My boys have summer journals, and they’re writing every few days to keep their skills sharp for the 2nd and 4th grades. I’ve been writing along with them, because I want to show them I’m not afraid of a little summer work, and well, because, writing makes me happy, and it helps me process all of life’s twists and turns. And that’s sort of what I wrote about today in my black and white composition book — getting through the ups and downs, and cutting down on stress.
My essay turned out to be a list, and here are 12 of my ideas for finding peace. Might want to try a few if you’re searching for a little calm.
Do you have a front porch? Sit on it, especially if there’s a nice evening breeze blowing by.
Read old letters of recommendation (make sure they’re good ones!).
Steal a hug from someone you love. Hold on for minutes, not seconds.
Make a wish list, and don’t worry about the price of anything.
Today, I get to face 40 candles — well, I’m not sure anyone is really going to top my strawberry shortcake with that much wax and fire, but somehow, with some configuration of candles, I’m going to be closing my eyes, wishing hard, and blowing out little flickers of light.
And my wish?
I want to see be around to see 41 candles next year. That’s all.
I’m a grateful girl. Really, I am. In fact, I can’t even put into clear and concise words how very thankful I am for the breast cancer treatments that have kept me alive for five years. If I even try to put my thoughts into words, I promise you tears will stream down my cheeks. I’m about to turn 40 on Sunday, and WOW, I wasn’t sure I’d make it to that age, what with birthday No. 34 followed by such fear and uncertainty.
Just so we’re clear: I am so. very. happy. to be alive and writing this. I’m simply amazed by what medicine has done for me.
I’m amazed by what medicine is doing to me, too. Five years later, and it finds a way to make me a little bit miserable. Right now, actually, a lot miserable.
I’m covered in red, itchy, drive-me-crazy bumps on my shoulders, chest, back, and areas around my armpits. It happens every year, and it’s called something like UV Recall. Years after treatment, the sun reacts with my skin and the poisonous drugs, and the remnants of radiation, and sunscreen (I’m not sure about what order this all follows or if it’s one or several of these factors), and my skin pays the ultimate price. You’d think I’d have figured it out after all this time, but I haven’t, because sometimes (like last year at the beach), nothing bad happens. I find a sunscreen for sensitive skin, lather it from head to toe, and I’m just fine, maybe even a tiny bit tan, which is a treat for a fair-skinned gal like me. Other times (like this year at the beach), I find a sunscreen for sensitive skin, and, well, the bumps begin — just a few here and there, then some more, until they’ve climbed all over my body, making me more and more wacky by the day.
“Are you not so happy?” Danny asked me today.
Gosh, how I’m trying to be happy, plodding along through these summer days like everything is fine. But it’s not. I’m itchy and scratchy, showers hurt my skin, clothing bothers it, too, the Florida heat (it’s been like 100 degrees here lately) agitates every inch of me, and well, no, Danny, I am not so happy. (Add head cold to the equation, and you might imagine how poorly I really feel.)
The end is near, I know. The bumps will dry up and slowly disappear, and I will do what I always do — slink into the shadows at the pool, sit under an umbrella at the ocean, hide under the bimini of a boat. It’s no fun to be the mom always seeking shade and avoiding fun in the sun. I guess that’s why, year after year, I keep trying to jump waves, and find sea shells along the seashore, and splash in the pool — because I want to think cancer treatment won’t keep plaguing me. But it does, and it probably always will. And that’s just how it is. The very thing allowing me the pleasure of birthdays is torturing me, too.
OK, I’m getting a grip here. This skin ordeal is short-lived. It will consume about a week of my life (couple more days to go), and then I’ll move on. Maybe I’ll even be free and clear by Sunday, when I blow out 40 candles and celebrate another year of life.
See, I’m grateful. Really, I am.
Note: If you caught this post just as it published, you got a glimpse of what I look like. But the photo I put up at first has been taken down. It’s just too icky, and while it’s definitely educational, I decided to shield you from the yuck. And me, too. Looking at the mess in the mirror is enough. Online is just too much. And so I give you: flowers, pretty flowers.
