I had no idea where that journey would take me. On July 1 when I went in for my post op check, it was almost surreal hearing him say, “Well, we got some bad news on the pathology report.” My favorite surgeon could hardly maintain eye contact with me. I paused and asked what was next, remaining silent while he described the process I would follow. As he tried to make a quick escape and hand me off to his assistant to secure the referrals, I started asking questions. Seeing that he was clear of any obvious emotional distress from me at the moment, he went into teacher mode explaining things simply and with all the passion that drew him to his field.
I have learned so much in the last year, but mainly I have learned about hope. Today was my sixth month check-up with the oncologist. These last two weeks I have worried and worried about things and had all sorts of tests. I have had pictures taken and scanning devices nearly everywhere in/on my body. As I walked into the oncology office, it was as though the cloud lifted. It was the first time they had all seen me with hair and without my hat. Why everyone loves this hair style, I will never know. It was nice to go into a doctor's office and have every staff member comment on how healthy I look. There's a first for me! Even though I was scared as hell the first time I went into that office, I left feeling hopeful that day. No matter what has happened there over the last year, that feeling of hope has never changed. Not even today on my cancerversary.
All my labs came back perfect. All tests/scans/x-rays came back negative.
My sixth month check up was very, very good. What more could I ask?
It is hard to venture out into the retail world without seeing that all too familiar pink ribbon logo. Whether you shop at a department store such as Target or Nordstrom or window-shopping for kitchen accessories, some new kicks, or your favorite candy snack, the pink ribbon is everywhere. It has gone beyond the bounds of October, the breast cancer awareness month, and turned into a year round marketing campaign. In fact, all year long we can Race for the Cure, Fit for the Cure, Cook for the Cure, and just about any other activity-for-the-cure we can fit in our schedules. Products, events, and endorsements abound.
And maybe we can make the world a whole lot brighter,
We can make the load a little lighter.
Everybody has to try together,
Don't you know it's now or never.
--Lyrics from the Brady Bunch song "We Can Make the World A Whole Lot Brighter"
The activist in me is elated. The more visible it is and the more we talk about it, the greater the chance of early detection and thus better survival rates. The more visible in the market place, the more funds are being generated for research, screening, and treatment. This is all good, right? Well, the cynic in me wonders just how much is generated to benefit breast cancer related activities and how much is simply marketing. And should it even matter as long as money is generated for beneficial use?
The survivor in me, as much as I appreciate all the good will that is generated by that pink ribbon, is tired. I like shopping. I find it relaxing and therapeutic most times. The occasional girls' day out with my sister was something I missed during treatment. I needed to stay away from the people and the germs of public places in order to stay healthy during treatment. That first trip back to Colorado Boulevard for a little shopping, people watching, and a casual lunch marked the beginning of a return to normalcy for me. I know, I admit I can be shallow. I try to balance my retail sins with philanthropic deeds and gifts. Really I do. However, now in the course of retail therapy, the pink ribbon has become a reminder of that which I strive in vain to forget. That pink ribbon and every pin, necklace, bracelet, sweater, sock, blender, shoe, candle, soap, bottle of lotion, tea bag, coffee drink, cookie, and bag of candy flaunting the pink ribbon taunt me as I pass by.
"Here I am!" the M&M's sing in unison. Don’t they know a high fat diet promotes cancer risk?
"Look at me!" shout the running suits at Coldwater Creek. I wonder about those dyes and synthetic fibers. How does that help me out?
"Over here!" shout the pretty pink bracelets. Must I wear a badge that clearly spells out "breast cancer?" Don’t my lack of breasts and short hair already tell the story?
Mostly I want to yell back at all of them, "Leave me alone. Go bug someone who doesn't know you exist."
I keep waiting for that moment when my laughter isn't guarded. The times when good things happen and I don't immediately wonder when the other shoe will drop. The times when I can rest assured knowing that I have indeed done all I can do to be a survivor. I want my naïveté back. I want life to be simple again.
What troubles me most is knowing that life will never be the same and there is nothing I can do turn back the hands of time or change who I have become as a result of this experience.
Eventually I will let my guard down and the hearty, effusive laughter will return in healthy doses. But life will never be simple again. I can’t put my breast cancer in a box and tuck it away in the closet, nor can I hide from the pink ribbons that champion the cause, or ignore the scars that have become physical reminders on my body. I can, however, hold my head up with dignity knowing that this moment right here, right now, I am here, I am strong, I am making valuable contributions to this world, and I am living hope to the next woman who faces this journey and hears my story.
This is the craziness that is my mind:
"Wow, someone wants to see me topless?"
