Category Archives: Miscellaneous

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!

Finally, “After”

It’s May! We are now firmly into spring, after a very long winter. Part of what made it so long was that I didn’t make very much time to do the three things that keep me grounded–reading, writing, and walking–so I was somewhat off. Between work, family, and church commitments, the time I took for self-care had gone by the wayside. But, the year-long church commitment is now over, with a successful result.  I’ve been back to the gym in the past month on the treadmill and at the weight machines, and I’ve found 30 minutes to get outside and walk during the work day about half the time. I am reading at least four books simultaneously right now, including an audiobook in the car, and I’ve been journaling daily for a while. I’m on my way back.

In my journal, which I do first thing after I wake up, I find myself writing a quick recount of the past day and giving myself a pep talk about what I need to get done that day. Lately, journaling hadn’t brought me amazing new insights and seemed kind of ho-hum. I’d start writing, but then stare off into space and stop. The siren song of my phone and social media has been hard to resist.

I found at The Gift of Writing the idea of listing several writing prompts at the front of your journal, so that when you come to a point that you’re not sure what to write, you just flip to the inside cover and pick a prompt.  I did that with the journal I started in November, with fair results.  The prompts were things like “What does your heart say?” and “What can you do in the next couple of days to get you closer to where you want to be?”

I started a new notebook recently, and thought I’d go one step further.  If you’re looking for writing prompts, go no further than The Writer’s Idea Book by Jack Heffron.  He has collected over 800 of them there, ranging from introspective to prompts designed to help you work with a piece of fiction or nonfiction you’ve already started.  As if having the book right next to me while I journaled wasn’t good enough, I went through and picked out the prompts that seemed appealing and listed them in the front of my new notebook.

The other day I decided on this prompt: “What is your five-year plan?  What would you like your life to be like in five years?”  If you’ve known me for a while, you know that I have to have a plan.

For a very long time I had the habit of daydreaming about my life “after” something–long ago it was “after I lose weight” or “after I’m done with school” and then it was “after I meet someone” or “after I have a baby” then everything would be perfect and my life would be wonderful.   Of course, that’s no way to live because life is never the way you expect it would be after.  After can’t meet those high expectations.

When I did the five-year plan prompt, I realized that in five years, I don’t want my life to be any different than it is right now.  I want to live in the same house, have the same job, the same friends, and go to the same church.  I want the peonies I rescued from across the street a few weeks ago to be getting ready to bloom, and my daisies to be getting ready to turn a good portion of my lawn into a cutting garden.  I want to take my daughter to school down the street, listen to an audiobook on the way to work, lift weights and feel strong a couple of times a week, and turn my face to the spring sun as I walk off the long winter.  I want to continue to cook on the weekends so that I don’t have to during the week, and I want to keep talking to and spending time with my beloved sisters and friends.

Oh, sure, I’d love it if the clutter fairy came to my house to put everything away and work against the forces of chaos and dirty dishes.   But I don’t see that happening as long as I make reading, writing, and walking a priority after taking care of my daughter and making sure we have a roof over our heads and food to eat.  And it would be nice if the powers that be determined that public service jobs deserved pay that was more on-par with those in the private sector.  And there is still great injustice and suffering in the world that requires a lot of work from a lot of dedicated people.  And there’s no guarantee things won’t change because of factors beyond my control.

But, all in all, I realized that I’ve got everything I need right here, right now.  There is no “after.”  This is it, and it’s pretty damn good.

The Road Not Traveled….Walking, Chemistry, and Writing

I’ve been trying to walk every day for thirty minutes during my lunch break.  I’m lucky to work in an office building that sits directly on Indianapolis’s downtown canal.

Looking at my office building from the canal.

Looking at my office building from the canal.

This week, it’s really hot, but I’m also lucky that the heat or cold doesn’t have to curb my walking.  I can walk for thirty minutes or so in a loop through tunnels and skywalks that take me from my office through Circle Center Mall and the Indiana Convention Center.  So I have no excuse.  I don’t really need one. Walking makes me feel good, so that’s why I do it.

A benefit of the indoor walk is being able to see the conventions that come through the Convention Center.  It amuses me to try to figure out what group is convening when I see people walking through the mall with convention badges.  (One of my favorites is the firefighters’ convention, in late April, but that’s beside the point.)

This week, the American Chemical Society is meeting at the Indiana Convention Center.  The ACS Banner I saw on my inside walk.

The ACS Banner from my inside walk.

As I realized what convention it was, I had mixed feelings.  If I had taken a slightly different life path, this could have been my professional convention.

