Tag Archives: identity

My Happy Birthday

I had a fabulous birthday that began with Georgia singing Happy Birthday very beautifully and very off-key while she was sitting on the toilet.  Then, at her rather inspired suggestion we all wore party hats leftover from her birthday while we had breakfast together. A little later my mom picked me up and we went to the spa (facial for me, massage for her – today is her birthday! Happy Birthday mummy!!  I love you!) followed by a lovely lunch complete with laughter, tears, and really nice chablis.  

My e-mail inbox was full of birthday wishes and I received calls from several different time zones, including various birthday serenades (in both official languages – impressive!) After a nap and a hot bath, my husband and Georgia came home – she carrying a big bunch of bright orange flowers, and he bringing me gorgeous lingerie & champagne (which, I think we can all agree, go extremely well together.) 

This husband of mine.  He still manages to find me attractive and make me feel beautiful even after I lost all my hair, grew back someone else’s, had a large port implanted in my chest (it looks like I lost a coat button under my skin) and got all carved up and scarred.  The fact that he brings me lingerie makes me want to cry with gratitude: it means he doesn’t see the cancer first — he sees me as a woman first – a whole, and hopefully totally foxy, woman. 

But instead of crying with gratitude I jumped up and down like a hopped-up jack russell terrier and kissed him about 100 times. Then I played with Georgia while he cooked me dinner and we drank champagne. 

Totally dreamy birthday.  Keep ’em coming, I say.

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One Year Aniversary: Still Blogging & Buggering On

As those of you who have read the blurb that appears with my photo above may have noticed, I was originally asked to write this blog for the month of October 2008 as part of Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  Well, the website people never actually got around to amending that ”throughout the month of October” line, and I just kept posting, and here I am still blogging away one year later. As Churchill says, I just seem to “keep buggering on.”

I was wondering what to do for my one-year anniversary post… it doesn’t quite feel appropriate to put together a list of “best of” links to the most popular posts, since most of the ones that generated dialogue and comments don’t exactly commemorate the high points of my past year.  A round-up of my darkest moments or most tormented rants might be a bit of a downer, to put it mildly. Could be what my friends Chris & Nat would call a TBK (total buzz kill.)

But then again, that’s kind of the point of this blog: all this stuff happened in my life, and keeps happening, and a lot of it has been incredibly hard, but I’ve stuck it up on the internet for anyone to see – and somehow it hasn’t been a TBK. Just posting about what is going on has been cathartic, helping me to process so much of my experience. As my mom’s best friend Mary Sue (a 14-year survivor of breast cancer) once said on the subject of talking about fears: once you put it out there it’s not bigger than you.  So I put it out there, and then to my surprise and amazement, what I got back was wave after wave of insight, commiseration, empathy and encouragement.  Not to mention witty jokes and heart-wrenching tales to help me keep perspective. 

That there are a whole bunch of people out there reading this thing still amazes me, but that there’s a community of people who post comments and support each other (and me) is the part that really knocks my socks off.

To think I didn’t even want to blog about breast cancer when the idea was first suggested to me. I hated the thought of linking my identity to this disease, of becoming “Cancergirl.” And maybe on a more primal, superstitious level, I feared that if I blogged about it, I might be somehow inviting the cancer to stick around; I might be giving it more permanence than it warrants.

Now, a year later, I wonder what I would have done without this blog sometimes. I know my family, scattered all over the world as they are, feel like they can keep in touch with what I’m going through every step of this long road. I know that my friends tend to know what’s going on and can feel connected to me, just picking up the conversation from the last post, so I don’t find myself telling the same tale over and over again. And I know that a good chunk of the fear I faced was cut down to a much more manageable size just by the act of putting it out there. Getting it out of my head and into the blogosphere – the psychological equivalent of taking that stinky bag of garbage out the curb, where readers can take a few kicks at it themselves just for good measure – has made a huge difference.

So, thanks blog readers and blog commenters.  Thanks family & friends. And thanks, Chatelaine.

Now how about updating that blurb…?

