My dear friend sent me a t-shirt with this picture, the epitome of survival. In many ways, I am also a picture of survival. Each day I put on my gorgeous hair, fill in my brows, create the illusion of lustrous lashes with make-up, and dress myself in something fashionable. I head out into the world behind this veneer of health and vitality and I seem to have everyone fooled. I take pleasure in the fact that no one offers me a seat on the metro and that perfect strangers stop me in the street to ask me where I get my hair done. I get my new chemo treatments on Mondays and I always go in looking my best. Though I get a lot of positive reinforcement for my appearance, I am starting to question whether projecting this image is respectful in an environment where so many great people won't survive. It is ok to survive, but is it ok to flaunt it?
Clearly, I am no blogger with my posts coming at a pitiful rate of once every 8 weeks! But, here is your bi-monthly update:
I did shave my head. It was not as empowering as it looks on tv. I cried and my daughter gave me a lecture about how hair is not actually an important body part (and is certainly nothing to cry over). I was surprised that she didn't have a powerpoint prepared to support her convincing argument.
Though we went back to the basics in many ways (like having to focus on eating, sleeping, and hand washing), we still managed to live our lives. We had an activity-packed summer during each of my off-treatment periods of two weeks. My favourite excursion was a stay at the airport hotel that has a water slide. We changed in our hotel room and wore bathing caps and goggles so that we would seem like an intense swim duo instead of people dealing with cancer. It was during this trip that my daughter coined the term "support bathing cap."
My best update of all is that I just had my last A/C chemotherapy treatment! I honestly can't believe that I made it through. I wanted to quit so many times. I am starting a new treatment that will apparently not make me spend my week camping out on the bathroom floor. Yay!
The last two weeks have gone much better than the first week. Thankfully, the vomiting stopped after week 1 and I was able to deal with the exhaustion by napping or watching a show from my growing arsenal (it turns out that the best thing that people can do for me is bring over complete seasons of the shows that they are watching). I have ploughed through Californication, Gossip Girl, Parks and Recreation, The Big C, and I just started Mad Men. I feel less lazy (and like someone who has actual goals) when I watch something from start to finish. In my opinion, you should really watch The Big C, it is a non-saccharine yet touching depiction of cancer and life (http://www.sho.com/site/thebigc/home.sho).
My version of the Mia
I have also lost a lot of hair in the last two weeks; I inherited a ridiculously thick head of hair so it has been a very drawn-out process. I have dealt with my hair loss in stages. I started by buying a really gorgeous wig (what would I do without Etsy?) that was cut to look like my old hair. I went on to get a really nice pixie hair cut which I managed to keep for a week! And, today, I am going for the full on shave, from Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby to G.I. Jane. I will let you know how it goes!
I am going to start with an apology (to you and to me). I'm sorry for failing to write for two months. It is true that I have been very busy and tired, but it is also true that I was pretty depressed and was finding it difficult to accomplish any thing that lay outside of my usual daily demands.
But, I think that I managed daily life surprisingly well. In the last two months:
I have increased my strength and range of motion (I can even carry my sleeping daughter home after an evening with friends and can do most yoga poses).
I survived a poorly timed week and a half of chicken pox where my daughter, full of energy, complained incessantly. I am very proud of myself for refraining from saying, "try having cancer" every time she whined (instead, I calmly applied more calamine lotion).
I had a birthday and threw my first real party since my surgery; there were many margaritas and tacos served and people stayed well beyond the stated end time.
I helped two of my M.A. students submit their theses by the deadline, the most demanding and satisfying of my recent accomplishments.
However, along with these achievements came a pretty big blow. I found out that I needed chemotherapy (as a preventative measure, thankfully). I was prescribed 6 months of two different kinds of chemotherapy (for three months each). This is apparently common protocol but it really came as a shock to me. I was under the pretty naive impression that surgery was sufficient (especially after finding out that my cancer did not spread to nearby lymph nodes).
I actually started chemo on Monday (today is day 6 of 168) and it is pretty much as nightmarish as I had imagined. But, I am thankful for my daughter's grandparents who helped me out at the beginning of the week, for day camp so that I can rest up for the evenings, for my daughter who is resilient and kind, for my friends who are all standing by me, and for french fries (the only food that I seem to be able to eat).
To help you relate (or, maybe to bring you down to my level), here is a link to the best vomit scene in the history of film. It is the first thing that I thought of when my chemotherapy side effects started with a vengeance. Enjoy!