70,000 young adults are diagnosed with cancer every year. Survival rates and quality of life have not improved in 30 years.
This is not OK.
That’s why the I’m Too Young For This cancer foundation exists, to ensure that every young adult affected by cancer is given access to the best age-appropriate support so they can get busy living at every stage of their survivorship.
Time may not heal all wounds, but in my case, it definitely blurs them. Let’s talk chemo, that horrible thing from which most of my breast cancer wounds developed.
For each of my four dose-dense infusions of adriamycin and cytoxan, my sister delivered lunch to the pink pretend-leather recliner I called home for hours at a time. There was a yummy gyro, a delish tuna sandwich, a great turkey sub, and I can’t remember the fourth one — which is exactly my point: I can’t remember. Time has erased my memory of the food that so repulsed me I couldn’t eat it for years. Years!
It’s been five years since my chemotherapy ended. And just now have I realized that the thought of these foods does not make me want to vomit. They actually sound pretty appetizing.
All it took was time. The same time that has allowed my hair to grow back, my surgery and port scars to fade, and my fear of recurrence to morph into something almost unrecognizable.
Yes, my wounds have healed — not completely and entirely, but mostly.
All day today, I can’t stop backtracking five years, back to the day I was wheeled into surgery, not knowing what my surgeon would find when he sliced open my left breast in search of a tumor that was threatening my life. I’m sailing back in time today because someone I know is in an operating room right now. Her surgeon is removing both of her breasts, one containing a malignant tumor and the other marked by something precancerous, and that makes today her day of unknown. She doesn’t know what the docs will find: How big will the tumor be? Will the cancer have spread? What treatment will she face?
I asked my husband last night if he remembers my day of unknown. Of course he does, he told me, and what he recalls most vividly are the steps the surgeon took toward him in the hospital waiting area, once I was all closed up and starting to recover from my lumpectomy. When the steps stopped, the talking started, and John and my mom got some news: My tumor was 1.1 cm, it was Stage 1, it had not spread. They considered this all good news. When they told me, I did, too.
What will my friend learn today when her surgeon starts to talk? No one knows, yet. But I can’t get my head to think about anything else, all day today.
Surviving cancer is a good thing. Really, it is. I mean, look at the alternative. Still, living on and on after a cancer diagnosis comes with a little bit of a price tag.
My personal bottom line: the potential for heart disease, maybe some additional cancers and increased cancer risk for some family members. No one can promise these curses will come to life, but no one says they won’t either. And that’s why I visited today with a very nice doctor at the forward-thinking Cancer Survivor Program at Shands Hospital, to learn all about what might face me, and what I can do about it all.
My heart. In the past five years, I’ve had three treatments with the power to compromise cardiac function. There’s that toxic Adriamycin chemo drug (four doses, two weeks apart, over eight weeks time), and the radiation that zapped the area directly over my heart (every day for six weeks), and then Herceptin — the potential life-saver that sailed through my veins every three weeks over the course of one whole year. The good news is that I’m probably out of the woods with Herceptin, it usually does its damage during treatment or shortly thereafter. But the chemo drug and the radiation, these still have time, and usually, adverse reactions occur eight to ten years after chemotherapy. Enter the echocardiogram. I’ll have one in three years to start monitoring my ticker. And I’ll keep exercising and (mostly) eating right to keep in good shape. (Today’s resting heart rate: 50.)
More cancers. Sometimes leukemia comes as a side effect of chemotherapy (ironic, isn’t it?), but I’m likely beyond the risky time frame for that one. Bladder cancer isn’t entirely out of the question, however, because one of my poisonous chemo drugs was processed through my bladder, and apparently, that’s not a great thing. Skin cancer, too. My risk is higher now. Perhaps the basal cell cancer I had removed from my left arm last year can be linked to this risk. Maybe it’s just a coincidence. I should pay attention to the left side of my body, though, says my doc, because that’s where another cancer might show up.