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Don’t Look at Me Like That

I have noticed, ever since the cancer began colonizing other territories in my body and the M-word became affixed to my C-word, that I am sometimes treated just a little bit differently than before.  It’s subtle — like an almost imperceptible shift in barometric pressure — but it’s definitely not my imagination.  Of course people don’t actually gasp or recoil, but sometimes they get all somber and earnest, imploring me to stay as positive as possible and to believe in miracles. Wouldn’t that make you feel, I don’t know, a little weird?  A little paranoid maybe?

This doesn’t just happen with the insensitive or uninitiated. I get bumped to the front of the line for visits to the cancer shrink at the breast clinic, which is great, but I have to wonder why I’m being treated like cancer royalty all of a sudden. 

And there are other, more alienating experiences: I was being screened for a breast cancer support group for mothers of young children and it turns out I can’t be included because of the metastasis.  As they very cautiously explained, none of the other mothers have metastatic disease and group dynamics can be “delicate.”  In other words… what? My presence might freak others out because they’ll project my presumably horrible fate onto their own experience?  Or I might jump up and tell people that they don’t know from scary? Really, what??  I do understand that it is always better to have a population of people with similar experiences in these kinds of groups.  But still, it made me feel like I had unwittingly morphed into a different species entirely.    

These things, subtle though they may be, all contribute to the feeling that something (besides the cancer) has changed or shifted since my disease metastasized. Like I’m becoming faintly translucent in bright light, or something. And I don’t like it, not one bit. 

All cancer is crap, and the sneaky, shape-shifting, nomadic nature of metastatic disease makes it extra crappy.  But even though my cancer hasn’t exactly been responding well to treatment so far, I know I’m going to beat it.  They say it is “not curable,” only treatable, to which I say, bollocks.  Of course it’s curable.  They are coming up with newer and cooler ways in which to smash metastatic disease until it’s finally crushed, once and for all, like a nasty and unworthy insect under the 4-inch heel of my cancer-defying awesomeness.

However, until that happy comic-book ending comes to pass (and it will) I have to live with metastatic breast cancer. I know I have a serious form of cancer and that, because it’s on the move, I have to fight it constantly and indefinitely. I accept that I sometimes need help with things I used to be able to manage myself. I freely admit that I get really scared sometimes (mostly at night) and I have to chase the boogeyman away and regroup.  These things are all true. I’m not in denial.

But I want to strike a deal with the world at large:  Please don’t stop with all the help and prayers and good thoughts and love and certainly not with the soup. Please keep encouraging me and supporting me and telling me I’m courageous, because it actually helps me to be courageous. And please, don’t look at me like I’m going anywhere anytime soon.  Even if you think I’m delusional (I’m not) and I’m not going to live (you’re wrong) I ask that you suck it up and fake your way through the most convincingly positive attitude you can muster. Use the Stanislavsky method. Whatever.  Just don’t let me catch you looking at me like it’s only a matter of time, because if I’m supposed to believe that I can get through this (and I do) it helps if everyone around me believes it too.  Or at least acts like they believe it.

Besides, for whom isn’t it only a matter of time?

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Lifers

I had drinks with my friend Libby the other night.  I blogged about her some time ago — in the early days following my diagnosis, she profoundly influenced my approach to being informed and self-advocating, and she continues to be pretty much the poster-girl for the dig-your-heels-in, never-give-up attitude toward fighting cancer.  This is a good thing, since she has what is sometimes referred to as “the cancer gene.”  First, a few years ago, she had breast cancer, followed unbelievably closely by pancreatic cancer, from which she has very recently emerged victorious. (Or victorious “for now,” she would probably say, her guard ever up.)

 

Anyway, we had a great time, drinking prosecco kirs at a bar down the street and laughing a lot more than people usually do when the subject they’re discussing is cancer, especially the metastasized and extremely aggressive varieties.  But laugh we did – and also swear quite a bit.

 

One thing in particular that earned a string of extra-colourful expletives from me is that, while I am determined to live a long and full life, I’m angry* that my long and full life will include endless fighting against this stupid* disease.  Until cancer research makes some enormous advances, metastases means that I just have to keep fighting, forever.  And frankly that sucks. As I said to Libby, “We’re lifers; we’re stuck here with this cancer for the rest of our lives!