"I guess I still got it. You go, girl."
"Well, wait, why does he want to see me topless? What kind of sicko is he? Who wants to take a look at 'Frank' 'n 'Stein'* at this point before reconstruction is finished?"
. . . . (pause)
"Oh wait, he didn't want to look at me. He was searching for topless nurses. Whew, that's better!"
. . . . (pause)
"Wait, what's so wrong with me? A little compassion could go pretty far around here, buddy."
The conversations in my head could be very entertaining to say, oh, I don't know, a therapist maybe? As my cousin used to say, "It's best that no one can read that cartoon bubble over your head."
Have a great day. Enjoy the summer at its best.
*That's what I call "the girls" in their unfinished, imposter state.
In fact I know that both genders bring certain traits or skills to an organization that compliment each other to some degree. For example, research shows that female managers and business owners prefer a more relational model that encourages cooperative behavior as opposed to male managers and business owners who prefer a dominator model that fosters competitive behavior. Though there are people who cross boundaries, women are traditionally the nurturers. While it may be good for an organization to have that yin and yang, unless the genders are in sync with one another, it may create friction or barriers. I have always tried to focus on the sisterhood-brotherhood, yin-yang balance and have been lucky to avoid the friction in most cases (though not all).
I have never set up a project with thought to how I should change my style or approach because I was working with one gender over another. This is in fact what I attribute my modest success to while working in a very male-dominated field, but perhaps I am just naïve. I have always approached every task or project from an organizational perspective and not a gender perspective. Maybe in some ways I developed an edge to my personality dealing with men so frequently; however, I would like to think I would be the same no matter the career. Though likely I have been influenced by what is around me.
Dealing with breast cancer has brought, in my mind, light to all that is feminine and womanly about me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It has focused the lens on my womanhood as an integral part that defines my personhood. It is not something I can compartmentalize and address in private. This past year I have been making excuses for and trying to minimize the traditional female attributes, like being emotional, focusing on that relational management model, and being nurturing. But times have changed.
Perhaps in an attempt to resurrect the female physical attributes I have lost to this disease, I find myself embracing more strongly my womanhood. I like wearing sparkly pink earrings and brooches. I like soft gentle perfumes that leave a tiny hint of fragrance on your clothing when I hug you (you’ll think of me when the tiny waft of fragrance almost eludes your senses and sparks the memory of that hug earlier). I like the fact that I have the courage to reveal my feelings even though the hormone fluctuations from treatment have made this challenging in recent months.
I like wearing pink on construction job sites. It may not meet fluorescent orange OSHA standards, but people will remember that a competent woman was on the site. I like nurturing and encouraging the employees I supervise as well as my peers. Our cumulative success is what makes the organization succeed.
I no longer make excuses and wonder why I ever thought I needed to in the first place. I am all that is beautiful in my womanhood. I have not succeeded in a male-dominated work environment in spite of being a woman; I have succeeded because I am a woman. I hate like hell that it took me this long to realize it and embrace it. With or without the traditional physical female attributes, the essence of my femininity is stronger than ever before. I am whole and complete in spite of the breast cancer, in spite of people who I have allowed to make feel like I am less than because I am a woman, in spite of my own naïveté and stupidity.
The cocoon is breaking open and this butterfly is testing the view. These wings may be about to open.
Checking out your bodywork . . "
-Craig David, Fast Cars
"To all my shorties wigglin they shakin they curves . . ."
-Busta Rhymes, Make it Clap
"You see the highway's like a woman, soft shoulders an' dangerous curves . . "
-Albert Collins, The Highway is Like a Woman
Hmm. Can you guess where I am going with this? Today I had one of those moments. I wasn't saddened or upset. I was just wistful.
My sister and I made a quick stop into a clothing store this afternoon. She and I have very similar taste and often end up making very similar clothing purchases, though usually in different colors. In fact, we often have to coordinate to make sure we won't be dressed similarly if we are going to the same place. Today we both liked the same blouse. It was professional and could be worn for work in the heat of the summer months ahead. Since we work in two very different places where our paths do not cross (unless meeting for lunch), we decided we could both have the same blouse without much worry about appearing like twins.
We both go into our fitting rooms. I put the blouse on, it feels great and looks fine. With the right accessories, it could be a part of great summer ensemble. Joyce wants me to take a look at her wearing the blouse so I get dressed and go to her fitting room. She looked beautiful. The shade of blue with her coloring looked smashing. I can hear you all asking, "So where is the wistful part?"
"She got some danger, dangerous curves . . ."