For reasons I’m now a little embarrassed to admit, I was a Chemistry major in college.  From what I can figure out now, I became a Chemistry major because I thought it would be easier to meet a guy. The ratio of men to women in science classes was so much better than in other majors.  I went in “Undecided” but fairly quickly settled on Chemistry. But I realized that lab work wasn’t my forté when I broke piece after piece of equipment and racked up a major bill during my organic chemistry lab.  My professor told me if I got an A on the final, that I wouldn’t have to pay it, and by God, I did.  But Chemistry was never really my “thing.”  I did all right.  But I wasn’t passionate about it.  I learned enough to teach it in high school.  But teaching was never my “thing” either.

I realized much later that making choices about what to do with your life based on whether you think it will give you a better chance to meet men, or if that major will be more marketable than other choices, will only lead to hating what you are doing.  And if you hate what you’re doing with your life, you’ll never be emotionally healthy enough for a relationship.  At least I wasn’t.

I didn’t feel regret for becoming a Chemistry major when walking through the ACS convention. If I hadn’t majored in Chemistry, I might not have worked in the environmental field, and if I hadn’t worked in the environmental field I might not have become interested in law school, and if I hadn’t gone to law school, I might not have had the courage to admit that I’m really a writer.  That path led me to where I am now, which is a very good place to be.

I just felt wonder, at the secret writer-girl I was, who was so desperate to meet a guy that she majored in Chemistry!  Chemistry, of all things! I’m amused now, thinking about it. But I’m also glad that this writer-girl isn’t secret any more.

In The Dark

This post was originally written to submit to The Sun magazine, for their Readers Write section, here.  The next one I’ve already written has been “selected for possible publication,” so hopefully, you’ll have to read it there. 

When I was a little girl and afraid to go to sleep, I remember my Dad walking with me, my hand in his big, callused hand, in the alley behind our house, to show me that there was nothing to be afraid of. Aluminum trash cans lined the gravel next to the garages. A streetlight glowed yellow and hazy. There was nothing else back there—no bogeyman. My father showed me what I needed to do was to face that fear of the dark. Confront it.

For thirty years, from the time I was a young teenager, through my dateless high school years and desperate college years, the doomed marriage and dating afterwards, law school, having a child on my own, losing my job, and getting cancer and surviving it, all I could think of in the dark was being with someone else. The last thing I thought of before I fell asleep was whatever relationship I was currently in, or what guy I was currently crushing on. When I was awake, I tried unsuccessfully to keep these thoughts out of my head, but in the dark I let my imagination fly. I’d close my eyes and relive delicious memories of what had happened that day, or imagine what it would be like to actually be with him.

Then a relationship I had believed would work ended. It had seemed promising enough that he proposed and I accepted. But then, just as we were about to combine our households and join our lives, and I thought I’d never be alone in the dark again, it fell apart.

In response, I distracted myself. I started looking for a dog. I ignored the facts that my daughter and I were away from home all day and we didn’t have a fenced-in backyard. We found a dog, a geriatric coonhound with a limp and heartworms, who had been saved from a shelter by a rescue group but otherwise wouldn’t likely have a home.

Since that time as a child, walking in the alley with my Dad, I didn’t often go outside at night voluntarily, except to and from the car. I managed that bit without anxiety, but I always felt relief when I went into the house, turned on the light, and closed and locked the door behind me. When we adopted the dog, I didn’t really think about how I would have to walk outside with him. Alone. At night. In the dark.

I always had my phone in my pocket or my hand and wore a visor with a headlamp. I loved looking at the stars and noticing the different qualities of the night, during the turn of the seasons. I watched the phases of the moon and looked forward to the times I could see Orion, my favorite constellation. Once, at about 5:30 in the morning, I walked down the driveway, looked up at the sky, and saw my first shooting star.

After our dark morning walks, I wrote. I started a novel and a memoir and wrote every day. I didn’t date—for once, it seemed like I was able to keep my head free from thoughts of a crush or someone I might have a relationship with. My thoughts were taken up by writing. Instead of dreaming about happily ever after, I would puzzle over what I wanted to write about—all the time I wasn’t otherwise engaged by my daughter or with work or chores or reading.

We only had the dog for a year, and then common sense about my dog allergies that weren’t going away and my need for continuous sleep prevailed. I realized later what I learned during that year of walking outside at night and early in the morning, and then coming inside and writing.

I didn’t need to hold anyone’s hand in the dark anymore.

Genetics: I Wonder

I just came across this article today, titled “Blue Eyed Humans Have a Single, Common Ancestor.”  I wonder about that person–if everyone that anyone knew had brown eyes, what did they make of his or her blue ones?  Was he or she treated as a freak?  As a holy person?  As just another person, but with pale eyes? Obviously he or she procreated, and so couldn’t have been a complete outcast.  What did having blue eyes mean to him or her?

