The Ring of Fire

I received a really nice email last week, and hopefully this kind stranger doesn’t mind me posting her words here for you to read:

I’m sure you get many of these random stranger emails – oh a blog about BC! I had it too! now that makes us instant friends…LOL.
I just wanted to tell you that your posts are so refreshing to read. In an ocean of stories, yours has been the one that has finally made me think “hey, I’m not a crazy weirdo, this person thinks EXACTLY what I was thinking” – pretty hard to find let me tell you.
so, I just wanted to thank you for bringing a smile to another woman’s day struggling with all the BS around BC.
And great hair. Oh don’t get me started on the hair.
R.

This email reminded me that people still read my blog and that it keeps existing for others, whether I update it or not. Somehow, people still find it and still connect, even as I continue on, living my life. The internet is a pretty groovy thing, n’est-ce pas?

For those who’ve been missing me, don’t forget to check out my monthly column over at ELLE. I’ve been giving all of the thoughts inside my brain to them (and they actually pay me real money to do so!), which is why I haven’t been as active around these parts.

But don’t despair, I’ll never disappear from here completely. This is still my favourite space to be. No deadlines, no edits, no caring about trying to impress anybody. My tiny little corner of the interwebs where I can do as I please. It’s swell.

You know what’s not so swell?

The dramatic return of my hot flashes.

Bleh. I thought I had cured them by switching up my medication brand, but that effect seemed to only last temporarily. I’m back to being a sweaty, burning mess, with the concept of sleeping through the night being nothing more than a fantasy. And if you keep up with your breast cancer news (which I’m sure many of you do not, you lucky ducks), you will know that Tamoxifen is now being recommended for ten years, instead of five. TEN YEARS of sleepless nights and melting madness.

But I am grateful. It could be worse. So much worse. Who needs eyebrows, breasts, sleep, comfort? I’m alive!

I’ve been fighting off a nasty sinus infection the past several days, that finally seems on its way out. I don’t know if this is normal for other people who’ve gone through cancer treatment, but I find that now when I’m sick, I have traumatic flashbacks to the chemo glory days. Lying in bed feeling ill brings back terrible memories of lying in bed feeling (more) ill. When my stomach gets sick now (which still happens from time to time, THANKS IBS), it reminds me of when I felt that way for days/weeks on end, so weak I had to cling to the sink to pull myself up from the toilet, and then lean against the wall as I walked back to my bedroom so I wouldn’t fall down on the way. That scenario felt like a never-ending cycle, for months.

I wish I could just get “normal” sick without having such hideous memories and anxiety attached to it. Maybe eventually, but for now, it still feels like a horrible nightmare I can’t forget. That feeling when you see a scary movie that creeps you out, and it pops into your head right before you go to sleep at night, plaguing your thoughts. It’s like that. Times a million. I play the scenes back in my head. My very own horror movie, and I’m the star.

I always did want to be a star.

But the difference between normal sick and cancer sick is it ends pretty quickly and you bounce right back from it and usually forget about it a few days later. You’re not likely to be tortured with thoughts about that time you had the sniffles and took some cold and sinus pills.

So that’s another thing to be grateful for. Being sick and not having it be cancer. That’s kind of cool. Although I’d rather just not be sick with anything, big or small, ever again, but I guess I’ll roll with the punches. I’ll blow my nose, feel aches in my body, cry because it reminds me of when my entire body ached from the inside out, cry that I might one day feel that pain again, wake up the next morning, and notice that I can breathe again; that the pain is gone and I’m standing on my own, with the past still visible in my rearview mirror, but the present staring at me, pressed right up against the windshield.

And I must say, the present is lookin’ pretty good. More joy than pain. More health than misfortune. More beauty than sorrow. More laughter than tears.

In fact, life is swell.

Except for the hot flashes.

Those can go to hell.

My second cancerversary

Today marks my second cancerversary. Two years have gone by since the day I was diagnosed with cancer.

I wish I could say it’s all behind me, that I’ve moved on and thoughts of cancer never even cross my mind, but that would be a big fat lie. I probably worry about it all a bit less than I did one year ago, but the fear and anxiety is still there. Every time I read or hear of another young woman whose cancer has returned, or who has passed away, I remember, oh yah, that could be me. I’ve had sporadic rib pain for months. No one is particularly concerned about it just yet, so I try not to be concerned. But in the back of my mind, it’s always there: Maybe it’s cancer. Maybe this is it. Maybe, maybe, maybe…

I know that many people ignore their diagnosis dates, since it usually brings up really traumatic memories and dark thoughts. They don’t see it as anything worth “celebrating.” I can understand that. But I choose to remember it and acknowledge it. I don’t celebrate getting cancer. I celebrate that I am still here, two years later, living my life. Not everyone makes it to two years. I know I am lucky. I am so lucky that I’m not sitting in a doctor’s office right now, terrified, waiting to get a cancer diagnosis. I am so lucky that I can relax, enjoy my day, and go out with my husband for a special cancerversary dinner. Why be all glum and depressed about a date, when you can turn it into an excuse to eat dinner out at a nice restaurant on a weeknight? When life gives you lemons…