-Moon Martin, Dangerous Curves
" . . Da temptation to feel da body,
Temptation to kiss the curves . . ."
"She’s built, she’s stacked
Got all the curves that men like"
-Carl Carlton, She's a Bad Mama Jama
The blouse looked so different on her. She still has the bustline that gives the blouse that special look of being fitted around feminine curves. It looked so amazingly different and much better on her. I no longer have those curves. This was different than seeing an image in a magazine or music video. Our society is so fixated on the physical appearance, but I have learned to tune that out a bit and not take it personally (even though a quick search turned up way more than six songs that refer to a woman's curves). Seeing my sister was like seeing my old self. Standing and breathing in front of me was a previous me. Again that image of me morphing from a woman with voluptuous curves to this relatively flat-chested being with middle-aged housewife hair reminded me of the ravages of cancer on my body. I had actually gone a day or two without thinking about it.
Even though I had this wistful moment, I didn't lose it. Heck, I still made the purchase (did you expect anything less?). I've grown to accept the new image, even if I long for the curves from time to time. With a little white lace camisole peaking out the top, I can still give it a feminine touch with or without the bizongas.
I hope all fathers enjoyed a special day with their children today (and vice versa). And if you couldn't be together in person, at least I hope you were together at heart. I was blessed with a wonderful, gentle, and loving father who taught me so much about the important things in life: being a good person, treating others with respect, to always do what is right, and not to be afraid of hard work. Thinking of my father's example and the faith he raised me with always reminds me of a very old (1849) hymn, Faith of Our Fathers: "Faith of our fathers, we will love/Both friend and foe in all our strife;/And preach Thee, too, as love knows how/By kindly words and virtuous life." (I used to sing the heck out of this hymn because it was one of the few in my range. I really didn't know what "dungeon, fire, and sword" referred to in the first verse, but once again, I digress. . .).
One of my favorite memories of my father was during the summer when I was around eleven (give or take a year). My sisters (all older than me) were off doing things older sisters do and I was bored. My dad had decided to paint the white picket fence that circled our property. One day he sat on a stool on one side of the fence and worked his way down until he finished the can of paint. The next day he sat on the other side of the fence and worked until he finished the can ending at roughly the same place he stopped the prior day.
I decided he could use my help and begged him to let me help. So we sat together, he on the outside of the fence and I safely on the inside of the fence, and painted in unison until we finished the can of paint. Each afternoon we painted until we finished the entire fence. At first our discussion was about prepping the surface and proper brush technique. Sometimes we sat in silence working away. Other times he would listen to me blab on endlessly about things or answer whatever questions I asked. In my memory this was sacred time that I shared with my father. It was only a few years later that my father passed away.
Flash forward to July 29, 2004, my first day of chemo. My plan was to get up, get dressed, pack a bag, drive twenty minutes to my sister's house, drop off my bag and have her take me to chemo by 8:15 a.m. My plan was to stay with her until I would return to work on Monday morning. I was apprehensive the night before not knowing how the chemo would make me feel or how my body would react. I tried not to think about it, I brought boring trade journals from work hoping to fall asleep reading; however, sleep was elusive. I nodded off from time to time in a restless sleep throughout the night.
As the morning light streamed into my house I opened my eyes slightly to see my father standing in the doorway. He had on check pants, a polo-style shirt, his work jacket, glasses, and a cap. He looked like he was all ready and dressed for work or to go somewhere. As this registered in my mind, I closed my eyes and slowly opened them again to see him still standing there. He didn't say a word or move. He just stood there watching over me. I calmly closed my eyes and knew that everything would be okay. I rolled over, got out of bed walking passed the place where he earlier stood, got dressed, packed my bag and drove to my sister's house. When they took my vitals at the doctor's office, my blood pressure was 110/70. The nurse was shocked and said that usually on the first treatment day, most people have really high numbers from nerves. I calmly said that everything was going to be all right.
Thanks for looking out for me, Dad.
Some say there is a connection between stress and breast cancer and others dispute it. At least we know with some certainty that stress compromises our overall health. Any compromise in our health could have an impact of recovery and survivorship. So although it was never really healthy for me, it is certainly much worse for me now.
I had an idea that would change this all around. I knew I couldn't completely break away from stress. It has been a willing and faithful companion or quite some time. I knew I couldn't break it off cold turkey. It just isn't my style ( seriously, I brought a parting gift the last time I broke off a relationship! Who does that?). If there was a way I could plan a trial separation or even separate vacations, I might welcome the lifestyle change so much that I could envision a life apart from my faithful companion.