Genetics have always been interesting to me–I remember learning about Mendel and recessive and dominant genes in grade school and trying to figure out the chart for my family.  My parents both have hazel eyes, and of the four of us kids, there were two brown-eyed and two blue-eyed.  It was fascinating how things got shuffled up with each of us–we were and are, all similar, but different.

Genetics became even more interesting when I found out that I carry one of the gene mutations that predisposed me to breast and ovarian cancer.  I have been obsessed for years with thinking of my grandmother, Ida, who had breast cancer but died when she was 41 and my father was only 12.  She mixed up the gene pool by choosing someone completely out of her family’s comfort zone.  She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Russia/ Lithuania, who came here with the great wave around the turn of the 20th century, and my grandfather’s family had come to America in the 1700s (we think).  It was an unusual match in the 1930s, and I’ve long wondered about the situation.  

But it’s certain that the cancer mutation came from her family.  After talking with my great-aunt a couple of weeks ago, to hear stories of the family that I’d never heard before, it seems that the cancer mutation must have come from my great-grandfather’s side–the Meyers–because she said that almost everyone in that family died of some kind of cancer.

What did having the genetic mutation mean to those that had it, generations ago?  Of course they didn’t know about it, specifically.  But they had to see the women in the family live to bear children, then die young, possibly before the children were grown.  Was that just the way things were to them?  Like meeting the only blue-eyed person anyone in the world had ever seen?   Were disease and death so common that they didn’t even notice it?  Did they feel like their bodies were ticking time bombs?  Or did they just not have the time to think about it?

I wonder.

Book Review: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Frankenboobs, and Cancer

In the online young breast cancer survivor community, reconstructed breasts are known as “Frankenboobs”, “fake boobs”, or just shortened to “foobs”.   Breast reconstruction is an amazing thing, as it allows us to appear, with clothes on, as if we have breasts.

Calling reconstructed breasts Frankenboobs got me to thinking about the classic Mary Shelley story Frankenstein with the idea of seeing whether the story might be useful as a metaphor for anything to do with life during or after cancer.  I’m familiar with the story–who hasn’t seen a television or movie take-off of it?  I wasn’t sure how what I knew of the tale--a student doctor, Victor Frankenstein, creates a monster out of dead body parts and brings him to life–could be used as a metaphor for living with and after cancer.  But I’d never read the original book.  

So I read it.  As usual, Hollywood has distorted the story completely, making the monster seem like a well-meaning oaf.  In the book, the monster is sentient–he can think and speak–and, after he is created, although he desires love, he goes on killing rampages and stalks Victor, eventually killing everyone Victor loves.  At the end of the book, when Victor dies, the monster seems to be remorseful when he says “your abhorrence cannot equal that with which I regard myself” and plans to kill himself.

I’ve also recently read Siddhartha Mukherjee’s The Emperor of All Maladies:  A Biography of Cancer, which helped me to formulate the following application of Frankenstein as a metaphor for cancer.  (Forgive me for my quasi-legal reasoning–I just realized I’m trying to apply the “facts” of cancer to the “law” of the story.)

You could imagine that a tumor–a mass of cancer cells living within the body, but without any specific function–as Frankenstein’s monster–created by Victor, just as our own bodies create a tumor.  Once created, both have “minds” of their own and can’t be easily controlled. (I know cells don’t have minds and think, but bear with me.)

Even when you’ve done the slash, poison, and burn–and for all intents and purposes the cancer appears to be gone–like Frankenstein’s monster in hiding, it often lies just out of sight, seeming to wait for just the right time to burst out and wreak havoc.

And even though cancer cells divide crazily in the hopes of living, like Frankenstein’s monster, when cancer kills us, it dies too.

 

Book Review: The Icarus Deception

I should subtitle this post “I (puffy heart) Seth Godin” because I just finished his newest book The Icarus Deception and was enthralled.  I’ve already reserved three more of his books at the library, despite the usual 2-foot high stack of books in my to-read shortstack.

Although my taste in books is eclectic (see My 2012 in Books), business books aren’t typically my thing, and I’ve never read anything he’s written before.  But The Icarus Deception is so much more than a business book.  The title comes from the problem with the Icarus myth, that we don’t hear about the other warning made to Icarus–not to fly too low.  So instead, we’re all afraid to spread our wings and fly.  

Godin is a true motivational writer.  And he’s effective–I’m writing here two days in a row, aren’t I?  Because I’m trying to do what he suggests–put my art out into the world.

If you’re at all intrigued, you might want to check out his blog, too.  I’ve subscribed–I don’t want to miss anything he says!