Category Archives: Cancer Survivorship

8 things I’ve learned from living ten years post-breast cancer

Ten years ago, on my 37th birthday, in the elevator on the way to pick up my 20-month old from daycare, the surgeon told me that “they found cancer cells,” and everything changed.

Did I imagine that I would survive and have the life I’m living now?  Did I have any idea that I would be working as an environmental lawyer for a state agency, living in a house in the suburbs, single, and with a middle-schooler who is learning to play the violin and loves detective and cop shows? Did I imagine that I’d actually write a memoir and start to take writing seriously?

I was afraid to imagine anything, afraid that my life would be snatched away and my daughter left without me, as an orphan.  I started listening to audiobooks in the car because I always started crying when I had too much time to think of the possible outcomes. All I knew was that I had to get through it.

I did get through it, through the slash, poison, and burn.  Through the “new normal.”  Through a number of boyfriends, an engagement, and then years of learning to accept my singlehood. Together, my daughter and I have made it through the terrible twos (and threes), kindergarten, elementary school, and ADHD issues for both of us.

But I am so grateful to have had these ten years.  Here’s what I think I’ve learned:

1. It takes more courage to be alone than to be trying always to meet someone.  I always thought I was being brave to put myself out there online dating and asking guys out, but dealing with rejection is easy.  There’s always someone new to distract yourself with, more profiles to scroll through, someone who may have just joined the site or walked into the bar.  What’s hard is to not have someone in your head to fantasize about, to think about what it will be like when you are together, or when the relationship takes that next step.  Not having someone in your head is the only way to truly get to know yourself, to take care of yourself.  When you’re always thinking about someone else, how do you know who you really are?

2. Flossing is important.  B.C. (Before Cancer), I was in denial and thought daily morning and haphazard bedtime brushing would be enough to keep my teeth and gums healthy. After diagnosis, I didn’t think I needed to floss at all because gingivitis is a long-term thing and so it wasn’t terribly likely I’d have to deal with it. But as the annual anniversaries started accumulating, I thought I’d add daily nighttime brushing, and then flossing.  Wow!  My mouth is happy, and so is my hygienist!

3. That restless feeling won’t kill you.  I remember feeling like I had to do something, anything, just to get out of the house.  God forbid I didn’t have plans on a Friday or Saturday night.  I would shop, or find friends to go out with. But now, it’s not that I don’t get restless.  I still do.  But I sit with it.  I pick up the notebook, write a little bit.  Or I go for a walk.  Or to the library.  Acquiring things or being with other people won’t calm my brain. My spiritual practices of reading, writing, and walking help the most.

4. Eat the ice cream.  Cravings don’t go away.  I try to practice intuitive eating, and life is too short to miss out on the pleasures of a quiet house, a good book, a soft bed with warm covers, and a bowl of Blue Bell to enjoy.

5. Don’t be afraid to question the assumptions you’ve made about yourself.  For years, I believed that I was an extrovert–I enjoyed being in front of people, talking to groups, and just interacting with other people on a regular basis.  But then I started to notice that when I walked with a friend at lunchtime, talking the entire time, I had a terrible time settling down and focusing afterwards.  I noticed how when the phone rang, sometimes I didn’t want to talk with the person on the phone, even if they were someone I cared about. I noticed how exhausted I was on days when I had multiple meetings scheduled.  It was like all of the interaction spun my brain out of control.  I tried putting my headphones on at work so I wouldn’t listen to the goings-on in the hallway and be tempted to join.  I started walking alone at lunch.  And so I honored the little girl who would rather read, alone, than do anything else.

6. Listen to your body.  There is wisdom there, whether it’s saying you need more movement or sleep or broccoli.  You just have to slow down enough to be able to feel it.

7. You can only do what you can do. Life is overwhelming, and sometimes things fall through the cracks.  We all make mistakes and don’t do things we’d committed to.  It’s OK.  Try better next time, or, don’t commit to doing so much!

8. You don’t have to say “yes” to every social opportunity offered.  This is related to #5. I used to never miss an opportunity to meet a friend for lunch, or dinner, or to do something with other people.  I still enjoy the time I spend with other people, but I’ve come to appreciate limited time as a hermit.  These days, a great Saturday is one where I walk to the park, get to the gym to lift weights, and finish a book.  My brain is clearer, and my life isn’t as frazzled.  Sometimes it’s better just to stay home and get a few things done.  It makes the week go much more smoothly when there are clean dishes and clothes, and food in the fridge on Sunday night.

