Saturday, September 30, 2017

Never Saw It Coming

As I approach the first anniversary of my reconstruction, I find that I have many more good moments than challenging, many more reasons to be grateful than to complain, and many more occasions to celebrate than to mourn. Yes, it takes a lot of work and energy to stay positive, but I do that work because wallowing in pain, anger, and misery is unacceptable to me. My life, with all its twists and bumps, is the only one I've got, and I refuse to waste it.

That said, every once in a while I am overcome with rage, despair, pain, and exhaustion beyond my power to fight. I wish I could see those moments coming, but I haven't figured out how to do that yet.  Thursday, when the news of Julia LoiusDreyfus' breast cancer diagnosis popped up on my screen at work, I was seized with a unexpected wave of crippling rage and hopelessness beyond my control to ride. I tried to swallow all of those feelings and keep working, but the lump in my throat felt like it filled my entire chest. I excused myself, found a friend in the hall, and asked for a hug, and silently shook with sobs as he patiently held me steady. Then I ran upstairs to the private bathroom and collapsed in a fit of burning tears silently screaming, "No more! Damnit, NO MORE!" I ugly cried. I really ugly cried, my face splotchy red and purple with a nose that glowed like Rudolph's.

I couldn't go back into the office looking like that, so instead found a tiny niche in the conference room between a sideboard and bench, grabbed a pillow, and clutched it to my burning, aching chest, fighting to stem the tide. Of course someone came into the conference room to work just a few moments later. The sight of me in a mottled heap on the floor startled her, but she did just the right thing. She sat with me. She didn't ask questions, she didn't try to fix it, she just sat with me so I wasn't alone. In those moments, that was exactly what I needed. Eventually I was able to focus on my breathing and  calm myself enough to return to work. Having a regular mindfulness meditation  practice helped a lot as I fought to recover myself. I was able to step out of my head for a moment and focus on the breath flowing in and out of my lungs. While I couldn't do that in the instant that the wave hit, I did get there more quickly than I could have in the past.

Being the Betty I am, of course I had to start dissecting the episode as soon as I could think again. And, in a shocking turn of events, it turns out that I am not okay with not being okay. It would seem, however, that I am not as okay as I thought I was. I thought I was, "Fine," with all of it: breast cancer, double mastectomy, missing out on a giant chunk of the last year, reconstruction, much pain, and exhaustion that never seems to abate. I thought I didn't need to worry about not knowing what size or kind of bra I should be wearing, not knowing if the feeling would ever come back in my perky new breasts, and not knowing if anyone would ever find me romantically attractive again. I guess I was wrong.

I didn't realize that, after hurricane Harvey devastated so much of Texas, and Irma looked to do the same to us, disaster-prep and sleeping in the closet with the dog took a toll on me. I didn't realize how much I was feeling the bombardment of political ugliness. The vitriol constantly flung about like Mardi Gras beads in a parade attacked like tiny paper cuts to my, tender peace-and-love soul. One at a time they hurt, but bleed just a little. En masse, they can cause an excruciating exsanguination. The loss of another friend to this damn disease, the loss of a beautiful elementary school just down the street from ours in post-Irma electrical fire, and a mountain of post-cancer debt that I fear I will never summit, together created the perfect storm. My body, mind, and spirit said, "No more."

Now I realize it was too much. I am a painfully sensitive and empathic person. I have always known this, but apparently have never really learned how to handle it. Clearly I have work to do. When I started this breast cancer journey, and turned the focus of the blog to it, I promised myself I would be honest and show the good and the bad of every day so others would know that they were not alone. What I just realized today is that on bad days, I avoided writing altogether, rather than putting the negativity out there. I am sorry that I made that choice. It is so important for all of us to know that we are not alone in our anger, pain, or fear, regardless of our journey. I looked back at the brilliant book Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton today and was smacked between the eyes with this gem. "My grief is a solid brick wall in front of me. I want to bulldoze through it, scale it, tear it down a brick at a time. I'm desperate to get to the other side of the wall so I can see what's waiting for me down the path." That is how I addressed my diagnosis and treatment from the first moment. Let's get through this so I can get on to the next part! Apparently that approach is only sustainable for a limited period of time. Clearly I hit my limit Thursday.