Over a month ago I closed a post with a teaser of impending news regarding my "summer of slack." Somehow I not only lost sight of that post, but also the concept. I planned for it to be my new credo, my new lifestyle, just part of the new me. Why does it feel like I am about to say the "new Jan Brady?" Well, maybe it is, just without the wig, the long blonde hair, and whiny attitude (Beware! This is what happens when you watch too much television while growing up). But I digress . . .
I think it is not too late to save the "Summer of Slack" credo. Officially, summer has yet to begin, right? Doesn't it fall on Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year? I think it is right around the corner on June 22nd. That gives me three whole planning days for a Summer of Slack.
This is what I envisioned:
1. No overtime (what we salaried folks like to call administrative time). I tend to put a few of these hours in every week, routinely working past the closing bell and often a few hours over the weekend as well. And although this weekend called for a big bundle of these hours due to emergency situations, I'll call it an anomaly, and plan (outside of emergencies) not to stay late or donate my weekend time.
2. Limited teaching. I enjoy teaching. It challenges me on a completely different level than my full-time career or volunteer projects. It takes a significant amount of time in preparation, class time, meetings, grading, etc. To do it right, a lot of time needs to be set aside to be available for students and to continue current research so that I am well prepared for class in general knowledge of the subject material as well as the lesson materials I have prepared. This summer I am teaching just one class on Saturdays and it will be done in five Saturdays (one down, four to go). I've taught this class so many times before that it comes very naturally most days. It's a good summer class.
3. No other consulting. I have broken this rule a tiny little bit already by having one job this week. But it's tiny. Two hours. I'll make the presentation and be gone. Done. Achievable with minimal stress and then no more for the summer (or possibly beyond).
4. Play time. There should be copious amounts of play time. Play time out doors, play time in doors, play time away from home, play time at home. Life should be simpler, easier, not so stressful.
5. Lots of exercise. I would like lots of morning walks and/or plenty of gym time. It always make me feel better and energized. No exceptions. No lame excuses. I want to log enough miles on foot, on treadmill, on bike, on elliptical that a comparable number of miles would get me to Canada before Labor Day.
When I look this list over, all I am doing is replacing the time I spend doing for others with time spent getting and keeping me healthy. That isn't really slack, it's hard work in and of itself. But for me, a constant doer, giver, achiever, it feels somehow like I'm slacking off. Apparently, along with a schedule adjustment, I need an attitude adjustment to pull it off.
Whatever it takes, a summer of slack is just what the doctor has ordered. So excuse me while I go play . . . or not work . . . or go exercise . . .
I thought today I would have a date set for part two of my reconstruction. Instead I had a lovely meeting with my plastic surgeon who informed me that he would be gone for six weeks and we will make these plans when I see him again in mid-August. Part of me feels captive to these expanders. In my mind, I equate this next surgery as the last major hurdle. I can now officially declare that reconstruction will likely take twice as long as actually treating the cancer. If I didn't feel so confident with this surgeon I would request a different one and move the heck on.
We had a nice talk and he is a good man who will be doing good work while he is gone. It isn't as though he will be going on a six week bender. He is involved with medical work and education all over the world. If I had heard the news of this delay a month or so ago, I think I would have cried. Maybe even sobbed. I have had this timeline set in my head since the beginning and it has been important to me to keep to it. In some ways, I think I truly have surrendered and am comfortable in this "exact right now." This way I get to enjoy a great summer and not be stuck inside recuperating from surgery again.
Life is just too darn short to worry about the small stuff. (Or small boobies)
I began teaching the summer term at the local university today. In summer I have the pleasure of teaching the weekend format (every other Saturday for eight hours) as opposed to the weekly evening classes (for four hours). As my students process the material in small groups, I can't help but daydream and stare out the window. The view is breathtaking. In the background is the backdrop of the local mountain range, green hills, and lush vegetation. In the foreground are the tree-lined streets and the Jacaranda trees dotting the greenbelts. The purple blossoms leave a delicate purple carpet of petals below the trees. In the distance, the clock tower chimes on the half and gently on the quarter.
There is something about the hope each new term brings. I love academia. I love the excitement of the first day of class and all the new supplies and freshly copied syllabi. It is always a new start and fresh beginning. What other job offers that iwth the same frequency? It always makes me wish I could afford to do this full time.
In a couple of weeks, reality will set in and someone will challenge my grade without cause or try to sell me a lame excuse that I honestly have heard at least six times before. And I'll look forward to the end of the term.
It never overshadows the first day of the term or the amazing things that happen in the classroom or the wonderful transformation that so often happens in the two years of grad school. I'm lucky that I have this opportunity to gaze at the blossoming Jacarandas and the blossoming students.