Can you imagine all the wisdom I’ll be able to spout when I get to 15 or 20 years? Here’s hoping!


The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This is the first time I’m reblogging. This post is worth it. Imagine what we could do if we change the stories we tell ourselves?

Why I Became a Single Mother By Choice

This post is appearing simultaneously here, on OMG There’s Three, a blog written by Sarah, a single mother by choice of triplets.  For the entire month of September, she’s collecting stories of women who have decided to become a single mother by choice.  She says “the decision to become a single mother is often made for similar reasons, but the paths leading to the choice are as varied as the women who make it.  Here is a collection of stories answering the not so simple question “Why did you decide to become a single mom by choice?”

It is a wonder that I didn’t get pregnant when I was a teenager. Not because I slept around, because I didn’t date at all in high school. But I was obsessed with both boys and babies. I had crush after crush, almost as far back as I can remember. By tenth grade, I was full-on boy-crazy, so much so that one of my nicknames was derived from the way one of my crushes looked. (Don’t ask which animal people thought he looked like.) The notes that have survived from that time are cringe-worthy. But all of my obsession over the boy of the month was unrequited. I turned 16, 17, and then 18 without a single guy showing romantic interest in me. My aunt supplied my cousin to take me to my senior prom, and I wasn’t kissed for the first time until after I graduated from high school. Because I didn’t date, I had plenty of time to babysit. I babysat for neighbors and for my cousin—I loved babies and little kids.

College was slightly better. I was still boy-crazy, having graduated from passing notes with my girlfriends to putting up centerfold posters from Playgirl magazine in my dorm room. (My more modest roommate made me place a construction-paper heart like a fig leaf to cover up the goods.) I still chased boys, but this time my love life wasn’t a complete drought. I had one relationship that lasted six months, but otherwise went to dances with friends and continued to keep a man in the back of my head to crush on all of the time. I chose my major—Chemistry—because most science classes were filled with men.

All of this romantic obsession and deprivation led me to marry when I was twenty-four, in a whirlwind of feeling like I was swept off of my feet. I met him through a personals ad, when I was living a thousand miles away from most of my family, and had just moved cross-country three times within fifteen months. We talked on the phone for twelve or sixteen hours over four days before we met in person. After he came to see me the day after our first date, he never slept in his apartment again. We were engaged within a month and married within nine months. I wish I was kidding.

On the surface, I enjoyed the rest of my twenties, traveling around the country for my job and spending money with my husband, even though he was showing the troubling tendency of getting let go from job after job. He had already had two kids by two previous women, so my rational mind kept me on the Pill. I thought we would eventually have kids, maybe after I went to graduate school when I figured out what kind of graduate degree I wanted.

Then I turned twenty-nine. My husband didn’t remember my birthday. I drove to work that day in tears because I was beginning to realize that I would not ever be able to have the kind of life I wanted, while I was married to him. By then, I had decided that I wanted to go to law school. But my biological clock was ticking, and I was afraid to keep hitting the snooze button. I wanted a baby and a family. But I was overwhelmed living with my husband. He was dramatic, co-dependent, and disrespectful to me. I had to do everything. The house was a mess if I didn’t keep it clean; I paid the bills, scooped the cat litter, and walked the dogs. We had accumulated a lot of consumer debt, so we had trouble keeping up financially, especially since he kept spending money even when he wasn’t working. I could not imagine taking care of a baby, along with work, the pets, and the house, while he just sat on his ass looking at porn on the internet.

I started seeing a therapist because I thought I needed help making the decision of whether I should go to law school or have a baby. I decided to go to law school at night, while I worked my day job.

We divorced between my second and third years in law school.

I was beginning the process of listening to myself and to my instincts. It was slow going, because I had always been focused on doing things that would make someone else love me. I didn’t really know what I wanted.

When I graduated from law school, I was in another relationship. But this time I was thinking more clearly. He was a sweet man, but when it became obvious that he never wanted to become a father, the relationship ended quickly. Having kids was a deal-breaker for me.