 

“Yes,” she said, “We’re lifers. And it sure beats the alternative.”

 

We drank to that.

 

 

*not the exact words I used last night

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Moonshine

Does having cancer change you?  It certainly brings a lot of changes.  It can slow you down, make you stop working, steal your energy.  It can change your routine, your habits, your diet.  It can renew your perspective, make you more introspective, make you feel bolder, or make you feel weaker.  It might make you feel differently about your body; trust it less, listen to it more, look at it less critically, or more critically.  It changes how you feel about your hair, too – both when it goes and when it comes back.  It can teach you to lean on people, to not always have to be strong, or to be stronger.  It can drive you to do more, or it can drive you under the duvet.

 

We go through these changes, some of them or all of them, and many more. The changes might be temporary – the energy returns, you emerge from under the duvet, you can eat again, you can use shampoo again.

 

But does having cancer change who we are?  I don’t know.  When I was first diagnosed this was one of the things I feared most – that cancer would change me, or change the way the world saw and treated me. That it would insinuate itself into my identity.  I didn’t want to be “that girl with cancer.”  Nobody wants to have cancer, and I certainly didn’t want it to become any part of what defines me.

 

But now, more than a year after that lumpy little interloper popped up in my left breast, I see it a little differently.  It’s like cancer takes the essence of who you are and exposes it to light, puts it under stress, and shakes it around in a beaker.  Then it adds a whole bunch of things to you that weren’t there before – reckoning with your own mortality, for example – and lets those things react and settle. Cancer distills you.  You’re still made of the same basic ingredients, but you may be a little more potent.  Less like aging wine and more like making moonshine. 

 

Not that I want to be thought of as bathtub gin — or god forbid, hooch – but it sure beats being “that girl with cancer.”

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Cancer Couch Potato

I feel an automatic, deeply empathetic kinship with you if you have cancer of any kind. But my cancer isn’t your cancer.  It’s not your aunt’s cancer, or your colleague’s, or Lance Armstrong’s (especially not his). My cancer is unique to me in grade, stage, oncogene and, most importantly, the way my body and mind are dealing with it.

It’s natural for people to want to tell inspiring stories about cancer. And while most of the time I like hearing about how someone’s friend beat her cancer in spite of how much graver it was than mine, I confess that I hate hearing the part about how she beat it AND went into work every single day and never let it slow her down.

Dear God. Who is this person and why does she have to make me look so bad? And why are there so many like her out there, going to work and getting the groceries done and paying the bills on schedule and making homemade gifts for the loot bags at their kids’ birthday party (which I find staggering that they even have the energy to attend let alone coordinate perfectly).

When someone tells me a cancer story in which the protagonist has done amazing things in the face of adversity, I know it’s meant to bolster my spirit.  And it is inspiring to hear these stories; the more insurmountable the surmounted obstacle, the safer I feel. But most of the time it does something I call being Lance Armstronged: I end up feeling kind of lame in comparison with this indomitable, energetic cancer superperson. I feel a bit like a cancer couch potato.

Then again… this is my cancer, and my life. And if in the whole surreal, bad-dream unreality of it all I find that I would rather spend my good days hanging out with friends than going to work or reupholstering the furniture or otherwise upholding the flimsy veneer of that old she-can-do-it-all superhuman persona – is that so wrong?  When I’m up to doing anything, there are a lot of things I would really like to be doing, and they’re not that demanding or impressive.  Lunch, a pedicure, a walk, a low-key dinner party, just hanging out… I believe that enjoying these things can help sustain me through the inevitable low times – whether of the physical or mental variety. This is not unique to me or my cancer, surely.

And while I don’t envy anyone in the position of trying to think of something comforting and inspiring to say to someone who has recently been hit with the cancer stick, I have to say it can be just slightly worse on the other side of the equation.  I see the earnestness of the well-intentioned person as they talk of someone’s amazing endurance or praise the triumph of someone’s indefatigable spirit, but all I can think is, If I would rather hide under the duvet with a book or talk on the phone for an hour, does that bump me off the Breast Cancer Poster Girl shortlist?