I also want to post something my sister wrote and sent to me (with her permission) about how she feels on this day, and the significance it holds for her. I don’t know how I would have made it through the past two years without her by my side. She may be my “little” sister, but she sure is wise:

Two years ago today Steph was diagnosed with breast cancer. I remember it like it was yesterday. Hanging up the phone with my mom and rushing through the halls of the Medical Sciences Building – tears streaming, heart racing. Running blurry-eyed down to the lab and seeing my classmates’ heads turn, asking if I was okay. I didn’t answer. I continued running down the halls to find our anatomy professor, wanting the comfort of a doctor – of someone with past knowledge that could tell me everything was going to be okay. And although he tried, it wasn’t enough – it didn’t make the fears go away; it didn’t make me think that there wasn’t some slight chance I would lose my sister, my best friend, my confidant, my biggest cheerleader, my number 1. Soon I would learn that from this point forward, these fears would never completely go away.

I remember roaming out to the trees of King’s College Circle, seeking comfort from my classmates, answering my concerned friends’ texts, calling my parents, but all the while, being afraid to talk to my sister. Would I start crying? Would I break down and make her believe she had reason to be afraid? How would I act? Was I going to be the best sister I could be or would I shrivel away, afraid to look at her and be by her side through everything? I didn’t know, but what I did know is that I had to take each challenge as it came – each day something new, trying hard not to look behind and not anticipate the future more than we could. Not an easy task, that’s forsure. The nights spent bawling my eyes out, pacing around, the depression. But what wasn’t present during these times was my anxiety that I’m so used to. I snapped out of flight mode, and into fight mode. I recognized what was important in life, and what wasn’t. Those little things, those stupid little concerns, conflicts, worries – a waste of time. Sitting next to Steph, holding her hand and knowing I wouldn’t let go unless she wanted me to – that’s all that mattered then and all that ever will matter. That’s the only thing I want to hold onto from this whole stupid horrible experience – remembering what’s important and what isn’t. September 11th, for so many reasons, is a day to remember just how lucky we are. We are here and for that, we are lucky. We will continue to complain tomorrow of the streetcar being stuck, of the rain, of the million tasks to do and the short hours in which to do them, but under it all, is a reminder of just how lucky we are to complain of such things. How lucky we were to get to be born. And how lucky we are to continue being alive.

Today is a day that I wish never happened, but because it did, it deserves recognition, it deserves to be remembered as the day my nightmare came true; as the day when I realized just how fragile life is and how important my sister is to me. I’ve never taken her for granted, but on this day, two years ago, the rare incredible connection we have came to light: the moment I felt like she could be taken from me by some stupid rapidly proliferating disease – something she never deserved and should never have had to go through. But she did, with the bravest face in the world – brave doesn’t mean not crying or putting on a fake smile. It means showing your emotion, showing fear. Being brave means being human and she couldn’t have been better at doing just that. There are images I choose not to remember, but images I will never, ever, forget. Times of fragility, of sadness, of honesty and of total vulnerability. There were times we just had to laugh at the whole thing – is this really happening? Really? This is fucked. It was. It is. Sometimes we don’t know how to deal with certain situations, but you learn about yourself when you’re thrown into something you could never have imagined. And that’s what these past two years have been – years of learning that I can be afraid, that I can be sad, but that I can be brave and be strong and that I have the best role model in the world to look up to – the bravest, strongest, inspiration there is.

My sister.

A time capsule

I’m sitting here on my laptop, looking through a folder of old photos from my phone and taking a walk down memory lane. There is nothing like a photograph to take you right back to a moment, and to remind you of how you felt in that moment. I know a lot of people don’t take photos of themselves during cancer, which is understandable. For the most part, you usually look like crap. And you don’t necessarily want to document the worst, scariest, saddest part of your life. In my case, I actually took quite a few photos. In fact, I even treated myself to a nice camera early on in my diagnosis, which I used for most of the photos that appeared on this blog.

I also snapped several photos on my crappy Blackberry (hence the mostly poor quality), which I tend to never look at, except for moments like now where I happen upon that folder. Let’s have a look, shall we?