Now I turned to my therapist for help making another choice—should I become a single mother, deliberately, while I wasn’t in a relationship? I had turned thirty-four in April, 2002, and after this birthday I had a plan. If I hadn’t met anyone with good prospect of turning into a serious relationship by the beginning of 2003, I would do anonymous donor insemination and try to get pregnant on my own.

Something inside was telling me that if I didn’t become a mother now, I might not have the chance. I didn’t want to miss out on motherhood as I had missed out on adolescence.

Wasn’t thirty-four still young? Why didn’t I continue to try to meet someone?

My track record with men wasn’t great. By that time, I had only had three or four relationships that had lasted longer than a month or two, and I hadn’t made the best choices. My thinking was that I would separate marriage from child-rearing. I was certain that I could be a good mother, but I wasn’t yet confident in my ability to choose a man who could be a good father.

I had heard of women who had decided to have a child on their own, so I think I always knew in the back of my mind that it was possible. Becoming a single mother made a whole lot of sense to me for several reasons: I feared that if I didn’t have a child soon, I might not have the chance; I had already delayed motherhood once to go to law school; and I could afford to have a baby on my own because I was working at a large law firm. Becoming a single mother by choice was not a very difficult choice for me. My family supported my decision, and I had a network of friends to help.

As far as having a man in my future child’s life—I thought that I could take care of that later. I could meet a man who I could have a relationship with anytime. But my fertility had an expiration date. I also thought that I would make better choices in men if I had someone else to consider when I was making my decision as to whether a man was “relationship material” or not. I might make a bad choice for myself, but, if I was thinking about whether this man would be good for my child, I would make a better choice.

I thought that bringing a child into a bad relationship, or exposing him or her to someone who was abusive and would cause emotional damage, was far less preferable than deciding to have a child on my own when I wanted and desired a child with my whole heart. No, I couldn’t be a perfect parent and bring a child into a perfect relationship. But I had the belief in myself that I could be a good-enough parent.

I went to the doctor’s office for insemination on December 30, 2002. I couldn’t wait until the beginning of 2003—I had just ovulated, had decided on an anonymous donor, and thought I might as well try it. The chances of getting pregnant with frozen sperm are very low—only about 13%, or a one in seven chance with each cycle. So I was prepared to try for several months.

I got pregnant on the first try.

My daughter turned ten last month. Her middle name is Aislinn because it means “dream” in Gaelic.

It has been quite a ride, so far, bumps and all. When she was twenty months old, and still nursing, I was diagnosed with breast cancer and did the whole shebang—surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and reconstruction. A couple of years later, I had to have my ovaries removed.

I was never so glad to have trusted my instincts.

This was just a few months after she was born.

This was just a few months after she was born.


I wrote this piece to submit to The Sun magazine’s Reader’s Write, published this month here.  Their loss is your gain!

When my daughter was five, she had appendicitis.  This was the first time doctors cut into her skin.  Because her surgery was done with a camera, laparoscopically, she received four tiny half-inch long scars, and a slightly longer scar just below her belly button.

She was feeling so good by the fourth day in the hospital that she wouldn’t stay in the bed any longer.  When we returned home, and the bandages came off, she reluctantly looked down to see the scar around her belly button, red and raised and angry.  Tears filled her eyes and her bottom lip quivered.

“What’s wrong?” I asked.

“My cute little belly button—it’ll never be the same,” she said.

My first instinct was to smile, because the way her belly button looked was so minor.  It wasn’t too long ago that a five year old with appendicitis would have died.  But I didn’t smile because I also wanted to cry with her.  She was right.  Her smooth, plump, perfect, little belly would never be the same.  Surgery saves lives, but it also has a cost.

Doctors have cut into my skin for twelve different procedures:  appendectomy, Mohs surgery, lumpectomy, sentinel node biopsy, bilateral mastectomy, port placement, bilateral latissimus flap breast reconstruction, implant replacement, nipple reconstruction by skin graft, port removal, bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, and cholecystectomy.  After each surgery I watched, amazed, as skin that had once been cut by a surgeon’s scalpel knitted itself back together.

