A day for mothers

Today it’s Mother’s Day. And it’s got me thinking.

I am very lucky for my mother. If you know her, you know she is the best. I don’t know where I would be without her (well, not alive, I suppose, but that’s beside the point). I am also very lucky to have an awesome mother-in-law. Whenever I hear stories of impossible mother-in-laws, I think, wow, I really lucked out on that one. So I’ve really hit the mother jackpot.

I’m also thinking about my grandmothers. Both amazing ladies. Both gone too soon. Cancer, and cancer again. I miss them every day, and today a bit more. I have had many examples of strong women in my life, and they have all played their part in shaping who I am today.

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I’m also thinking about the pain of this holiday, for so many. Like being single on Valentine’s Day. Only a lot worse.

The pain of all those who have lost their mothers, who are bombarded with marketing messages like “CALL YOUR MOM! TELL YOUR MOM YOU LOVE HER!” and have to confront the sadness of being motherless. We don’t always think about these people on this day, and what it might mean to them. The orphans among us. Heartache instead of flowers.

I’m thinking about all the women out there, having trouble conceiving, desperately wanting to be a mother. My own friend, who was hoping to be a mother on this day, and is not. So many women struggling, undergoing fertility treatments. Trying, trying, trying. What does this day mean for them?

I’m thinking about Naomi, and how she is no longer here to celebrate this day with her adorable little son. I’m thinking about her husband and how this day might make him feel. And all the Mother’s Days they’ll have to face without her, and the sheer unfairness of it all. I’m thinking of how much she loved her son and beamed when she spoke about him, and what an amazing mother she was, for the short time she got to be one.

And, yes, I’m thinking about me. My feelings. I am not a mother. If not for cancer, would I be celebrating my first Mother’s Day as a new mom right now? Possibly. Likely. Will I ever have a Mother’s Day, as a mom? No one can answer that question. The option to have a child, for now, has been taken away from me. Mother’s Day wasn’t made for young women who had cancer. I don’t think Hallmark makes a card for that one.

Happy Mother’s Day. To the many beautiful mothers I am lucky enough to know. To those who are without their moms. And to those of us hanging on to the hope, that one day, this day might mean something different, and might be for us, too.

 

A model cancer patient

On Monday I participated in the Wellspring Well Dressed For Spring fashion show at Holt Renfrew. I got to wear expensive clothes and be fussed over and be a model for a day. I met some great people, many of whom had also had cancer, which of course gave us an instant connection. It is so strange how the second you learn someone else has had cancer, you suddenly start talking about very personal things that you might not even discuss with a good friend. The ties that bind.

Me and another model I met that night, who also had breast cancer, four years ago.
Me and another model I met that night, who also had breast cancer, four years ago. (Photo credit: George Pimentel)

As the show began and we waited backstage to be called, my stomach started flipping and I got extremely nervous. Why did I agree to do something where a bunch of people were going to stare at me? For someone who hasn’t felt very good about her appearance in quite some time, this suddenly seemed like a bad idea. A few of the other models were having butterflies as well. But then I reminded myself, and them, “We’ve all been through a lot worse than this.”

“Very true,” remarked my fellow model. The show must go on. So on it went.

After hearing my name called, I walked up onto the stage, while Amanda Lang from CBC read a short bio about me and my cancer story. As she said the words and everyone looked at me with tears in their eyes, I too started to tear up, which I really didn’t expect. I have no problem talking about my experience and have heard the story so many times. But it still sometimes catches me off guard, when I hear someone else describe what I have been through and where I am right now. It was all a bit overwhelming.

I walked down the runway, and the rest is really a blur. I remember I had had a plan of how I wanted to walk and I really wanted to seem cool and model-y, but that quickly went out the window the second I started walking. Cameras were flashing and everyone was cheering and my grandpa was blowing me kisses and I had a bit of a mental black-out. I really don’t remember walking. But somehow, my feet carried me, to the end, and back. And I didn’t even trip.

The awkward "Hi everybody, I feel weird!" look. You saw it here first.
The awkward “Hi everybody, I feel weird!” look. You saw it here first. (Photo credit: George Pimentel)

After the show, I had lots of people introduce themselves to me, and many people told me they have followed along with me since the beginning. No matter how many times I hear this, it always shocks me. I still have trouble comprehending that anyone other than my mother would be interested in reading my blog.

The evening was wonderful, and emotional, and fun, and exhausting. I am really glad I did it and had the chance to be surrounded by so much love and support. A nice feeling.

The next morning, I got up bright and early to do my final blood draw using my good ol’ port-a-cath. The nurse messed up the first try, so she had to give me a second needle, which was a bit frustrating. But I had a feeling things wouldn’t go smoothly, seeing as it was the last hurrah, and isn’t that just the way it goes.