This entire post feels ridiculously self-indulgent, but it is the truth. I feel small, vulnerable, raw, sore, and exhausted from the energy it has taken me to be, "Fine," for so long. I feel foolish for thinking I could outrun all of the feelings that accompany a positive cancer diagnosis and treatment plan. I feel unworthy of all of the negative feelings because my cancer wasn't "bad enough." So many others face far worse prognoses and battles that mine. Who am I to presume to talk? Who am I to feel sad, angry, tired, or overwhelmed?

This week, I feel crushed under the weight of all of the questions that I cannot answer. However, I know that this will pass. Everything passes eventually. Everything. For now I can only focus on my breathing and, as Glennon so eloquently puts it, "Just do the next right thing one thing at a time. That'll take you all the way home."

This evening the next right thing was to write this post. Once I hit Publish, I have no idea what the next right thing will be. I will be still and listen, though. I will be still and listen until I figure it out, and then I will do that thing.

Thank you for joining me on this journey. Thank you for supporting me through all of the days, even when I don't know how to support myself. Please be gentle and show yourselves, and each other, the kindness you have shown me.


Peace & love

Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton inspired me to create this.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Brought Down By a Blank Page

I've been promising an update for the longest time. On my Lumpiversary, over Memorial Day weekend, I started a post, but never finished it. When I re-activated the Gloves Up team for the American Cancer Society's Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, I started a post, but never finished it. When I went on vacation for seventeen days, I planned a post, but never started it. It seems that I am overwhelmed by the empty page in front of me. So many words flood my head, but sending them through my fingers seems more than I can handle. How is that possible? I beat cancer, but am sidelined by a simple blog post? How ridiculous is that?

Can you hear my inner critic, or is that voice just in my head? "You are pathetic! No one wants to hear what you have to say. What makes you think you have anything of value to contribute? Who do you think you are? Do something productive instead of hiding behind a computer. You never finish anything, so don't even start. Binge something on Netflix. Take a nap. Nothing you say will make any difference to anyone anyway." And so I listened. And I stopped trying to write. And I binged Netflix like a boss!

Here's the thing, though, I don't want that inner critic to be right. I want to use my words to heal my world. I want to help others who are fighting battles against illness, against themselves, against their circumstances. I can't do that under a blanket in my pj's with a remote control and a fizzy water. I can't do that if I never take a risk and put my words out there.

With The Breast Cancer Chronicles, I tried to keep things  real, honest,  and share what was going on as it was happening, but I also tried to focus on gratitude and positivity. That is how I try to do life in general. But some days are harder than others. Some days are hard. Period. It has been over a year since my double mastectomy, and ten months since my reconstruction. That seems like such a long time, and it seems like no time at all. I thought I would be slaying dragons and running marathons by now, but I'm not. (To be fair, dragons seem pretty cool, so slaying them is mean. And running unless someone scary is chasing me has never seemed like a good idea to me, so I avoid it at all costs.) I'm still exhausted most of the time. I still have pain from the surgeries. I still have to seriously psych myself up to do anything other than rest after work and on weekends. That is my reality right now. Will it always be my reality? Certainly not. But it is right now.

I went back to work full time in January. In February, I took up hard core mindfulness meditation. I gave myself a nine o'clock bedtime on school nights. I meditated every morning and every night. In March I went to Seattle with Mom to celebrate Baby Sis turning Forty. In April, I went on an amazing four day silent meditation retreat. In May, I got a roommate, school ended and I celebrated with some fabulous friends. In June, I took on some new responsibilities at work, and saw U2 live with the Betties. In July I went to the mountains with Mom & Dad then to Sedona with a lifelong friend. Now here we are at August, and school starts Monday.