Great news, I woke up after surgery! I am happily recovering at home and rediscovering daytime television and naps. Of course, I have many people to thank for the role that they played in getting me to this land of sweatpants and everyday luxury (seriously, I now have 7 pillows on my bed).
Thank you to my doctors for their precision, professionalism, and comforting bedside manner. Thank you to the nurses and staff at the Jewish General Hospital for their kindness, concern, humour, encouragement, and conscientious care. Thank you to my friends and family who texted, emailed, and phoned me to offer love and support. I treasure each of those messages. Thank you to friends who have given me rides, brought over delicious food, taken me for walks, and who have come by to sit and have a cup of tea. Thank you to my cousin who came to stay with me after surgery and to my sister who is coming tomorrow to help me with my daughter when she returns from her stay with her grandparents. Thank you to Tina Fey for writing a book that is so funny that it leaves me reaching for my pain medication every time I have a belly laugh.
Thank you especially to my dear friend S.R. who was with me throughout the entire surgical process, who served as my advocate (I needed one), and who slept on uncomfortable chairs to stay by my side. She held my vomit bucket (which I unfortunately used for two days), brushed my hair because I could not raise my arms, and fetched anything that I could not reach (which was pretty much everything). Amazingly, she managed to do all of this while making me feel like we were having a regular conversation at any Montreal hipster bar. The whining, sighing, and occasional moaning from the other patients really added to the hipster bar feel of my hospital room (in fact, I was astonished to find a lack of lumber jack shirts, bad eyeglasses, and ironic moustaches when I peaked around the curtain at the other patients). I know that S.R. wants no accolades, so I will simply quote one of my favourite Weakerthans songs to express my appreciation. Dear S.R., " I know you might roll your eyes at this, but I'm so glad that you exist."
On July 29th, 1981 my mother woke me up at 4:00 am to watch the Royal wedding with her (incidentally, my daughter was born on the same day exactly 23 years later). I will never forget my mother's expression of pure joy and satisfaction when Lady Diana walked down the aisle in her ornate dress that required several handlers. She collected all sorts of royal-related memorabilia but her most prized possession was a replica of princess Diana's sapphire ring that she bought from the Shopping Network when she was recovering from her mastectomy. I inherited this ring when she died and it is now my most prized possession.
I have to say that I am generally a woman of science but even I can't deny the seemingly ethereal connections at play here. I am having my mastectomy tomorrow, and I will be recovering during the new Royal wedding. My original (pre-diagnosis) plan for tomorrow was to wear my ring to a friend's place and drink mimosas at 4:00 am. Instead, I will keep my ring safely at home (so that no one steals it when I am a drugged out disaster) and I will watch the wedding on my phone from my hospital bed. I can't imagine any other scenario that could make me feel closer to my mother.
Wish me luck. Or, better yet, wish me good science.
I am having surgery in three days. I don't think that I have stopped planning since I first received my diagnosis. I have written grant applications, submitted grades, commented on theses, and found back-up plans for my students. I bought a month's worth of supplies, arranged my house so that my things are within arm's reach, and organized my daughter's room so that she can maintain it when I cannot. I also drank, sang, danced on tables, and ate boob-shaped cupcakes.
I keep recalling the episode of Growing Pains where Mike stays home from school and realizes that the world continues on without him (his epiphany is represented by Boner laughing with others while he is left to stare at the scene longingly). I suppose that I should learn a lesson from Mike Seaver. I will try to let go of the things that usually occupy my thoughts and energies, the things that I do for others. I am going to try to focus on myself. Of course, I do realize that this will also entail having to accept that things will move forward without me, at least for a little while.
Over the course of my 6.5 years as a mom I have had two strikingly ambivalent moments where I was simultaneously concerned about and proud of my parenting (incidentally, both occurred during pretty trying times). The first was during a kitchen dance party when my then 18-month old daughter was caught dancing on the table to a Hank Williams Jr. tune, wearing nothing but a cowboy hat. I often joke that this was the moment when I realized I should not be in charge of raising a child, but it is truthfully also when I knew that we were going to be just fine.