And worse – worse and darker by far – are the thoughts of, What if I should fail? What if I should try with all my might and never look down and rage, rage against the dying of the light in my own potato-esque way – but not beat it? What does that make me? Surely not a failure?

How can anyone “fail” against cancer? That’s absurd. But with all these tales of “success” and “triumph” buzzing around, you have to admit it sets up a pretty uncomfortable paradigm.

My solution is to not buy into it. When confronted with a Lance Armstronger I smile and say, Thank you, it is really nice to hear stories like that. And then I move on. Because the truth is that I’m happier if I am allowed to just be myself through this time.  I’m not converting to Zen Buddhism or going macrobiotic. And I don’t think that by doing the things that make me feel good and happy and whole I’m not “fighting” or persevering in the face of cancer as I would otherwise be if I were to go to work every day or lead a committee on climate change in my spare time. I feel instead that I am living my life well. I’m filling up the times that I feel well with the things that make me feel best, and those are the things make me want to live for a very, very long time.

Maybe that colleague loved her work so much that making it into the office even after a blast of chemo made her feel somehow renewed. Probably Lance Armstrong just really likes his bike rides. Me? Give me my friends and my family for a big Sunday brunch – and if I’m up to it, pass the Chablis. And after that, as far as I’m concerned there’s nothing quite like a nap on the couch to round out the perfect day of being an !@#%-kicking, cancer-fighting superhero.

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The New Abnormal

A lot has happened since my diagnosis back in March.

 

I’ve had tests – mammograms, ultrasounds, biopsies, MRIs, scans, x-rays and a few things that involve being injected with a radioactive tracer fluid, just in case I don’t already have cancer. 

 

I’ve had 2 surgeries – a lumpectomy and the removal of several lymph nodes.  I’ve walked around with a drain hanging out from under my arm for several days.  I’ve had a large button-like thing implanted under the skin on my chest with an artificial vein threaded into my jugular to help make being repeatedly injected easier on me.  I’ve had 5 rounds of chemotherapy – today being my fifth.  (Chemo days are milestones marking the progress of my treatment; kind of like little birthdays, except way more frequent and way less fun.)

 

Through all this I have been treated with great kindness and respect by the people responsible for my care.  I’ve had many occasions to be grateful to my team of talented doctors and to the much-maligned health care system that has made my treatment possible, and more importantly, swift.  I’ve also frequently marveled at the incredibly efficient, patient, strong-stomached beings that walk among us called “nurses.”

 

So here I am: bald, scarred-up, and routinely pumped full of poisons.  I have trouble sleeping and sometimes I’m very sick, or in a lot of pain.  This is life with breast cancer. The road can be long, dark, and scary – but on the upside I’ve saved a lot on waxing this summer, acquired a French silk scarf for my head, and met some amazing people.   

 

While not exactly compensating for it, I can see that this curse comes with its blessings.  For me the greatest of these has been watching my family and friends rally around me like a motley army of ferocious angels.  All these people I love have schooled me on what love can do, and it’s a wee bit humbling.

 

As bizarre and difficult as my life has become in many ways, I do manage to forget all about cancer sometimes.  I look in the mirror and see Baldy looking back and I’m surprised for a second that it’s me: that girl with cancer is actually me.  Or maybe more to the point, I’m still me even though I’ve got cancer.

 

That was one of the things that scared me most when I was first told I had breast cancer; I feared that I would lose my identity to it, become That Girl With Cancer. (That, and of course that I’d die.)  My husband and I have a beautiful daughter, a great group of friends, we’re close with our families, and we struggle to balance it all with our busy careers. I liked my life, and I wondered, would all the things that define who I am go the way of my ponytail and ability to keep food down?  

 

But months down the road and here I am.  Of course cancer and treatment have altered my life dramatically.  Sometimes I’m numb, sometimes defiant, sometimes tearful, and sometimes I just keep moving through the moments of my life as though it’s all perfectly normal. 

 

It’s become my new abnormal.  But it’s still my life, and whatever changes have come I still feel like myself.  I may not look the way I used to, but I’m not That Girl With Cancer, I’m still me.  Just balder.

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