Today is Saturday. It is pouring rain outside. I am under the covers with the computer in my lap, listening to the rain and trying to talk myself into getting out of bed. Is this my new normal? Is it yours? I don't know. What I do know is that I am still breathing, still fighting, and still grateful to be alive. I am grateful that you are, too.


Peace & love

Monday, February 6, 2017

On Aging and the Gifts of Cancer

As forty-seven greets me today I am grateful for so many things. I have an incredible family that loves and supports me always, without exception. We are there for each other. I have dear friends that I treasure from all stages of my life. Whether we see each other every day, or go years between visits, we feel like home to each other. We feel like love. I have a job that allows me to feel of service to others and to laugh every day. I have enough. I have enough of everything I need.

I am grateful for all that the last year has taught me. They were lessons I never wanted to learn, but I am so glad I did. I learned that I can be by myself. I learned that I actually love being by myself. I had no idea. I don't need another person to make me feel whole, I am whole. I am enough, and I am happy.

I learned that cancer is scary, but it is full of incredible gifts. Without cancer I would never have met some of the people that I now consider family. They know who they are: Irma, Renee, Colbie, Kelly. You know. Without cancer, Baby Sis & Baby Monster wouldn't have come home to visit twice in four months! What a treat! Without cancer, I would have continued running as fast as I could on the hamster wheel that I had allowed my life to become, never taking time to slow down, be still, and appreciate the gifts that were right in front of me. Cancer gave me the gift of dinner with my parents every night for months. Cancer gave me the gift of binge-watching Netflix with my mom and streaming Phish concerts with my dad, as he danced around my recovery bed. Cancer gave me the gift of time on the phone with Mom every morning on my way to work. Cancer taught me that it was okay to go out to a concert with Dad on a school night because I might never have that chance again. Cancer taught me to slow down and realize that now is the only time I have.

Without cancer, I would never have embraced my #f@ckitcancer diet or shaved my head. I was too afraid to get fat or look silly. Why? Why was I starving myself and fighting with hair that got on my last nerve? I rocked bald and weigh less now than I did before cancer! I look pretty damn good for forty-seven! I look alive at forty-seven!

Cancer taught me gratitude for every moment, not just the "good" ones, is the key to happiness. I knew it before, but now I know it in my bones, my heart, my brain, and my soul. Cancer taught me that the things I spent most of my time worrying about don't really matter. Life is going to happen as it will, and the only thing I can control is the way I respond to it. That I can do. Cancer taught me that meditation will help me "respond instead of react" to the challenges life throws my way.

Cancer reminded me of the importance of kindness. It costs me nothing to hold a hand or give a hug, but the joy it can bring is priceless. Cancer taught me to do the things I had been putting off until there was more money or more time. I can take neither of those things with me when I die. Instead I will embrace the experiences that I want to have now, rather than spending on "stuff" that will only create clutter later. Cancer has taught me to let go. Let go of anger, let go of fear, and let go of the "stuff" that was weighing me down. Cancer has taught me how little stuff I actually need. I am still working on getting rid of it, working toward a more minimalist lifestyle, but every day I find at least one thing that would be better off with someone else and I let it go.

Cancer has taught me that we are stronger together than we are alone. Cancer has taught me that we are all afraid, but if we hold each other's hands and hearts, the fear is much easier to manage. Cancer has shown me that I have gifts to share with those who are facing the battle themselves, and I will.

Cancer has shown me that my life matters. Cancer has shown me that I didn't need to give birth to make a difference in the life of a child. Cancer has shown me that my kids (my students) remember the life lessons we learned together, no matter how long ago "together" was. Cancer has inspired me to give with my whole heart every, single day.

Cancer has helped show me how to live.

Thank you for taking this journey with me. I love and appreciate you all.