The bumpy road to recovery

Want some updates? Here they are:

I am taking a hiatus from work… again. The reasons are complicated so I will not go into the finer details. But essentially, I wasn’t feeling great, and it looks like my return to work may have been a bit premature. I felt very conflicted about this at first. I felt like a failure, like I had let myself down. And then I decided that I might be being a bit hard on myself and that my health is numero uno in terms of my priorities right now. So I am taking a bit of extra time to recover, continue my treatments, and figure my life out. All that fun stuff.

I had a late-night MRI a couple nights ago to follow up on some pain I’ve been experiencing. Obviously, we hope for nothing out of the ordinary. Because something out of the ordinary would be very unfortunate in this case. Sometimes it feels as though my whole life is just waiting for results. Waiting for life, or waiting for death. Waiting for the other shoe to drop. I really want to move past this phase, as it is getting exhausting.

Speaking of exhausting, my nightly hot flashes/sweats are back with a vengeance. I got all cocky when they went away, thinking, this hormone stuff is no big deal, I can do this, no problem. But for whatever reason, my body is having a very strong reaction to the tiny little pill I am swallowing every night, causing my face to feel as though it is melting off my body. Unfortunately, it tends to be worse at night, which means I am not sleeping very much. There is also construction going on outside my house that starts early every morning, right as I am trying to get some extra hours of zzz’s in. I fantasize about going over to the construction site in my pajamas, with my hair a big frazzled mess, and yelling at the workers, “HELLO I HAVE CANCER AND I’VE HAD A REALLY CRAP YEAR AND I NEED TO SLEEP SO CAN YOU ALL PLEASE SHUT THE FUCK UP OR I WILL PUNCH YOU ALL IN YOUR UGLY FACES.” But I just really don’t want to be that person. Not yet.

Last week, I spoke at the University of Toronto to the second year medical students. They were studying oncology that week, and yet there wasn’t any plan to actually speak to a patient living with cancer. Enter your favourite, friendly cancer gal to save the day. I prepared a quick little powerpoint entitled “My Cancer Story” where I attempted to go from the beginning to the current stage of my cancer experience. When creating the powerpoint, I realized how long and complicated my story really is. I only had time to really touch upon the basics. At first I was worried I wouldn’t have enough to say. But as it turns out… I have a lot to say. A lot.

I loved speaking to this room full of students. I loved how engaged they were, and how much they wanted to learn, and how I actually had something to teach them, even though I have absolutely no medical background. All I have is my life experience, which, apparently, people seem to find a lot of value in. The students had the chance to ask me questions, and during that time they also revealed to me me that many of them have been reading the blog. They told me about how it has impacted them, in both their learning and their personal lives. I was really touched by how appreciative they were and it made me better understand the power of sharing my story. Some positives really are coming out of the negative (but note: this does NOT mean I am thankful for my cancer. I still hate cancer and think it’s terrible and do not recommend it as a method of creating social change. I repeat: CANCER IS BAD.).

The class presented me with THE BEST mini cupcakes and they all signed a card. There were so many notes that they wrote all over the back and had to add sticky notes on top of the other notes. I was blown away by how thoughtful they were.

The class presented me with THE BEST mini cupcakes and they all signed a card. There were so many notes that they wrote all over the back and had to add sticky notes on top of the other notes. I was blown away by how thoughtful they were.

And my last update for now: I have started to write. A book. There, I said it. So now I have to do it. It might take several years. I might never finish it. It might be a huge bore. It might never get published.

But, whatever. None of that is as bad as cancer. And if I’m doing the glass half full thing, then I should also entertain the other possibility: That I’ll write a book, someone will publish it, it will become a bestseller, a famous director will want to turn it into a movie and hire me to adapt it into a screenplay (um hi, I’m not letting some dummy screenwriter write my life story, thank you very much), I will be portrayed by some awesome young starlet and we will become great friends, and the movie will win all sorts of Oscars and I’ll be the next big thing in Hollywood and eventually everyone will forget I ever even had cancer.

Why not.

Breast awareness

So many anniversaries lately. So many at this time last year, I was doing X, remember?

Today is yet another date that still stands out to me. October 19th. One year since I bid adieu to my breasts. One year since the cancer treatment really began.

There hasn’t been one day since then that I don’t think about my breasts. The current ones, the old ones, the cancer. Breast breasts breasts. My whole life, centered around some hanging, bouncy (albeit, no longer bouncy) body parts. Impossible to escape, especially now, during the month of October, BREAST CANCER AWARENESS MONTH (or have you not noticed?).