My kids. My kiddos — both boys — are not really at risk. Of course, they can get breast cancer, it’s just not very probable. And their kids, if they have girls, are not at higher risk, either, even though their grandma (me!) had the disease. Had I tested positive for BRCA, they would have been. But I didn’t, so they aren’t.
My sister’s two girls — no one knows for sure, but they probably will be fine. Same for my mom — the risk travels mostly from older to younger, not younger to older. My sister (sorry, Tracy!) is the one who gets the short end of the stick. My having had breast cancer ups her risk, which is why she gets a mammogram every year, and why she’s already had a baseline MRI.
Am I scared by the cost of surviving cancer? No. I have every reason to believe none of this will ever affect me. And if it does, worrying about it now won’t do me a bit of good. If anything, I’m just happy to be alive and thrilled that I had the chance to sit with a doctor five years after I wasn’t sure I’d survive at all.
I’m soft. I know this. And I’m OK with it. But it kind of goes against the grain of what John tries to teach the boys. Example: the other day, while at a lake for some fishing, Joey and Danny started whining about sunscreen. They hate it, especially the kind that sprays, because it gets in their eyes. So, we do our best to slather faces without blinding them, but as it always turns out, they are gun-shy and get all worked up about the event.
John is sick of it.
“You guys need to get hard,” he told them.
“Here’s how I do it,” he declared, then pretty much sprayed the stuff directly into his own baby blues to prove his point.
Explanation: John is a Marine, and he’s encountered some rough living. There was a period of time in boot camp when he was so hungry, he’d eat from sugar packets in the mess hall to fill the void in his gut. He hiked until his feet bled, marched until he couldn’t see straight, and for months on end, he was worn down and challenged to the core. He’s hard. He can spray sunscreen in his eyes.
Getting hard is good. It’s preparation for life’s tough times. It’s why Joey should eat fish, even though he doesn’t like it — because maybe, one day, fish will be the only thing available. It’s why learning to defend yourself is key, because when you’ve got to fight for your life, you’ll be ready.
I get it.
It’s just not me.
I don’t like sunscreen in my eyes either. Bug spray is yucky, too.
I do like fish, but I don’t like Chinese food, and heaven help me if, one day, it’s the only thing available.
I don’t want to camp — I like running water and cozy beds too much — and I don’t want to climb a rock wall or a mountain or jump from a plane, a cliff, or anything, really.
I am hesitant to play a “real” game of football with Joey, because he weighs 90 pounds and his power is pretty amazing.
I shy away from “real” games of basketball, too, because I’ve had few balls smack me right in the face, and ouch!, that really hurts. (I am up for a mean game of catch or P-I-G, however).
Don’t get me wrong. I can be tough. I’ve white water rafted, parasailed, driven a jet ski, completed a few ropes courses, traveled Europe all by myself, run a 1/2 marathon, pushed two large babies from my body and fought breast cancer.
Still, soft is my fall-back.
This worries me, and sometimes I fear my boys will come to know me as the wimpy mom. It’s why I choose to engage in some battles. Will I ski down a snow-covered mountain when we finally take a ski vacation? No. But I am fully prepared to let the waves knock the crap out of me during our next beach trip. I’m also on board this year for a very long road trip (in one cramped mini-van), even though my better judgment says, “Don’t do it.” And this summer, I’ll take on one-too-many roller coasters with my little theme-park thrill seekers, even though these rides give me a throbbing head and wobbly knees.
It’s a good thing there’s a John and a Jacki in our family. It’s like we’re the anchors supporting our family tree. John is at the top (of course, he climbed up there), I’m at the bottom (because I don’t want to climb up there), and Joey and Danny are right in between, observing the qualities that define their parents and deciding which ones to embrace.
My wish is that Joey and Danny do get hard. I hope they also realize that, at times, it’s OK to be soft. Because really, I’m convinced there’s value in both.
All I have to do to chart my progress post-cancer is to look at these kiddos. The one on the far left is Danny. He was 18 months old when I was diagnosed. He’ll be 7 in May. Next to him is cousin Jordan, a brand new baby at the time (and now 5), she sat with my mom at all of my chemo infusions. Jordan’s sister Tori, almost 3, was not even a thought when breast cancer consumed our lives. And Joey, almost 4 all those years ago, is now a big ‘ol 9-year-old.