My back was sliced open so that my surgeon could free my latissimus dorsi muscles to be used to form breast mounds.  I now have two scars each as long as the span between my index finger and my pinky, one across each side of my back.  In the front, my breast mounds are marked by oblong, football-shaped scars, where that skin and muscle from my back was tunneled underneath the skin along my armpits and brought to the front, through two more cuts that were made along my mastectomy scars.  I’m thrilled that surgery has advanced so that I was able to have reconstruction.  They really look like breasts.

But at first it felt like I was wearing a bra that was too tight.  I even reached around a couple of times to unhook it before I remembered that I wasn’t actually wearing a bra.  Now, after six years, my skin doesn’t feel tight anymore.  I don’t feel much of anything.  Imagine a piece of elastic stretching from the bottom of my ribs to just under my armpits, all around my body, like a 1970’s tube top.  Underneath the elastic, I can feel some pressure, but nothing else.  Skin is supposed to provide feedback when it is touched.  But wherever there is a scar, I can’t feel anything.  There is a disconnect between what I see (hot soup just spilled onto my chest) and what I feel (nothing).

Think about how good it feels—how satisfied you are—when your back itches and someone else scratches your back thoroughly.  Or think about the comforting feeling of snuggling naked, close to someone, twined together, breasts snuggled into his chest hair?  I won’t ever feel either of those things again.

I’m happy to be alive, happy that my skin has healed.  I’m happy that, according to the best doctor’s best guess, the cells that went haywire are gone.  But I can’t feel a vast area of my body when it is touched.  That’s a loss, and I’ve had to grieve it just as you grieve any loss.

So when my daughter cried because her cute little belly button would never be the same, I just held her, and cried with her, because I knew exactly how she felt.  Surgery saved our lives, but we will never be the same.

What I’m Currently Reading: Cancer to the Holocaust to Vaginas to Linchpins

This is a new type of post, that may be a recurring feature, so tell me what you think!  I read so many different things, I thought that the juxtaposition of everything I’m reading at one time would be interesting.   (And maybe help me find connections between what I’m reading.)

Because I tend to have ADHD-type issues, I typically read several books at once.  I have an audiobook in the car, a book at the kitchen table, one in the bathroom, and usually a couple of books in progress in the bedroom.  I know that a book has really captured my attention when I take it from place to place, which doesn’t happen often.

Right now, here’s the list:

Linchpin: Are You Indispensable? by Seth Godin (I have it on both audiobook and hardcover at the moment, and I’m listening to it for the second time on audio–it’s that good.)

The Dread Disease: Cancer and Modern American Culture by James T. Patterson

The Lost: A Search for Six of Six Million by Daniel Mendelsohn

Four Souls by Louise Erdrich

Vagina:  A New Biography by Naomi Wolf

Leaving a Trace: The Art of Transforming a Life Into Stories by Alexandra Johnson

I’m really liking them all.  I wrote earlier about Seth Godin.  I’ve now subscribed to his blog and look forward to my daily dose of Seth.  Reading Linchpin and his blog has helped me to stay focused at my day job by looking at my role in a new way and has motivated me to keep going with my art.  

I’m reading Dread Disease as research for what I’m writing, to get perspective on what it would have been like to receive a cancer diagnosis in the 1940s or 1950s.  We think it sucks now, but it really sucked then, at the height of radical surgeries, newly-discovered (but not tweaked) radiation and X-ray therapy, and no chemotherapy for “insurance” to clean up any stray cancer cells.  As a rule, people, especially the poor and immigrants, didn’t trust doctors, so they often didn’t go to the doctor when they first thought something was wrong.  Most cancers weren’t diagnosed until it was far too late to do anything to affect them, and many patients weren’t even told that they had cancer.  It’s hard to reconcile that atmosphere with our “knowledge is power” world of instant access to information and what I like to call “Doctor Google.”

The Lost is an example of the kind of book I’d like to write, if maybe a little longer than I anticipate.  Mendelsohn is obsessed with finding out exactly what happened to his great-uncle and family in the Holocaust.  Amazingly, he finds out a great deal.  I really admire how he tells the story of his journey as he discovers what he is able to.  I’ve been taking my time with this one, savoring it.  It also is best read in small doses, so as not to get overwhelmed with the sadness.  But he tells a story that needed to be told.