Fall is certainly my favorite season, but these first two weeks of June are very close behind. Everything always seems like it is going to be all right.
Dear Diary,Today was a very special day. I finally got to see my
primary care doctor.
I love to find little quotes that inspire me for the moment, make me think, invoke a smile, or in some way challenge me. Here are a couple of quotes that I have written where I see them frequently:
You are what you repeatedly do. Excellence then, is not an act, it's a habit. --Aristotle
The power I exert on the court depends on the power of my arguments, not on my gender. --Sandra Day O'Connor, Supreme Court Justice
On Saturday I was having a lovely day with family and friends. When we stopped for coffee, my sister's coffee cup had this quote:
"Risk taking, trust, and serendipity are key ingredients of joy. Without
risk, nothing ever happens. Without trust, fear creeps in. Without
serendipity, there are no surprises." -- Rita Golden Gelman. Tales of a
It was a serendipitous moment indeed. The way I see it, I don't have too much of a problem with risk taking. I'm working on the trust part. A little serendipity would be nice. So today I raise my soy latte in a toast to risk taking, trust, and serendipity. To joy!
What is your favorite quote? Do you remember any quotes from the Starbucks cups?
Hmm. Are there any such shelters left? The fall-out from learning to live with cancer has me seemingly searching for a shelter where I can hide out until I feel my emotional pantry is stocked enough to surface. This is highly unlike me. I'm not a hider; I'm a confronter. As I struggle to discern this unprecedented change in psyche, I've begun to see a few signs pointing me in a certain direction (or is that omens?). Oh, I've ignored them as long as I can until I just can't stand getting smacked in the face repeatedly with the same message. I get it now. Can you hear me cosmos? gods of the universe? winds of change? higher power? Lord Almighty? Repeating the message now is starting to annoy me and does not necessarily facilitate acceptance.
It is as clear as the message sent to Dorothy by the Wicked Witch.
And while I would rather fantasize about a sub-surface cocoon in a nuclear-free zone, I realize the only way to survive (literally) is to surrender the fear and the fight for control that currently fill my emotional supply pantry.
From day one after my diagnosis, I struggled to control something that was so beyond my control. Once I understood the process, I made the schedule and had the various medical offices/personnel conform (in a very polite non-ogre sort of way). Any hint at deviation caused feelings of devastation until I could find a solution or a compromise. Who was I fooling? I was controlling a process and not the issue.
Now here I am. No treatment schedule. No treatment at all. In fact no evidence of disease. Nothing to control with the exception of the fear, the unknown, the remains of my personal nuclear devastation. What I have discovered is that the more I try to control this fear and this unknown, the worse it gets. The only possible fall-out shelter is surrender (thanks for the sign, Louise).
What does surrender mean? Giving up? (too defeated) Giving in? (too submissive) Mirriam-Webster defines sur-ren-der as
a : to give (oneself) up into the power of another especially as a prisoner b : to give (oneself) over to something
The haunting lyrics of Sarah McLachlan's song Sweet Surrender further sharpens the focus of the struggle.
I've crossed the last line
From where I can't return . . .
I miss the little things
I miss everything
It doesn't mean much
It doesn't mean anything at all
The life I left behind me
Is a cold room
And sweet Sweet Sweet surrender
Is all that I have to give
So what is the worst that can happen if I surrender? Does it rid me of the fear? Not really. Does it take away this incessant need to try to control it? Absolutely. In a sense, that relieves some of the fear. When things are out of control the fear only grows. Frankly, if I live in fear today, I have lost the day. Living in fear is not living. Rather than controlling it, I am actually being controlled by cancer.
So here I am, somewhat broken, a little more fragile than I once believed, emerging from my emotional fall-out shelter built of fear and control. I'll be gentle with myself as I build my cocoon of surrender and acceptance. Eventually the butterfly will emerge. Whole. Beautiful.
Location: Southern California, USA
This is my story about being diagnosed with breast cancer at age 39. I thought I was out of the woods, but four years late it came back. This is my quest to be a two-time survivor.
E-mail me here
A link to information about my diagnosis, treatment plans, gene testing, chemo, surgery information, reconstruction, and recurrence.
Thoughts on Anniversaries, Healing, and Abundant J...
Time, time, time; Look what's become of me....
A New Year
Did I just hear Santa?
The Giving Tree
Faith or Fear?
Is That a Heart on Your Banana or .......
As Breast Cancer Awareness Month Comes to A Close....
Stand By Her
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