What did I count this Easter, besides the 125 eggs I hid in our yard? My blessings. Here are four of them!
I’ve written about her before, and on several occasions, she’s graciously allowed me to give away some of her greatest gear, but until recently, I had never seen her smile up close or talked face-to-face with the woman behind Out of the Blue Delivered. Now, I am honored to say that Dawn and I have met — all because of our chance encounter on the Internet, our close proximity to one another (we live just an hour apart) and the convergence of her last-Friday medical appointment and my desire for a Cinnamon Crunch bagel at Panera — which happens to be located right down the road from her doc’s office. It was perfect — our chat over breakfast, our connection, our mutual love of carbs (well, to be fair, I ate more than she did)!
Also pretty cool about our pow-wow is the Ouch Pouch my friend gave me just after I’d scarfed down my dessert-for-breakfast. It’s something new and exciting she’s offering at her online shop, and here’s what she says about it on her website:
These trendy little pouches are PERFECT for holding items for life’s little boo boos. Measures 4″ x 5″ with clear poly front. It’s a chic first-aid on the go kit! Comes with bandaids, alcohol wipes and a lollipop to take away the pain.
My pouch features a black and white zebra-like stripe fabric, but yours might be different depending on the artist’s preferences. If you order, Dawn says to tell her if you would like specific colors, like girl fabric or boy fabric.
As you can see from the photos above and to the right, this is just the right token of love and friendship for so many on your gift list. It’s also quite handy for your own bag or purse, don’t you think? Only $9, too.
And if the Ouch Pouch is not right up your alley, Dawn has so many other goodies for you to check out — there’s even something named after me. See why I’m so honored to have met Dawn? Out of the blue she came into my world. And what a gift she is.
I went for another cancer check-up this morning, the first since my 5-year cancerversary. Mostly, everything is A-OK — so well, in fact, that I now get to see my favorite doctor once a year instead of every six months.
But with the happy hooplah of surviving cancer for a good amount of time comes the fact that I need to start thinking about surviving the side effects of cancer for a good amount of time. There are certain issues that come with life after cancer. For me, it’s mostly heart stuff.
Three things that might affect my heart: the chemo drug Adriamycin (I had four doses), radiation (it was delivered right on top of my heart) and Herceptin (the wonder drug I received for one year). All three of these life-savers can compromise heart function over time. “You should be so lucky to get heart disease in 20 years,” someone once told me, “because it means you will have survived cancer for 20 years.” Yea, that doesn’t make me feel so relieved. In fact, it’s apparently cause for a consultation.
Someone is going to contact me soon to discuss survivorship issues, says my doc, and this person will notify my primary physician of potential concerns, too, so he can monitor me appropriately. I’m not overly concerned about this, really. I’m basically just thankful to be alive, with a heart that today is very strong. For now, that’s just enough.
My darkest hour arrived while I was cooped up in a hospital room with chemo-induced fever and other mystery symptoms. I was bald and bloated and beyond hope when a well-respected attending oncologist swung by my room with a crowd of med students and announced it could be another cancer causing my illness. Probably leukemia or lymphoma. A bone marrow biopsy would determine my fate, this doc told me, just before he casually strolled away from my despair and moved onto his next patient.
It wasn’t a biopsy that greeted me a few days later. It was a new doc, starting a new rotation. A second cancer wasn’t even on his radar. Rather, he was convinced my dose-dense chemo (given every two weeks instead of three) was to blame. Nothing some heavy-duty meds couldn’t fix.
A few days later, I was home, healthy, and once again, hopeful.
That was five years ago, and it was not the first time I was misguided by a well-meaning doctor, which brings me to this very important medical conclusion:
I’ve been dreaming about my oncologist. Just knight-in-shining-armour kinds of dreams — you know, where someone sweeps in and saves the day, or in my case, a life.
Note: In stories about medieval times, knights were soldiers who rode on horses and helped women in difficult or dangerous situations.