Four Souls is another part of the story of Fleur Pillager and Nanapush, excellent Erdrich, as usual.  It connects with many of Erdrich’s other stories and is told in alternating perspectives.

Vagina is worldview-shattering, in my opinion.  I’ve tabbed many passages to quote in my book journal later, and keep saying to myself “No wonder!” as I read it.   Maybe it’s elementary, but here’s one of Wolf’s theses:  Good sex affects brain chemistry, and because women can have more orgasms than men, we have the capability to feel more of the effects of those brain chemicals.  So we (typically) feel more connected than men after sex, and it is normal for us to feel “addicted” to a lover when they’re not around, because of those same brain chemicals.  Wow!  It’s not some mental or emotional defect or result of a sexually-deprived and nerdy adolescence!

Leaving a Trace includes many promising techniques for journaling and for jumping off from a journal to more creative work.  Johnson also describes many types of journals–specifically keeping different journals for different purposes.  I already do a little of that, with my book journals, and a journal for my daughter.  But my general rambling, writing exercises, and book-brainstorming have gotten all jumbled together.  It’s food for thought to separate them more.

So those are the books that are in my head right now!  Let me know what you think.


Single parenting and cancer

I came across  “The difference between feeling like a single mother and being one” by Tracy Grant this week.  Michele Obama slipped during an interview and referred to herself as a “busy single mother,” then recovered, saying that when you’re married to the President, it can feel like you’re single.  Grant acknowledges that having a partner, however busy, means that you are not truly alone.  You have someone to talk with, to make decisions with, and to rely on in emergencies.  It is a different experience to truly single parent.

What got me was her statement about single parents by choice:

All I can say is “God love you.” It is a statement of faith and hope and belief in the impossible that is breathtaking. At some point, I hope your kids understand the unique pronouncement of love that their existence represents.

It made me cry.  She gets it.

She didn’t realize it, but she articulated exactly why having cancer when my daughter was not yet two years old, after I had made the deliberate decision to bring her into this world, without another parent, was the challenge of my life, and ended up changing my life.

Cancer tests your faith and hope.  Cancer tests, like nothing else, your belief that you will fulfill the implicit promise you make when your child is born that you will live to raise her and see her grow up.

While I was going through diagnosis and treatment, the only thing that comforted me was that I had already had my daughter.  I don’t know what I would have done had I been diagnosed before having her, because I felt that listening to myself in deciding to have her on my own was the only thing I had done that was true to myself, my real self.  My degrees, the jobs, the bar exams I had passed–none of that mattered.

If I hadn’t had my daughter, I think I would have felt that nothing I had ever done in my life was of any consequence.  Because when I was deciding on the kind of work I wanted to do, I wasn’t listening to my real self.  I didn’t listen to what I knew, deep down, would give my life meaning.  I sought the glamour of travel, the security of a big paycheck, and the idea that it would be easier to find a man if I was in a male-dominated industry.  None of it was right for me.

But while having her was such a comfort to me, there was the simultaneous awful heartbreak I felt for her, if I didn’t make it.  Of what her life would have been like if she had lost me before she could even remember me.  Anna Quindlen writes in Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake:

I would look at [my kids] and think of my sister, of how she couldn’t remember how our mother sounded or looked, and say to myself, I don’t even really count for these children yet.  If I die tomorrow they will have nothing but other people’s stories where a mother ought to be.

Knowing that my daughter, who had only one parent, could possibly end up only with stories of me was impossible.  It was impossible to hold in my head at the same time the faith that single parenting requires and the reality that I had been diagnosed with cancer.

Becoming a single mother is a leap of faith.  Being diagnosed with cancer is realizing that there may not be anything to land on.  You just have to try to stay in the air as long as you can.

I’ve been in the air for eight years now, and so far, so good.  I had to rebuild that faith and hope and belief in the impossible, one bedtime snuggle, spelling list, and soothed tantrum at a time.  

And we have had many friends and family along for the journey, leaping along with us. While I’ve truly been a single mom, I’ve never been truly alone, and she wouldn’t have been either.  

Health at Every Size: Breast Reconstruction, Weight Training, and Rock Climbing

If you’ve been lucky enough to never deal with it, you would be amazed at the options and choices there are when it comes to breast reconstruction.  