I think about breasts every time I stretch my left arm to turn off my lamp beside my bed, when I feel the uncomfortable pull and remember that my arm does not move the way that it used to.

I think about breasts when I realize that none of my fancy dresses fit my body anymore because of the firm side-boob implant I have that prevents the left-side zipper from zipping.

I think about breasts when I hear them spoken about on television, in a movie, in a conversation. So much talk of breasts, everywhere you look. Breast-obsessed.

I think about breasts when I walk by a lingerie store in the mall, and think of all the bras that are still sitting in my drawer that I will never have any need for again. The comfy ones, the pretty ones, the lacy ones. Relics of the past, gathering dust, taking up room.

I think about breasts when I receive a tight embrace. A simple hug. When my ribs are squeezed just a bit too hard, still feeling bruised from the stretching, from the implants, from the surgery.

I think about breasts when I look in the mirror, every morning, every night. Every time I am in the shower, every time I get out of the shower. When I see two large red scars across my chest, when I am confronted with the reminder, oh hey, you had breast cancer… and you still might have breast cancer.

I think about breasts when I remember this day. Being injected with radioactive dye before my surgery. The pain I felt as the dye pushed into my veins. The tears that flowed as I realized what was to come next, and wondering, why me, why me, how is this happening, why me. I cried alone in the changing stall, while I slipped into my hospital gown. I don’t even remember staring at my breasts. There was no farewell. No last glimpse. No time to mourn.

I think about breasts when I remember being drawn on with magic marker, as my surgeon marked up the areas to be cut. I kissed my husband and said goodbye to my parents and lay down while someone rolled me into the elevator and down a hall. I cried and felt as though I was 5 years old, scared of what lay behind the doors. I didn’t let the doctors see me cry. I didn’t want to show the fear. There were so many people in that operating room. Surgeons, nurses, fellows, anesthesiologists. It almost felt like a party. Everyone there, to be with me. To save me.

I think about breasts when I remember the feel of my surgeon squeezing my hand as I waited for the drugs to wash over me, while the whole room stood by, waiting to remove a major part of my femininity. The body I once knew, no longer.

I think about breasts when it is October 19th. My own breast cancer awareness day. All mine.

I don’t need a pink ribbon, or pink toilet paper, or pink football players to remind me.

Believe me – I am aware.

Thanksgiving (Canadian edition)

I am thankful for:

The roof over my head

The food in my fridge

The water in my glass

The husband who makes me laugh

The friends who continue to check up on me

The family who are always there

The ability to laugh at it all

The ability to cry, when laughing fails

The pill I take every night

The medicine that flows through my veins every three weeks

The knowledge of my physicians

The kindness of my nurses

The compassion of perfect strangers

The money in my bank account

The existence of chocolate

The buzz of the television

The peace and quiet of a rainy day

The long weekend

The health of my family and friends

The people who read my words

The people who demand I write more

The little things

The country I live in

The stories that inspire me

The changing of the seasons

The ability to walk up the stairs

The hair on my head

The clothes that keep me warm

The blanket that keeps me warm

The dream of a cancer-free life

The fact that for today, I am alive

Whatever tomorrow brings

Whatever the future brings

I am thankful

 

 

The bonds of cancer

When I was first diagnosed with breast cancer, I was very ambivalent about being introduced to other women with the same disease. I wanted to find people I could relate to, yet each situation is also highly individual. Not to mention, most women with breast cancer are considerably older than I am and my set of issues are largely different from theirs.

I was also cautious of making “cancer friends”, as I knew it could mean potential heartbreak. When you and a friend both have cancer, there is always the possibility that one of you might make it, and one of you might not. Or both of you might, both of you might not. It’s entirely unpredictable. I worried about creating friendships where I would be forced to deal with cancer again and again, or compare my disease to someone else’s.

Eventually though, you realize that cancer is majorly lonely and that all your best friends have zero idea what you are going through, as much as they might try to understand and connect. Eventually you need to find others who have been through what you have, and truly understand all the emotions that come with cancer, and after cancer.

Awhile back, I connected with another young woman named Naomi, through my blog. She is a bit older than I am, but in her 30’s, and still very young in breast cancer terms. She has a husband and a little boy, and I learned that we were both at similar phases of our treatment, and being treated at the same hospital.

We bonded over our shitty luck and became friends quite quickly. It is easy to connect with someone when you’re both bald and have had your breasts removed and your life has become batshit crazy. Naomi is a beautiful, kind and generous person and I’m so grateful that we found each other, despite the reason.

Unfortunately, very recently, Naomi learned that her breast cancer had made its way up into her brain, forming another tumor that was causing her headaches. Of course, this was devastating news to hear. We had both just finished up with the worst of our treatment and wanted to celebrate together. This wasn’t supposed to happen, and definitely not so soon. But as I’ve said before, cancer doesn’t really care what you have planned, it just has a mind of its own. And Naomi’s cancer is a particularly nasty beeyotch who clearly needs to be put in its place.

When Naomi called to tell me her cancer had metastasized, she was immediately concerned with my emotional well-being and how that type of news might affect me personally. This is an example of how totally selfless and awesome Naomi is.

Last week, Naomi had brain surgery to remove her tumor and she of course rocked it like a rockstar, because that’s how us cancer galz roll. And now she has another scar to add to the lot, although this one is particularly bad-ass. Once you have staples in your head, you’re pretty much cooler than anyone else around.

I visited her in the hospital a couple times this week. Obviously this was not an easy task. Having cancer friends is complicated for this very reason. I am painfully aware that it could just as easily have been me lying in that bed. I know that that could be my future. A tumor in the brain, or bones, or lungs, or liver. All within the realm of possibility. This is what I have to wake up and face, every day. Every single day. And seeing my friend have to go through it is a pretty harsh reminder of the beast that is breast cancer and the giant question mark that is my future.

But with all that said, and the many emotions I have been forced to confront, I have no regrets over making cancer friends. Naomi popped into my life during a time where I really needed her. And now she needs me again, so I will be there. It is as simple as that. She is no longer just a cancer friend, she is a real friend and a part of my life. I will do what I can to ease her troubles, and I will be a shoulder to lean on. I will cry with her when things get tough and curse cancer for continually picking on us nice guys. And I will celebrate all of the good moments along with her, because I know there are still many to come.

Watch your step, cancer. You are totally messing with the wrong bitches.

 

Helping a friend in need

I’ve often thought of sharing a list of “what not to say to someone who has cancer.” However, I’ve seen many of these lists before and I know they can be somewhat harsh and make people feel like there is not a single thing they can do that is right when someone they care about is sick. So instead, I think it might be more productive to do a “how to help someone who has cancer” list.

1. PRESENTS

Anyone who has been following along since the beginning of the blog knows that I loooooved getting gifts while undergoing cancer treatment. Presents are awesome even when you’re feeling great, but they’re extra awesome when you’re feeling lousy. Sometimes the only thing that would make me smile on a terrible day was hearing the doorbell ring and seeing a box waiting for me. There was one day when I had multiple delivery trucks lined up in front of my house, and I felt extremely important. It didn’t even matter what the gift was, if it was something small or large, useful or just entertaining. It was the thought, and the unexpected surprise on an otherwise gloomy day.

Nothing sweeter than the sight and sound of that magical brown truck.

Nothing sweeter than the sight and sound of that magical brown truck.

So if you know someone who is dealing with an illness, send them something. Show them you’re thinking of them. Oh, but don’t expect a thank you card, because they have cancer, and don’t have the energy to deal with rules of etiquette.

2. CALL/WRITE/TEXT/MAIL

I know some people feel like they don’t want to burden someone who has cancer and sometimes they think that leaving them alone is the best strategy. I can tell you that in most cases, this is not true. Sure, you might occasionally say the wrong thing, or you might write an email or leave a voicemail that never gets read or heard because the person is ill and exhausted and can’t keep track of anything. But I will tell you that silence or absence from a friend is a lot more hurtful than any dumb thing you could possibly say or do.

That about sums it up.

That about sums it up.

So send your friend a message to tell them they’re on your mind, and that they don’t need to respond. And don’t only reach out at the very beginning when you’re initially reacting to the shock of it all. Show that you’re still there, weeks, months later. Because that’s when it gets really hard. And really lonely. A cancer patient can never have too many friends.

3. SEND FOOD

There were many, many days where I simply did not have it in me to get groceries or make a half-decent meal. There were many days I couldn’t stand up for more than a minute, and standing is really helpful when grocery shopping or cooking. Apart from physical limitations, I also did not have the mental capacity to think about food and putting ingredients together.

Life for me and my husband was filled with stress 24/7 and there wasn’t a single second where we weren’t completely exhausted. People who sent us food were literally our life savers. We had some friends and family who would make complete meals that we could keep in the fridge and live off for an entire week. We had other friends send us gift cards for a food delivery service where we could order several flash-frozen meals and serve them up whenever we needed to. So if your friend is ill, send them food. Don’t ask what you can do. Don’t ask if they need anything. Don’t make them think. Just do it. Send food. And they will eat all of it. And they will love you forever.

This bib is kind of offensive, but also kind of awesome, no?

This bib is kind of offensive, but also kind of awesome, no?

4. LET THEM BE A BIG, WHINY, CRYING BABY

When I was feeling like I wanted to die, it was very helpful to be around people who let me feel that way. People who would let me cry, let me scream, let me blubber this is so unfaaaaair, I hate my liiiiiiiiiife, I hate everyoneeee, waaaaaaah JUST KILL ME NOWWWWW! I had a lot of these moments, and they were not my finest, but that’s just the kind of mood I was in while I was sitting around, bald, trying not to puke, staring out the window. The last thing I wanted to be told was to cheer up or keep a positive attitude or any of that bullshit. The best thing you can say is “this really sucks and I hate that you’re going through this.” Nothing you can say or do can make anything better. The best thing you can do is let your friend scream and cry and feel all the feelings they need to until they finally pass out from exhaustion.

I feel ya, Johnny, I really do.

I feel ya, Johnny, I really do.

I know, it’s not really fun being friends with someone who has cancer, right? But having cancer is actually worse, so suck it up, be a pal, and sit with your friend while she drips snot all down her face and makes morbid comments about death and funerals. Yay friendship!

5. DON’T OVERSTAY YOUR WELCOME

This one is pretty simple, and you would think obvious. But for some people, it’s not, so I think it’s worth mentioning. When I was stuck at home for what felt like a million years, it was nice having friends and family visit. But it would take about ten minutes of socializing for me to feel like I needed a nap most days. I never want to tell anyone to leave, because it makes me feel like an ungrateful person. So don’t make me say it. Just leave!

The best friends are the ones who come (only after asking if it’s OK first), say hi, stay for a short visit, and then say “you should rest, I’m going to go now” without making me say it. Because truthfully, no one undergoing chemo is listening to more than 1/4 of anything you are saying to them. For me, I spent most of my social encounters thinking, How long until I can crawl back under my blanket and watch Marry Poppins while I cry without anyone seeing me?

Know your friend’s limits and respect them. Or, if you’re my brother and his girlfriend, you can just wait until I scream, GET THE HELL OUT OF MY HOUSE, which happened on more than one occasion. But we’re all still friends. I think.

 

A celebration

When I was still doing chemo, some members of my family had mentioned it might be a nice idea to have a party when it was all over, to give me something to look forward to. I started researching some venues and thinking of who I might invite, but then I stopped. I felt sick and ugly and bald. I couldn’t imagine ever being healthy enough to attend a party. And I didn’t feel like celebrating. My future felt uncertain, a big question mark. Why celebrate when there might be more terrible news lurking around the corner? How would I really know when I was at the “end”?

So the party plans stopped and I told everyone I didn’t want to think about it for the time being and didn’t feel comfortable planning anything.

Then chemo ended, and radiation ended and I started to get better. And I had a scan that I was really scared about and felt some relief from the results. And then I decided, okay. Time to plan a party.

I knew this couldn’t really be a woohoo, I’m cured! themed party, because, well… I don’t know if I’m cured. And no one’s going to be saying those words to me any time soon. But I figured it didn’t really matter. Whether I’m cured or not, whether I live or die, right now I am feeling pretty good and I can stand up for multiple hours without fainting and I can climb several flights of stairs and I can lift a bag of groceries without needing a nap – and all of those things seemed worthy of celebrating. Just being healthy, for the moment, and alive, for the moment.

I also really wanted the chance to gather all the people who had been there for me this past year, in one room. It was my opportunity to say thank you to those people who had dropped meals at my door, sat with me while I moaned, mailed care packages to me, sent funny texts and emails to cheer me up, let me know they were always thinking of me.

We put together a huge candy bar. And we had cupcakes. And mini sandwiches with nutella and peanut butter. There was a music soundtrack provided by yours truly, and lots of laughs and hugs throughout the evening. I even made a quick impromptu speech at the coaxing of my grandfather.

It was so special to have all these people under one roof, and I admit, a bit overwhelming. I hadn’t seen some of these friends in a long time, and it’s very rare to have the opportunity to be surrounded by so many people who care about you, when there is not a wedding or any type of traditional milestone occasion involved. I had a friend fly in from New York to surprise me, and I also got to meet a very special lady for the first time after corresponding with her the whole time I was in treatment. It was an amazing night filled with amazing friends and family. And I am so lucky.

*All photographs taken by Lindsay Lauckner