Anyway, my mind has been a bit wonky ever since my body was blasted by chemo five years ago. The whole head thing is sort of cool, really. Sometimes I think something is going to happen, and then it does. Or I wonder why I haven’t heard from someone in a long time, and then that person magically calls or sends me an e-mail. Or, I dream about something that is so telling. I’m dreaming about my doctor, you see, because I have a check-up with him on Monday, and he’s going to take my blood, check for lumps and bumps and determine if I’m still cancer-free. Big stuff. No wonder he’s hijacking my dreams.
Now maybe this pseudo-psychic stuff is not chemo-connected at all, but I don’t recall things like this happening before poisonous potions spilled through my veins, so I tend to merge the two. Either that, or I can’t remember my mindful skills because chemo is wiping out my memory, one cell at a time.
Whatever the case, I’m having doctor dreams, and while I can’t remember them clearly (aha, the memory theory is looking pretty strong), they are generally positive and happy dreams, and I’m taking that as an indication that so will be his news to me on Monday. He is my knight after all, and I’m counting on him to keep saving me.
Speaking of doctors, mark your calendars, because March 30 is National Doctor’s Day. The red carnation is commonly used as the symbolic flower for this special day, so maybe you should deliver one to your own knight at the end of the month.
Losing track of the hurt of cancer is kind of like forgetting the pain of childbirth—yes, it is kind of a blur, even though I remember clearly barking at my husband while in labor with my first child, “Why would anyone do this twice?” Then, I did it again 2 years and 5 months later. Both of my babies were big—like 10 pounds, 9 ounces big and 10 pounds, 2 ounces big—and, strange as it may seem, I sorta cannot recount the discomfort of launching them into the world.
I know, if you are fighting cancer at this very moment, you may think I am crazy, suggesting you will block out of your mind how horrible the disease can be, and I do recognize that some of you may always live with the pain of treatment. But, if you are like me, in some small way, you may just forget. I did, and I know this because yesterday, I sat in a dental chair (after 3 months of complete and utter avoidance), and while getting my first-ever crown, I cried.
A crown. Not surgery to remove a deadly tumor, or poisonous chemo, or skin-scorching radiation. I cried because of the sting caused by a needle used to numb my mouth. Five years after the horrors of cancer, and a shot in the mouth brings me to tears. Clearly, I’ve forgotten.
My past four months of unemployment have been delightfully calm and relaxing, but the time has come, and I’m going back to work. Actually, I’m not going anywhere. I’ll still be right here in my house, with my favorite laptop, cup of hot green tea, candle burning and fire roaring (well, at least until it warms up a bit — gosh, it’s cold here in Florida).
There’s a special someone all the way across the country to whom I am very grateful for my new job. We’ve worked together before, she knows my scenario (the one where I want a life full of family and void of high stress), and she reached out because she wants to work with me. I am flattered, touched and ready to become an at-home professional again. Note to the person I’m writing about: Thank you.
Monday is the big day. That’s when I’ll start working with SEED.com — SEED assigns, buys and distributes work for all of AOL’s properties, like That’s Fit (where I last worked) and more than 80 of the Web’s most highly-trafficked and respected websites. I’ll be kind of a community builder among the writers and photographers aiming to get published. There’s more to it than that, really, but I won’t bore you with the details.
I will say this: if you are someone who does freelance writing and photo stuff, you should stop by and register.
I’ve long had a love affair with hair. My mom suspected it the moment I got my first Barbie doll and started cutting away, and she was convinced by the time I owned a whole score of dolls, all with the same short styles. My intention was always to make Barbie more beautiful and stylish than ever. How she ended up looking more like Ken, I’m not sure.
I got better at my art as time went on. I mean, I knew a good pony-tail when I saw one, and that’s because I rarely saw one on my own head. My mom just never could get the hair smooth enough and perfect enough, and forget about two matching ponies — the part was forever zig-zaggy, and I always felt lop-sided, with more hair on one side than the other. This motivated me to master my craft, and I practiced on any head of hair I could get my hands on — sister, friends, sister’s friends, friends’ kids — and whenever I got to see my grandma, we practiced the French braid. It became my signature thing, and my best friend Kim always had a beautiful braid or two when she ran up and down the basketball court in high school.
