The Unraveling

Family Photo Porch

Unraveling: to become unwoven, to become frayed 

This blog post is overdue. 

My goal in blogging was to inform, to share, to be transparent. This is not only for others who are enduring through cancer but also for all of you who care to understand the experiences of cancer patients, at least through my lens. 

I finished my last radiation treatment on the morning of May 15th, 2019, just in time to leave for State Track that afternoon. I was blistered on my collar bone, upper right chest, shoulder, and most painfully, I had an open burn wound in my right armpit. Folks, this pain is hard to describe. I had waves of nausea for weeks as I finished my radiation – and mind you, it was being pried up into position for treatment, and re-burned every day. Terrible. 

The radiation wounds healed.
I was now onto the next phase of my treatment, Tamoxifen.
I began taking this in early June, with little to no perceived side effects. 

Tamoxifen interferes with estrogen production, and estrogen promoted my breast cancer. It is also shown to prevent the development of new breast cancers. A no-brainer for a young estrogen-positive breast cancer survivor like me. 

The next meaningful thing for you all to know about the increased absence of estrogen is that this hormone does many things in your body.
Specific to this topic, estrogen has an anxiety-reducing effect. Thus, the start of this adjuvant therapy, the unraveling began.

As I went through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation, there were clear steps, timelines, and goals. Being goal-oriented, this structure worked for me. It did nothing to alleviate my physical suffering, and the impacts on my mental health were expected. Chemo, every 3 weeks. Radiation, daily.  And then – poof, you’re done. Bald, wounded, with an impaired immune system, but you’re done. 

Summer was here. I felt well, I believed that I was on the other side of my worst nightmare. My prognosis is very positive, and I have planned to continue to be as aggressive as I can be in my treatment.

But it wasn’t good.
In fact, I felt like I was living in a horror film.

Intrusive thoughts. They started with a dozen or so a day in early June. 

By September, I was having intrusive thoughts thousands of times a day. THOUSANDS. Try that. What do you ever think of a thousand times a day?

Thoughts included:

After a hard workout and soreness, it wasn’t soreness, it was immediately metastatic breast cancer and I was dying. 

A sore back was metastatic breast cancer and I was dying.

A muscle spasm was metastatic breast cancer and I was dying.

I’d look around the dinner table and think how awful it was that I was dying and leaving my family behind. 

The anxious and fearful thoughts occupied every space of my life.

Since I was dying, the thoughts of guilt and failure were profound. 

First and foremost, the stress I’d already put my family through. Here I am, off to die, and how will they survive the grief? 

I would wake nearly every night, sometimes for hours, listing the things I had to teach my daughters before I died.
How to use a tampon.
How to survive heartbreak.
How to love people for who they are, and put aside any judgment.
How to put on makeup without looking like you’re in a show.
How to help your Dad find a new partner after I’m gone and to love her, in spite of still loving me. 

I would lay awake at night thinking of my classroom. My students. My athletes. My colleagues. How could I let them down yet again? 

The list was long. Never-ending. 

To be clear, this fear was palpable. I’d equate it to a fight or flight response if you’ve experienced that. It was cold as ice, and at the same time, so shocking that I felt like I’d never truly relax again. 

If I wasn’t having an intrusive thought, I was worried about my intrusive thoughts returning.

I thought that once I had less free time, and went back to work, this would eliminate my time to worry, or at least shift my worry to my professional life.

Nope.

I would be teaching, literally in the middle of a lecture, and also be worrying about dying.
How could a substitute serve my students?
What curriculum, materials and notes would I leave behind for them to be the best they could be for my students?
How could I share the unique personalities and needs of each student with the person who would have to take over my classroom? 

I’d be coaching in a match and thinking of how it would be unfair to disrupt the season of this amazing group of human beings with another medical crisis. 

I was simultaneously hating myself, and battling to find rational Maggie. 

I was so confused. How had I survived so damn much trauma in my life, to succumb to this? I was a survivor, for heaven’s sake. The resilient one who could handle crises.
I had survived 7-years of my Mom’s COPD, while parenting, teaching, coaching, and supporting my family’s needs.
I had survived a brutal 7-months of my Mom in hospice.
I had survived three students committing suicide.
I survived cancer treatment, for God’s sake. 

In all of those moments, there was profound stress, sadness, and fear to list a few, but I came out on the other end, aware of my PTSD, but managing it.

I could. Not. Manage. 