After the blood draw, I had a check-up with my oncologist (actually, I got to see two doctors because I am just so special). We talked about various issues I’ve been having, and also some stats around recurrence and my odds. It is funny how when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t want to hear any stats or numbers from anyone, because I couldn’t handle how scary it was to talk in those terms. It is still terrifying, but I have a much firmer grasp now on the reality of my situation, and a certain comfort level with it. An acceptance, of sorts. It still feels like a punch in the stomach to hear that after everything I have done, my chances of survival are still not as high as I wish they were (i.e. not 100%, which is what we all wish for… isn’t it?). But my doctors do seem genuinely optimistic, and I fully believe that they are not bullshitters, which is why I have allowed them to remain a part of my medical team. I like real talk. I also like hope. And they give me both. So I actually came away from this appointment feeling fairly good, especially after being told I will now get a nice THREE MONTH break from hanging out with cancer doctors, which is the longest I’ve ever had. So that is quite thrilling.

After my hospital morning, I went home to change and headed up north to attend Naomi’s funeral. The service was beautiful, with touching eulogies and stories shared about this amazing woman. I feel so lucky to have known her and to have gotten to know some of her friends and family. Of course, as nice as the memorial was, it was also extremely difficult. I wept the entire time, having it fully hit me that my friend is gone, and that someone so important to so many people, is gone. It is a hard reality to face. It is so hard to make sense of why these things happen. To know that it happened to such a loving, amazing family, who deserved nothing but happiness. It is all just terribly unfair, and my heart aches for all the people who are feeling the loss of Naomi and all that she brought to this world. I am also confronted with having to face my own mortality, and the notion that it could just as easily be my funeral, and my family left behind. The death of a friend causes many emotions to stir up, and in this case, maybe a few more. It is hard, to say the least. But I’m so glad I got to be a part of saying goodbye to someone who had a very significant impact on my life.

And, since my week wasn’t cancer-filled enough… today, I got my port removed. I was initially supposed to be sedated for the procedure, but I called yesterday and asked the nurse if I could do it without any drugs. She said I could, if I felt relaxed enough about it. And I told her, honestly, I really just didn’t want to fast all day, because not eating for one day is just way too challenging for me.

So today I made my way to another hospital, and checked in, and commenced a very long wait for my procedure. I had a phone call from someone on the medical team asking if it had been explained to me that I could receive medication and get an IV and all that. I told the guy that I had just eaten a bagel, so that ship had sailed. No turning back.

When they finally called me, I went into the operating room and lay on the bed and stared at all the machines and monitors. I instantly started to wonder if I’d made a huge mistake by offering to be awake. For the port insertion, I had been so nervous that I asked them to give me an insane amount of drugs, and I completely passed out. How things have changed. How I have changed. I have a new sense of bravery about these things that I never possessed pre-cancer.

A young doctor entered the room, looking like he walked off the set of Grey’s Anatomy, which for some reason put me at ease. He explained what was about to happen, asked the usual questions, and then began. I had to have several needles to freeze the area, which didn’t bother me. Then he made his incision, and I could feel a bunch of tugging and pulling that seemed to go on for awhile.

I started to feel very warm and noticed I was feeling a bit faint.

“Is everything okay with it?” I asked.

“Yes, there’s just some scar tissue that I have to scrape out first.”

He continued to remove the scar tissue and I could feel pulling on the vein.

“Are you almost done?” I asked, “because I think I’m pretty close to passing out or vomiting.”

He asked me if I needed a break and I said no, just get ‘er done. Before I knew it, he yanked the tube out and out came the port. Then he sewed me up and bandaged me as I felt my blood pressure return to normal and the room stop spinning. Easy peasy.

And now I am home, a bit sore, after what feels like a very long, highly emotional, exhausting few days. I’m having some bleeding come through the bandage, which is slightly worrisome. If it continues, I am supposed to go to the emergency room. But I am hoping that does not happen. I’ve had enough cancer-related events for one week. Time to get back to watching bad TV, sleeping, and being a regular human being… which, these days, is what I hope for, more than anything.

Me, now. Time for bed.
Me, now. Time for bed.

Naomi Angel

A few months ago, I wrote this entry about my friend Naomi. Late last night, my beautiful friend passed away, leaving many people to mourn the loss of a truly amazing woman.

I have thought of Naomi non-stop over the past several months, as her health began to deteriorate. I have missed her texts, and emails, and our lunch dates. I have sat at my computer at night, reading through all our old messages from the earlier cancer days, and looking through her photos, and praying for miracles.

Naomi and I had a truly unique friendship. Having “cancer friends” is a bond that only other “cancer friends” can really understand. Our friendship was not at all typical in any way. I have “hung out” with Naomi more times in the hospital than out of it. Our text messages and emails, although sometimes about work, family, etc., were most often about our cancer lives. Our lives.