When I was old enough, I enrolled in a high school Cosmetology program, and I spent my junior and senior years prepping to pass the Ohio State Board exam. And I did, which means I got my very own license to do hair. I still have it. It’s not valid in the state of Florida, and I never did keep up with continuing education or anything, and I don’t really broadcast that I have it, because I don’t want to do anyone’s hair anymore (well, except for family, and, of course, French braids for little girls). I just keep it in a drawer by my bedside — right next to my one remaining Barbie doll, whose hair I never did cut. It’s long, blond, curly and just as it should be.
My point in telling you this story: I love hair, especially my own. It’s because I spent a fair amount of time without hair that I adore it so. And on days when I sit in hair salons, looking at every strand that pours from my scalp, I realize just how important hair really is. Look at the industry built around it and the time we spend washing, conditioning, curling, straightening and coloring what we’ve got. Consider the moods that are born of bad-hair days, the celebrities whose hair we copy and the styles that will go down in history (’80s hair, the Mullet, the Mohawk my 9-year-old wants so badly).
OK, so hair is not everything, and if I had to go bald for the rest of my life to ensure I’d never, ever get cancer again, I’m pretty sure I’d do it. Still, I think you know what I mean, and that’s why I share with you my hair (above). I just got it cut today, and, well, I love it.
The 1/2 marathon I’m going to run next Sunday is kind of like me making a statement. And what I’m saying is that I’m really not that wimpy, after all. Yea, I cried whined the other day when a basketball smacked me in the face during a family game of P-I-G, and I always wimper about doing oh, five regular push-ups, but when it comes to the big stuff (like birthing big babies, beating breast cancer and running long distances), I’m kind of tough.
I’m also saying that the body is a miraculous thing. It can get sick, withstand tortuous treatments and somehow rebound into a healthy, fighting machine. I’ll prove it by crossing the finish line after 13.1 miles with the same legs that five years ago were so weak they could barely support me.
These statements aren’t really visible to anyone else, though — just the stuff that motivates me personally.
I will be running with some tangible statements on race day, though, when I sport one blue ribbon, one orange ribbon and one pink ribbon. Here’s what they’ll say: My orange ribbon will say that I’ve donated blood, my blue ribbon will say that I’ve received blood and my pink ribbon, well, who doesn’t know what that says. Pink is not really part of the event, I’m just adding it, but blue and orange are, because the Five Points of Life race I’m doing raises awareness for the five ways to share life with others through the donation of blood, apheresis, marrow, cord blood, organ and tissue.
Just one week until I make all my 1/2 marathon statements. Then I’ll have to decide on something else to shoot for: an injury-free game of hoops, maybe, or a personal push-up challenge.
I don’t worry only about breast cancer. I’m a little freaked about skin cancer, too. It’s because I spent far to many hours seeking sun in my younger years, and I am painfully aware of the side effects of such behavior. I’ve had several pre-cancerous lesions cut and frozen off my fair skin, I have a one-and-a-half-inch scar where a basal cell cancer was removed a year ago, and just today, my dermatologist shaved off a bit of a mole she didn’t like — it was an odd color, different from the others on my body, she said.
A piece of my mole is on its way to a lab somewhere, and in about a week, I’ll know if it’s cancer or not. If it is, it’s likely one that is common and can be cut out without any serious health consequences. But in the back of my mind, there’s this little twinge of fear that melanoma is in my future. Melanoma is the deadly kind of skin cancer, and it’s real, folks. Just ask Miss Melanoma — she lost a toe, part of her foot, and all 16 lymph nodes from her groin to the disease. And if you don’t think it’s serious stuff, listen to Claire Oliver in the video below.
See why I’m scared? If you are, too, the best thing you can do is cease all tanning, and get yourself to a dermatologist every year for a thorough once-over. That’s how my funky mole was discovered. It wasn’t even on my radar. Ah, and don’t forget your sunscreen.