This photo is apparently from the day I had my biopsy. So I'm assuming this was a forced smile...
This photo is apparently from the day I had my biopsy. So I’m assuming this was a forced smile…
I think this was my first time going out post-mastectomy.
I think this was my first time going out post-mastectomy.
In a Starbucks bathroom right after my pre-chemo hair chop. Got to enjoy this style for a whole month before it ended up on my floor and in my garbage bin.
In a Starbucks bathroom right after my pre-chemo hair chop. Got to enjoy this style for a whole month before it ended up on my floor and in my garbage bin.
This is the bruise I got after having dye injected for a CT scan to see if my cancer had spread. I cried so hard when I took the bandaid off and saw it. Yuck.
This is the bruise I got after having dye injected for a CT scan to see if my cancer had spread. I cried so hard when I took the bandaid off and saw it. Yuck.
Before I was wheeled away for my port placement. Feigning excitement.
Before I was wheeled away for my port placement. Feigning excitement.
A clump of my hair as it started to fall out.
A clump of my hair as it started to fall out.
My sis bought my this nail polish during chemo. It's called "Enuff is enuff."
My sis bought me this nail polish during chemo. It’s called “Enuff is enuff.”
My zombie/nearly-dead look which I sported most of the winter.
My zombie/nearly-dead look which I sported most of the winter.
One of a few chemo shopping sprees I had when I happened to have a burst of energy.
One of a few chemo shopping sprees I had when I happened to have a sudden burst of energy.
This was pretty much the lowest of the low. Splotchy steroid cheeks and bald as hell and not even able to muster up a fake smile. Yeesh.
This was pretty much the lowest of the low. Splotchy steroid cheeks and bald as hell and not even able to muster up a fake smile. Yeesh.
Chemo did all kinds of bad things to me, including causing extreme dry eyes that were constantly painful and looked disgusting. Ew, this pic.
Chemo did all kinds of bad things to me, including causing extreme dry eyes that were constantly painful and looked disgusting. Ew, this pic.
One thing that just kept on going was my appetite. So much food, all the time.
One thing that just kept on going was my appetite. So much food, all the time.
The fat-face/pumped full of steroids look.
The fat-face/pumped full of steroids look.
Walmart hat fashion.
Walmart hat fashion.
One of my few wig days.
One of my few wig days.
The beginning of the regrowth phase when I became obsessed with taking photos of my scalp to see if I had hair. This photo was taken exactly one year ago.
The beginning of the regrowth phase when I became obsessed with taking photos of my scalp to see if I had hair. This photo was taken exactly one year ago.
Is it growing? OMG I think it's growing!
Is it growing? OMG I think it’s growing!

These photos now cause a huge range of emotions when I look at them: sad, shocked, angry, proud, amazed. I’m glad I have so many photos, if anything, to remind me how much has changed in such a short amount of time. And how much, for better or worse, could change again. How it’s all out of my control and how I need to be grateful that, for the time being, my current photos consist of me smiling, having fun, feeling healthy, and with a full head of hair.

Looking in the mirror

Last week I think I hit a new low of sheer misery. The fatigue that comes with chemotherapy is truly cumulative, and with each new treatment, it is growing increasingly difficult to do any of the things I once enjoyed. Such as taking a walk. Or lifting my laptop. Or lifting my head. The tiniest things we all take for granted have become incomprehensible to me. Memories of the past. Of a life I once lived, where my body would do whatever I asked of it, with ease. I feel as though I have been thrust into old age almost overnight. My bones ache when I try to move them. My body cries out for rest after walking up a few stairs. I wake up at night with hot flashes, my cheeks burning, thanks to the menopausal effects of chemo. Creases are starting to form on the outer corners of my eyes. My stomach and face are bloated constantly from all the drugs, making me look like I am five months pregnant. I can’t follow a basic conversation without losing focus, or feeling like I need to shut my eyes. I am an old lady. At the ripe age of 28.

Chillin with my Goodnight Moon bunny in bed, where I spent all of last week. I am looking super cancer-y these days. Yikes.

It has been difficult for me to look in the mirror lately. I don’t like what I see. A bald, puffy face, with red patches all over my cheeks and glossy eyes. Is that really me? It is hard to feel healthy or strong, when the image reflected back at me is anything but. Lately I am starting to feel as though I will never get my old self back. I can’t imagine having life in my face again. Or having hair. It seems like appearance should be relatively low on the list of things to feel bad about, when you’re dealing with all the crap that comes with a cancer diagnosis. But it is proving to be one of the biggest challenges for me. Looks aren’t everything, but when you’re already feeling just about as low as a human can feel, it really does add insult to injury.

It is hard for me to look at pre-cancer photos of myself now. I feel very disconnected from the girl I see. She’s pretty, and healthy, and happy, and completely unaware of what is about to happen to her. It’s as though I am looking at someone else’s life, even though I know she is me. Did I really do all those things at one time? Did I really look like that? Did I really have hair? I want to go back into those photos, just for one minute, just to remember what it’s like, to be happy and pretty. To soak up those moments. Because they are starting to slip away from me.


I hope that eventually I can start feeling better about what I see in the mirror. View my reflection as an image of a brave warrior, rather than one of a sick cancer patient whose body has been continuously cut, poked, and poisoned. I don’t want to be that girl who cries when she looks in the mirror. I have never been that girl. I refuse to let her win. And anyone who knows me knows I always get my way.