The second occurred more recently when I broached the topic of my diagnosis with my daughter. I didn't want to scare her by talking directly about cancer so opted for a frank discussion about my surgery. I told her that I was taking this approach to avoid being in the same situation as my mom, so that I could live a nice long life. She put on a teary-eyed brave face and listened attentively to all the details and asked good questions about the surgery and about our lives in relation to it. I gave her honest answers and I let her have some control over the situation by asking her to decide whether she wanted to tell any of her friends (she didn't) and whether we should keep our nonchalant attitude about nakedness since she may catch a glimpse of my scars (she didn't think so).
And, after a bit more pondering she said, "Boobs do not make a mom"--a statement so sophisticated and astute that it made me question whether I was speaking with a child. It seems that I may have pushed my daughter into some kind of pseudo-adulthood by trying to raise her to be responsible, independent, and a critical thinker. Although I definitely appreciate her maturity (especially right now), I may need to bust out the Hank Williams Jr., host a kitchen dance party, and bring a bit of her childhood back.
To the surprise (and possibly horror) of many people in my life, I have managed to avoid being an emotional wreck during all of this. It would probably make them feel better if I were to be more visibly distraught. I am actually not one for crying, which might be pretty evident considering all of my intellectualizing on this blog, but I do still need some kind of emotional release. Thankfully, I have some amazing friends who are willing to support me in my cathartic venture, karaoke.
Tucked away amongst all of the reading material that I received three weeks ago was a sheet titled 10 Commandments for Fighting Cancer. Number 5, Be selfish, was the only one that I was really struggling to implement. I was having a hard time imagining myself as selfish in my world built around the needs of others. But, I have seemingly managed my first truly (or, maybe more accurately, purposefully) selfish act. I ended a relatively new relationship when I realized that I was holding someone's hand instead of having my hand held during a time of utter upheaval in my life. I enabled this person's downward spiral by supporting their reaction to my diagnosis when what I really needed to do was focus on my own. However, the break-up process was lengthier and far more complicated than I had anticipated. I was under the naive impression that I had found a fool-proof excuse for breaking up with someone. After all, who could argue against the rationale that a gal with cancer needs some time and space to process new information, to focus on herself, and to conserve her precious energy? This very logical argument was repeatedly met with statements such as, "I won't leave you in your time of need," and "I'll stand by you no matter what happens." I was admittedly baffled by this blatant disregard for my needs that were, for the very first time in my life, expressed so clearly, pointedly, and selfishly. After a bit of pondering I realized that instead of providing an easy out, my cancer may have created an opportunity for heroism. I, a single mother, a professor, a person who is used to taking care of everyone and everything, was finally also vulnerable. Perhaps this new fragility, along with the accessibility of stereotypes of what young women in my situation want to hear, created an almost obsessive desire to care for me. Ironically, this intensity to provide for my perceived needs led to the dismissal of my actual stated needs, and ultimately to the demise of a relationship that had potential. In the end, I employed a traditional break-up strategy, the classic "It's not you, it's me," that was both successful and selfish. Mission accomplished.
"We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time". --T. S. Eliot
This is my first foray into the world of blogging, but not into the world of breast cancer. My mother was first diagnosed when I was thirteen years old and she died when I was twenty-four. My notion of womanhood has always been intertwined with breast cancer. So, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer two weeks ago, I was instantly transported back to 1989, back to the beginning of my relationship with my breasts, womanhood, and (in many ways) my mother. In that moment, I started to know.
However, I don't want to stay in 1989 nor do I want to be stuck in a state of knowing; I want to be doing. I will have a bilateral mastectomy at the end of April and then will begin the lengthy process of reconstruction. There is no doubt that this is the right course of action as I have the "breast cancer gene" (BRCA-1) and am considered "high risk." In fact, I have been mentally preparing for this surgery for the last 10 years as the threat of breast cancer was always salient. But, I am completely unprepared for how to negotiate my life as it interacts with my cancer. I have many unanswered questions: How will I tell my 6-year-old daughter about this? How will I occupy my time on my leave from work? Will I look remotely normal? Will I be able to have a casual fling without having to address my medical history before I take my top off?
For me, the most frustrating part of this experience is dealing with the lack of available resources to address my concerns in a way that is appropriate for my stage in life. I did not receive any information pertaining to breast cancer in young women during my debriefing session with a lovely elderly volunteer (and survivor) at the hospital. I started this blog in response to feeling isolated in the context of my breast cancer diagnosis. It is an opportunity for me to write about my life with, despite, and because of breast cancer. I hope that it will be useful to other young women who are in similar situations.