In 2006, I had latissimus dorsi (LD) flap reconstruction with implants.  Here is a good description of it.  It may seem strange (even Frankenstein-ish) to deliberately take perfectly good skin and muscle from your back and stitch it to the front, but when you’ve existed without breasts at all for a year, the surgery is miraculous.

But there are drawbacks.  I remember reading before the surgery that, if you do rock climbing, an LD flap might not be right for you.  Maybe in the back of my mind I took this bit of information as a challenge.

in 2011, a new YMCA opened near our house.  I had been wanting to get back to weight training–I had done it consistently in my 20’s, but then life got in the way and I was lucky to do some water aerobics or walking on a semi-regular basis.  I remembered how good it made me feel, and I wanted to feel that way again.

I emailed my plastic surgeon to ask whether I had any limitations on weight training because of the surgery.  He told me that because the LD muscle was completely detached, there was no need to exercise it specifically, but that it would be a good idea to strengthen my shoulders.  He said that I had no limitations.

So off I went to meet with a fitness counselor and get back to it.  I found that once a week was barely enough to maintain whatever muscular strength I was building, but if I went twice a week, I could improve slowly.

A year passed, and I was still going–weight training and some cardio.  I loved it.  I was doing 11 stations, and lifting a total of 15,000 pounds, then 16,000, and more and more. (I’m now up to about 20,500 pounds each time.)

There’s a climbing wall at our Y, so I started asking my daughter if she wanted to rock climb, as a reward for going to the child watch while I worked out.  She liked it, but seemed to get stuck at the same spot about 2/3 of the way up the wall.  I had tried rock climbing with her a couple of years before, when I wasn’t working out, and I could hardly pull myself up onto the first peg.  It was a humbling experience.  But I started thinking that maybe if I tried it too, she would be pushed to go further so that she could beat mama at something.

The wellness center with the cardio machines shares a window with the rock wall, and one day, while I was on the treadmill, I saw that no one was on the wall.  My heart raced–here was my chance!  My daughter was in child watch, so she couldn’t laugh at me if I couldn’t do it, and no one else would be looking.  Now would be the perfect time to try it!  I even finished my treadmill workout without a cooldown because I wanted to make sure no one got in front of me, and rushed to the rock wall.

I told Ryan, the belay-er, that I wanted to try it.  (He’s the person on the ground who also wears a harness, pulls the slack in the rope as the climber climbs, and then lets them down slowly when they’re ready to come down.)  He showed me how to put on the harness, and told me that I was just like every other parent who tries rock climbing–most are walking really fast and have big smiles on their faces when they try it when their kids aren’t watching.  He told me that I shouldn’t worry about other people being there and should try it if I wanted to.

I made sure he knew how much I weighed, in case he needed to hook onto the stabilizer ring on the floor, because I was certain I weighed more than him.  The last thing I wanted was for me to fall and pull him up off of the ground!  He assured me that “he could handle me.”

He showed me how to hold my foot to climb onto the lowest peg, and up I went.  I could actually do it!  Amazing! I didn’t get very far that first time–only 4 or 5 feet.

I realized that the hardest part wasn’t climbing up.  For me, it was letting go, dangling way above everyone’s heads.  That’s a metaphor for another post.   Watch the video–no matter how many times I do it, I still don’t want to let go of that wall!

We go rock climbing most Saturdays now.  Neither of us has made it to the top yet, but we’re about three-fourths of the way up, and we keep trying.  As I expected, my daughter has pushed past the place she used to get stuck so that she stays ahead of me.

it’s often crowded, with tiny kids (who regularly get to the top) waiting for their turn, and I do feel a little funny trying to ease the harness over my belly (the harnesses are one size, of course) and knowing everyone on the ground is watching.  But I remind myself that I have just as much a right to rock climb as they do, and who knows, maybe someone walking by in the hallway, or a parent waiting with their child will think–wow, I’ve never seen someone her size rock climb before.  If she can do it, maybe I can do it too.  I refuse to let the thought of what anyone else thinks limit something I want to do.

And when I come down, no matter how far I’ve climbed, I still feel like I can do anything.  it’s addictive.  How often do you do something that makes you feel that way?