We’d discuss arm exercises, and radiation CT’s, and MRI machines, and plan quick meet-ups in the waiting room. We talked about our hair and compared its post-chemo growth. I was completely jealous that Naomi’s hair and lashes were coming back so quickly. And she would assure me that mine would come back soon. I have sat with Naomi in the emergency room, helped her to the bathroom, changed her clothes for her (the end of one of her last emails to me was: Also, I realized that you and your mom both saw my bare ass at the hospital! Oh the indignities!). When the MRI tech asked questions about breast-feeding, we both looked at each other and rolled our eyes. Hello, we don’t have breasts! We understood each other in this way. Our secret friendship club.

The first week that Naomi and I started emailing each other, before actually meeting in person, I felt like a giddy teenager. My heart would skip a beat when I saw I had a new email from her, as we would write lengthy messages back and forth, talking about our treatments, our husbands, and how much cancer sucked. I was so happy I found her, even more so when I learned about her academic background and her general interests and realized we would totally be awesome friends in the real, non-cancer world. But sadly, we never really got to the non-cancer world together. Cancer was always there, until the very end.

Pic taken from Naomi's blog. She bought this fancy coat after her first brain surgery and demanded that the saleswoman bring her a bunch of fancy things to try on. She bought two expensive coats that day, and she was so excited to show them off. She looked beautiful, as always.
Pic taken from Naomi’s blog. She bought this fancy coat after her first brain surgery. She went to Anthropologie, sat down in the fitting room, and demanded that the saleswoman bring her a bunch of fancy things to try on. She bought two expensive coats that day, and she was so excited to show them off. She looked beautiful, as always.

I remember the first time I met Naomi in person, at a lunch spot near the hospital, in between our appointments. She was sitting on a bench in the sun, in a bright red coat. She looked so beautiful. Naomi had this amazing aura about her. She was so cool, and peaceful, and smart. I looked up to her. Even facing a tough prognosis, she always had so much hope. Her hope gave me hope. I was in awe of her.

When we would write to each other about our fears, she wrote to me: Focus on what’s happening now. The future will come when it’s ready, and it’s so hard to predict what life is going to bring. I loved her way of thinking, and her way with words. She always lifted me up, even when she was down.

I am so angry at cancer, for taking a wife from her husband, a young mom from her son… a daughter, a sister, a friend. It is all terribly unfair. But anger won’t bring her back, and it won’t take anyone’s pain away. So instead I will choose to think of all the good she brought into the world while she was here, and into my world, and how lucky I was to have known her for a short while. She was truly an angel.

My heart is with her family. I hope they know how much joy she brought to everyone who knew her and the impact she had on so many people’s lives.

On my life.

xo

Linda Lewis

Today I received some very sad news of the passing of a friend, Linda Lewis, who was diagnosed last year with acute myeloid leukemia. Linda was an amazing and accomplished woman, and you can read a bit about her in this article.

I was first “introduced” to Linda via her twin sister, Leora, who left a comment on one of my first blogs saying I might want to follow Linda on Twitter. I did, immediately, and quickly learned that Linda and I shared a very similar, somewhat dark sense of humour, and we both used it as a way of dealing with the crazy hands we had been dealt. We spent months tweeting each other back and forth, and she was hugely supportive of my blog and my writing, often sharing it with her followers.

Linda Lewis ‏@LindaOnLeukemia30 Mar

@steph_rebecca Thank you for sharing the hard truth. Thinking of you.

Linda Lewis ‏@LindaOnLeukemia8 Feb

@steph_rebecca If anyone is entitled to be an “emo wuss” you are. Thanks for your candour. See you around the Princess Margaritz someday

Linda Lewis ‏@LindaOnLeukemia22 Jan

@steph_rebecca you deserve to be grumpy! fyi, my nickname was also Brainer, but it was better than my other one in grade 8: the Prairies

Linda Lewis ‏@LindaOnLeukemia10 Jan

Worth reading: “@steph_rebecca: Cancer is a gift I’d like to return. New blog post: http://wp.me/p2VkE2-1N 

Linda Lewis ‏@LindaOnLeukemia26 Dec

@steph_rebecca: I shaved my head. http://wp.me/p2VkE2-1v ” Thank you for inspiring me to post a photo of me, the real me, as I look today

Recently, I planned to meet up with Linda at the hospital as I was finally starting to regain my strength. But it was at that time that her situation worsened, and we were not able to have our meeting.

I have thought about her every day, often checking her Twitter page for updates, as I realized I had grown quite dependent on hearing from her. Yesterday I emailed her sister to let her know I was thinking about Linda all the time and hoping she was okay. Leora emailed me this afternoon to let me know Linda had passed last night, in her home.

I can’t really express how I feel. To lose a friend I never got the chance to meet. To have my first real “cancer friend” loss. But I don’t even really want to try to express my feelings, because it isn’t about me. It’s about her family. Her children. Her sister. As someone who has a sister who doubles as a best friend, I can only imagine how hard that loss must be.

I hate cancer. I hate it so much.

Rest in peace, Linda. I promise to give cancer the big “EFF YOU” in your memory.