 80-plus countries, how my wig has traveled across the United States 4 times so that other women could benefit from the comfort it gave me, how I now have a 0 chance of recurrence because my cancer only returns in the first 5 years, and how I will have survived for 10 years in November. I was 34 when I was diagnosed. Now, I am 44. My kids, then 3 and 18 months old, are now 13 and 11.
I do love numbers. They fascinate me. But they do not reveal sadness, suffering, pain, hope, joy, relief. Patients are so much more than the numbers that fill their charts, and my message to today’s applicants was this: Find a way to personally connect with those you will treat. The connection does not need to be long or lasting; it just must be meaningful.
If these applicants attend the University of Florida for medical school, they would be wise to model the manner of Dr. Lynch (pictured right)—my warm and loving oncologist and friend—who continues to invite me to speak during interview days because he thinks it is critical for prospective students to learn about real-life medical journeys so that they can become compassionate patient-centered physicians. I think he is right.
After my chat, one applicant shook my hand and tenderly said, “I will definitely think about things differently now. Thank you.”
I need nothing more to confirm that my message matters.
My intention today was NOT to post a no-make-up selfie (or any selfie at all, really) on Facebook, but I did because these photos tell a story of a girl who did not listen her to wise grandma when she warned of the dangers of tanning, a girl who cried her mascara off this morning from numbing injections to the face and ear, a girl whose biopsies may reveal skin cancer (again), a girl who, if she could do it all over again, would not bake in the sun or scorch in tanning beds.
I posted this no-make-up selfie today because I hope that it will maybe nudge someone else to take caution with the sun. Like I did not.
But I managed to survive baldness for the few months it lasted because I found a wig that kind of tricked people into thinking I had not lost my hair. It was that super-fantastic. My mission while enduring breast cancer was to look and feel as normal as possible. At times, it was hard to pull off. But my wig helped. A LOT.
NOW, this is not an advertisement for the company that sold me the best camouflage ever, but I do highly recommend underhair (a halo hair wig worn under any hat, cap, or scarf) for anyone who is as freaked out by hair loss as I was.
OK, quiz time: