September 11th, here we are again. A date that is impossible to overlook on our calendars. That date became etched in our brains back in 2001, and became extra awful (as if it needed to become so) for me in 2012, when I was diagnosed with breast cancer a month after my 28th birthday.
So here we are again, another cancerversary, another trip around the sun. This one is a biggie, too: five years. When cancer stats talk about rates of long-term survival, they typically are talking about people who live beyond five years. It’s thought that after that point, your risk of biting the big one continues to drop and you can rest a little easier. Obviously there are all sorts of problems with measuring survival like this, as breast cancer can and does recur many years down the road. So it’s not really a clear indicator of triumph. But it’s the closest thing we’ve got, so for now, I’ll take it. Five years, I’m still here. Has a nice ring to it.
I wish I could say I’ve put it all behind me and never think about the big C anymore, but that would be a lie, and no one likes a liar.
I still have the occasional scare, one of which occurred early in my pregnancy that completely derailed me. The stakes have become infinitely higher now that I have my little baby to think about. Before there were all sorts of things that sucked about the possibility of death. Big time. But now that I’m a mom, I can’t even allow my brain to go there. It’s too much. So when something scary pops up, and my mind is forced to go there… it ain’t pretty. And I hate that I still have to live with these terrifying possibilities. I know so many young women who have died of breast cancer, I’ve lost count. Many of them gone in the past year. What makes me luckier than them? Why should my ending be any different? These questions burn inside of me, no matter how hard I might try to put out the fire. But fortunately, I have the most amazing little distraction to keep me occupied and prevent me from obsessing over my worst fears all day long.
And speaking of that distraction, he pretty much takes up all of my minutes and hours of the day, as babies tend to do. So I don’t have much time to flesh out deep thoughts about what this day means to me. I’m too busy feeding and changing diapers and participating in tickle fights and fits of laughter. And really, when it comes down to it, that’s what this day means. It means everything. Because I have him.
When thinking of what to title this blog post, a post I’ve been imagining writing for a long time, the voice of Jeff Goldblum immediately popped in my head. In Jurassic Park, one of my childhood faves, his character utters the now famous line, “Life, uh, finds a way.” Although referring to dinosaurs and their ability to breed in that particular case, the line came to mind when thinking about my own little (far less destructive) miracle that has found its way into existence, despite the odds.
That’s right folks, the rumours are indeed true: I am pregnant. With a baby (not a dinosaur, in case there’s any confusion there). And not just a baby, but a baby boy. A real, live baby boy. Ain’t that somethin’?
For a quick recap: you may recall that I was taking cancer-fighting drugs that prevented me from having a child. You may also recall that I had a type of chemotherapy that put me at risk for damaging my ovarian reserve. You may not recall any of this, because it’s in your rearview mirror and you are likely thinking about other things, as you should be. But I have not thought about other things. Ok, that’s not entirely true. Occasionally I think about pizza, or last night’s Bachelor episode. But a lot of my brain power has gone to thinking about babies. Wondering if that possibility was lost for me. Wondering if I should take the risk. Researching, reading, discussing, deciding, trying to sort through it all the best that I could.
My decision to attempt pregnancy was not made lightly. It was agonizing. At times, it still is. My anxiety has been sky-high, as I wrestle with nerves around the pregnancy itself after encountering a bumpy start which made me hesitant to share my news. My excitement has been tempered with familiar fears creeping their way back in, fears about my own health and how my survival now feels even more critical. I feel like the last time I got really excited about life, I was hit with a bomb, and I worry (irrationally, but still) that I might somehow jinx this good fortune if I put it out into the world.
But after waiting patiently on the sidelines for the last several years, watching baby announcements flood my social media feeds, celebrating the births of my friends’ and family’s children, I want to enjoy this moment in time, this moment I’ve waited so long for. I want to share it. I want you to know that miracles can happen. I want you to know that good things can happen. But mostly I want myself to know that good things can happen. It is possible. It has to be. It’s happening right now, as I feel my son swimming around inside of me.
I’m back from sunny, hot Jamaica, and I’d love to say I’m glad to be home, but that would be a bit of a lie. Spending a week where I was pampered and taken care of and did not have to worry about a single thing was quite luxurious. And honestly, I could have used another week. Or year.
This was the first week in nearly a year that I didn’t have to talk about cancer, or how I was feeling. No one there knew about the cancer. I was incognito, blending in with all the other happy sunburned people (sans sunburn, of course – hello, I’ve already had one kind of cancer, I’m no dummy). I got several compliments on my “beautiful hairstyle”, with no one assuming I had lost my hair, but rather that I had just been bold and cut it all off. One of the staff members, an aspiring model, even said it made her want to chop hers all off too. No one had a clue why I was there, or why my hair is so darn short, and I liked it that way. It truly was a break from reality and my life. No doctor’s appointments, no hospitals, no cancer.
Of course, cancer wasn’t completely absent from my mind, because I am no where near at that point yet in my mental recovery. I still had some pains that made me wonder if my cancer has spread. And I still felt a smidge of sadness over the thought of my life being cut short, and missing out on moments like swimming in the ocean or watching a beautiful sunset. So many of my happy moments now seem to have this slight shadow of darkness attached to them, and I never realize it’s happening until it sneaks up on me. I hope eventually it doesn’t have to be that way, but I think it will take awhile still. Patience is something I must learn as I navigate this very confusing post-cancer existence.
Something I also noticed from this trip was that as much as I have changed from my illness, I am still fundamentally the same person. I had wondered if perhaps my life-long fear of flying might have disappeared, now that I have truly been through something extremely scary and feel I have a new perspective on fear and how to face it. But even as I told myself, You’ve been through cancer, a bit of turbulence can’t scare you, I still panicked with every bump and squeezed my husband’s hand until it turned red and wondered how any rational human being could ever think it’s a good idea to be trapped with a bunch of strangers in a tight space, forty thousand feet above the ground. My fear of flight has most definitely not been cured as a result of cancer. Alas, I am still me, same as always.
For my birthday, on the last night of our trip, my husband bought a wishing lantern for me. You’re supposed to light the lantern with fire, make a wish, and send it out into the sky, over the water. I’ve seen them before and always thought they were so pretty and magical, as they faded into the night sky. This seemed like a perfect opportunity to make a wish. Whether it worked or not, I need all the help I can get, so there wasn’t much to lose. At the very least, I got to see something beautiful, and at the very most, my wish will come true. Not a bad deal, if you ask me.
Leaving the beautiful scenery and no-stress vibe of vacation land was very difficult. I began to feel like myself again for the first time in a long time. I even felt a bit pretty, instead of like an awkward looking boy. This week, it’s back to reality. Tomorrow I will be returning to work after a 10-month leave (which I initially thought would only be about one month. I think I underestimated what the year had in store for me. Oops). I will be on a part-time schedule at first and then build up more hours and days each week until I’m back full-time, so as to not shock my system and completely exhaust myself. I definitely have some mixed emotions about returning to work, but I am excited to get back to having a normal routine, and for the welcome distraction. I also have another treatment on Friday morning; unfortunately, not the massage kind, but the cancer kind. So the holiday has come to an end and it’s time to face the challenges of life once more. I am so grateful for the time I had away, to remember how beautiful the world is and how amazing it is to be alive to see it. I will dream of the next vacation, where instead of escaping from cancer life, I can just escape from regular life, like your average stressed-out, tired, burnt out human being, in need of a break. I can’t wait.
Last week, I attended shiva for Linda and had the honour of meeting some of her amazing family. It was so special to get a stronger sense of what Linda’s life was like, and the people she surrounded herself with. I felt so lucky to have had her come into my life, even though it was for much too short a time. I do believe that people enter our lives for a reason, and I feel that Linda left such a wonderful legacy behind, and taught me many lessons, for which I am very grateful. Her family told me of how much Linda had admired my attitude and my honesty, but I hope they know that the feeling was completely mutual, and I felt a true kindred spirit in Linda.
Of course, despite it truly being a celebration of her life, I still felt a deep sadness, as I’m sure most did. It is always so sad when someone dies much too early. This unshakable feeling of a life unfinished. Cut short. Sometimes I wonder if anyone ever feels ready to go, when it’s their “time”. Is it easier when you’re 90 vs. 30? Or does it always feel as if life just sped right by you, without there ever being enough time to do and see all that you planned.
Since getting diagnosed with cancer, I’ve thought to myself if I could live just until “middle age”, that would be enough and I’d be satisfied and grateful for the extra years I got. But I’m certain if I make it to that point (and I hope I do), that I won’t feel any more ready to go. That it won’t be any easier. When life is good, it is natural to get greedy and want more. More years, more experiences, more trips, more love, more laughter. More living.
I do feel more pressure to live my life to the fullest and make every day count and fulfill the requirements of countless cliches. I think it would be almost impossible not to feel this way, when you know your days could be limited and that a long life and old age is not a certainty, but more of an abstract concept. A hopeful wish. A perhaps, rather than a definitely.
The strange thing is, even with this pressure and this fear safely tucked in the back of my mind, I don’t really want to do anything different. I don’t want to jump out of a plane, or climb the tallest mountain or run away to an exotic part of the world and leave my life behind. If my life were a movie, I feel like that’s what my character would do.
But what I want most of all, what I dream of, is a normal, long life. Filled with the mundane, with splashes and sprinkles of excitement thrown in here and there for good measure. I want family, and traditions, and changing seasons. Lazy nights and long days. Eventually, wrinkles, and some grey hairs (or any hair, really).
When it comes down to it, I just want my life to go on. I don’t need anything to change, and I don’t want to be a poster girl for how cancer can miraculously change your life for the better. I just want to be able to feel that when my time is up, I’ll know I lived the life I was meant to. Nothing particularly extraordinary. Nothing filled with daring adventures and endless excitement. Just life. Boring, typical, beautiful life.
First, a big shout-out to everyone who has donated to me for the Weekend walk. I was again blown away by how much support I have, especially from people who have never met me who somehow found this blog and felt compelled to reach into their pockets. There have been so many nice messages sent to me via the donation page, and so many “likes” on my Facebook updates/photos from the past couple days, and so many texts and emails and cards and gifts. When I think about all of it, I get a little misty eyed and feel like I am wrapped up in a warm, fuzzy blanket of kindness and empathy. I am so touched by the generosity others have shown me. I hope I can pay it forward somehow, someday.
Yesterday marked another significant milestone of my adventures with cancer: I finished my 25 rounds of radiation. It was a great day. I got to piggyback on my radiation therapist’s birthday party and steal some treats from her to celebrate my last treatment. I said goodbye to my favourite receptionists who greet me with smiles every day and whose faces I will actually miss seeing. I had lunch with a new friend who gave me a very thoughtful and sentimental gift and tears and hugs were shared. I saw a movie with my mom and sister, and went out for a nice dinner with my family, where I received some beautiful flowers. It felt like my birthday, except about a million times better.
And now I am exhausted. And feel as though I could sleep for about a week. Turns out, radiation is pretty tiring, just like the warnings said. It took awhile to catch up with me, but it happened. As did the burn. And the itching. But all of that should go away with some time. So now I sit. And I wait. And I watch a lot of TV. Not such a bad deal, honestly.
I am getting many questions from many people, which leads me to believe most of you are once again confused as to what happens now. And I don’t blame you, because it is confusing. For me, this is my every day existence – managing my cancer schedule/life. But for others, I know it is a lot to wrap your head around, since there are many things in your life that have nothing to do with cancer. Oh how I envy you.
I am still in active cancer treatment. Still fighting this evil thing that is trying to ruin all my fun. I will still be receiving my IV cancer drugs every three weeks, until January, which means I am not yet saying bye-bye to the chemo ward and nurses. And I also am taking my hormone therapy drugs in the form of a pill, each and every night, which cause me to wake up throughout the night drenched in sweat. But compared to everything else, it’s all doable. Not ideal. Not a party. But bearable. And that’s okay with me.
In some ways, I am glad to still have these things going on. Like I am being slowly weaned off of cancer and the constant attacking of cancer cells. It helps me, in a way, to feel like I am doing something, like I am actively attempting to keep this cancer bullshit far, far away from me.
It is well documented that for many cancer patients, the most psychologically trying aspect of treatment is actually after it has ended. You are suddenly thrust back into the world, away from the constant monitoring and care of your healthcare team.
Hey, you have cancer. Now we’re going to make you crazy sick and unhealthy for awhile. Now you’re done, and it might come back, but it might not. Ok, so long, see ya!
It’s a difficult thing to wrap your mind around. And it’s something, I have come to realize, that most people who haven’t had cancer are completely unaware of. The post-traumatic stress that can be triggered after battling a life threatening disease. The anxiety that comes with not knowing if you killed it, if it’s still there, or if it will be come back. The uncertainty of it all, and the feeling that no one has been through what you have, and no one could understand. People just expect that since you’re healthy again and look fairly decent, you’re back to normal. You’re fine. You can move on. But it isn’t that simple. In fact, it’s extremely complicated.
Dr. Laura B. Dunn, a professor of psychiatry and director of psycho-oncology at the University of California, San Francisco, said that although cancer is increasingly labeled a chronic illness, “it’s different from arthritis in that it’s more of a chronic threat. Some of us are wired to be attuned to threat.” The anxiety is understandable, she said, because “no one can guarantee you a cancer-free survival.”
Although I would love to shout from the rooftops “I’m cancer freeeee!”, no doctor or test can really tell me that, because that’s just not how it works, as much as everyone really wants me to say that. I can believe it, and I can hope for it, and I can keep doing things to try to ensure it. But I can’t know. I have to just have faith. Which is a bit tricky. But I am trying, to the best of my ability.
So that is where we are right now. Surgeries done. Chemo done. Radiation done. Fighting cancer incomplete. Moving on from cancer incomplete. I am still very much a work in progress. As we all are, really.
But with all the question marks and uncertainties, one thing I do know for sure: It has been a very long year. And I deserve a nap.
I completed 11 of my 25 radiation treatments. So I’m about half way there. My skin is starting to burn. Right now, it just looks like I stayed in the sun too long and forgot to put on sunscreen. There is no pain, it’s just pink and warm to the touch. Since there’s still a while to go, I predict I might be headed for some discomfort soon, but I’m still hoping for the best. The past couple days, I’ve started to feel slightly exhausted. I’ve had some people tell me that the hardest part of radiation was how tiring it was, but so far I’ve felt pretty great. But I am worried it is now catching up with me and I imagine I might have some dates with my couch coming up in my very near future. Thank god for TV. And couches, of course.
I met a young woman named Sonia who is a fellow breast cancer sister. She was my exact age upon diagnosis, and she had my same type of aggressive cancer. She is now 7 years past her diagnosis, and is doing great. I repeat – she is alive. After 7 years. I can’t tell you how much it lifted my spirits to meet her. The idea of being alive 7 years from now actually gets me giddy. I realize that for most people, they just take it as a given. But I certainly don’t. I’m so happy I met her and have a new friend in my life who can give me some real, tangible hope. Pretty cool.
I cried a bit. I’m not really sure why. It hasn’t happened in awhile, because I’ve been pretty distracted and feeling mostly good. But I’ve had a few moments of panic lately, for one reason or another. Where I think a bit too much about the cancer, and am sent into a spiral of panic and doubt and fear. I really wish I didn’t have to think about this crap. It’s usually just the realization that I have to think about this crap that is the hardest. Even after all this time, it still feels like this is not my life, like some gigantic mistake was made. It’s all a big joke! You never had cancer! Fooled ya! I wish.
I started my hormone therapy (Tamoxifen) last night. I felt a bit sad, swallowing the pill, realizing how long I will have to take those pills. But it’s one more necessary step, so I took it. So far nothing to report except a bit of queasiness today. There are numerous possible side effects, some more common than others. And some that are pretty unfortunate. If you’re really interested, you can Google it for yourself, but I’m not going to list them here because otherwise I’ll convince myself it’s all happening to me. And I’d rather not do that tonight. I’ve got enough on my plate for now.
I got to hang out with these two lovely ladies. I have some really great girlfriends. These are two of them. We spent most of our time giggling. As it should be.
And the winner of the “Best Part of My Week” award: I attended a press conference at Princess Margaret about an exciting new cancer drug. I was very excited to attend this announcement, because Dr. Dennis Slamon is one of the investigators working on this drug and I knew he’d speaking at the event. This brilliant man is responsible for inventing the drug Herceptin, which I currently receive every 3 weeks at the hospital. This drug was one of the biggest advances in breast cancer, and has prolonged or saved the lives of an enormous amount of women. Dr. Slamon faced many obstacles when trying to get this drug out to the public, and his persistence and determination eventually got it to the people who needed it.
I have never had the opportunity to meet someone like Dr. Slamon, someone who literally might save my life. When I saw him, I broke into a sweat and was overcome with nerves, like a little girl meeting her favourite pop star. I went over to him and shook his hand, and thanked him. It was completely surreal and I’m amazed that I didn’t start crying, or hugging him, both things which I thought might occur. It was such an honour to meet him, and I hope people really appreciate that there are men and women out there like him, sitting in their labs, searching for a cure, trying to save all our lives. They might not wear capes or star in 3D blockbusters, but they are heroes in the truest sense of the word. Real-life superheroes.
I am so grateful to this man and to all the others trying to find a way to help the millions of people facing this bitch of a disease. Thank you.
Haven’t updated in awhile, but don’t worry, I’m still here. I’ve just been trying to live my life a bit. I haven’t really been able to enjoy any “recovery” period, because I’ve been sick or struggling with side effects every time there was any sort of break between treatments. So having this time off before starting radiation has been a pretty nice change of pace. Never underestimate the body’s need to heal after being physically and psychologically tormented for months on end.
I’ve been saddled with a cold the past few days. It’s a bit of an annoyance to be “regular sick” during a break from being “cancer sick”, but that’s all it is. An annoyance. Once you’ve dealt with the Big C, a cold ain’t no thang. I would take a cold over cancer any day. Although, I’d also take neither, if I had the choice. But maybe that’s being too greedy.
The weather outside is strange today. One minute it is raining cats and dogs, then bright and sunny and cheerful, then grey and cloudy and windy, as it appears to be right now outside my window. It’s a bit unpredictable, which is precisely how my mood and general outlook on life is these days.
One minute, I am happy, full of energy, enjoying the health I seem to be regaining. The next, I’m exhausted, feeling betrayed by my body and resentful that it can’t do all the things it once could, with ease.
And at another moment, I am hopeful, thinking of the future, entertaining the notion that I could actually live a full life, filled with fun and laughter, with cancer being nothing more than a distant memory, a bizarre detour that I will never take again. And then I read of someone with my disease who didn’t make it, or I get a test result that plagues me with anxiety, and I feel suffocated with fear. Burdened by the reality that despite everything I am doing, you never know if it was enough, unless you learn that it was not. Scared of never getting old, of not being here, of the world going on without me. Bitter that I even have to think about these things. That they are a real possibility. And that as hard as I try to control it all, it is out of my hands.
I’m sure anyone with a cancer diagnosis can tell you that it is all incredibly confusing. You want to live your life the way you did before. You want to be normal. Like everyone else, you want to feel like you have all the time in the world. Yet there is this cloud that looms over you. The knowledge that, at any moment, you may be told your life expectancy has shrunk quite substantially. That you’ve run out of time. These are big thoughts for a young person to have to grapple with.
I am so envious of those who still maintain their innocence. Who take it for granted that there is still a long and winding road ahead of them. Who believe that nothing bad will ever happen to them. I think it’s a beautiful thing, to feel protected and safe like that. Ignorance truly is bliss, in many cases. I’m sure I felt that way at some point, the feeling that nothing could touch me. I think we all want to feel that way. It’s what gets us through. Unfortunately, that innocence is long gone for me. I see the world through different eyes now. Nothing looks the same, and I, most definitely, am not the same.
But maybe that’s not all bad. Maybe there is something to gain from a new perspective and from being smacked in the face with the harsh reality that none of us is invincible. That life is short, no matter how you slice it. We are all just floating around, trying to do the best we can, and having no clue as to how or when it all might end. We’re all trying to make sense out of life, attempting to find answers to the Big Questions. I just hope I still have a lot of time left to figure it all out. Because I’m certainly not done yet.
Today is National Cancer Survivors Day. They say you are a survivor from the moment you receive a cancer diagnosis. So I guess I’ve been surviving for a bit now. Happy day to me.