Finally, one day, it dawned on me. What is the good of surviving cancer if you allow it to rob you of your sanity and quality of life? 

And that was it. 

Finally, I messaged my oncologist, and she referred me to the Behavioral Oncology Clinic. My Doctor there specializes in serving patients diagnosed with cancer and/or surviving after treatment, focusing on adjustment difficulties.  

She is ah-mazing. 

She indicated that I was incredibly normal. That adjustment difficulties, like anxiety, and dealing with psychosocial stressors became different as a cancer survivor.
She shared that Tamoxifen likely was contributing to what would have been an anxious time already, by decreasing my body’s natural anti-anxiety hormones. 

She shared that I also was likely mourning the lack of contact I was having with my oncologist – so true! My doctor was like a lifeline, and as you survive, you see her less and less. I actually was more anxious, not seeing my doctor. Strange, I know. 

Along with therapy, I started taking a low daily dose of escitalopram in September. After a week, my life had changed dramatically. While my anxious thoughts might try to surface, it’s like they’re underwater. Manageable. 

To be clear: life-changing.

So, what I wanted you all to know, is when you greet a cancer survivor, you tend to think that they must be so happy. So relieved. So blessed to be alive after treatment.
Sure. Those things, yes.

But, being a survivor is really hard work.
In fact, for me, in many ways, harder work than the treatment itself.

I also want you all to know that if you need mental health care, or medication to help with a mental health crisis, good for you to have the courage to seek that help. I waited for months. Go today. 

As I try to continually define who I might be, in my 40s, a cancer survivor, a mom, a wife, a teacher, a coach, a daughter, a niece, a daughter in law, a friend, a pet owner, a gardener, and a woman who needs medication to impact her Serotonin. I am able to weave the parts of me back together and to fully live the life I battled (and continue to fight) to have.

The Asymmetrical Life

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Here I am, owning my body. MY BODY post-cancer. Not just owning it, but celebrating it.
Here I am, rejecting the norms of American beauty standards and likely making you all uncomfortable with my asymmetry. As part of my healing process, I chose to have a glamor shot taken, because, my body is (and always has been) beautiful. 

I had a right breast mastectomy on October 15, 2018.
In truth, making this choice was not difficult.
My reverence for my breasts is mostly based on the fact that they provided sustenance to my daughters.

I’m also very lucky that I chose to have a full breast mastectomy, as I was able to achieve clear margins on my surgery, an ideal outcome in the treatment of Breast Cancer.

The first 12 hours after my mastectomy I didn’t look at my chest. I didn’t feel my chest.
When I did will the courage to have a gander, my first thought was: you’re a character in a horror film.
And within seconds, I told myself: no.
You’re not going to hate yourself.
In fact, you’re going to love yourself and this scar more than you thought you ever could.
You are beautiful.

In the days following surgery, as I drained my wound and worked on healing (physically and emotionally), I also thought very carefully about showing the scar to my daughters.
I gave them the choice the day I arrived home.
Each of them asked to see it within 24 hours.
I shared that looking at Mommy would be different. Forever.
While the human brain prefers symmetry, Mommy would always (at least when naked) be asymmetrical.
Instead, I encouraged them (and me) to focus on how very much of me is left.
Most of me.

In fact, all of me that really matters is left. 

Managing and healing a mastectomy wound includes having a surgical drain. This means there are many inches of rubber tubes in your wound, and then a drain that you have to use to suction out the fluid multiple times a day. This drain and bulb hang from your body.
When coaching within days of my mastectomy, I got creative and taped it to my body and put the bulb into my pocket.
Getting the tubing out was a relief (this is an understatement).

Then comes the prosthetic.

Marlie and I went shopping for my matching breast and found the staff to be incredibly helpful. They matched the prosthetic to my remaining breast – both shape and size –  and I’m able to utilize this daily – when I want to. I do not use my prosthetic when I work out. Instead, I am asymmetrical. This is just practical.

Now, to complain.
The bras, swimsuits, and attire that are created for a prosthetic breast seem to be created for the 65-and-over crowd.

Thus, I’m learning to be creative and to purchase clothing, swimwear, and undergarments that I can modify myself to fit my prosthetic.
Strapless dresses and swimwear are a thing of the past – and yes, I was still wearing those at 40.
So, I have some limitations on my fashion choices. If this is my greatest challenge in a day, then I have it pretty good. 

There are so many messages about what being a beautiful woman means.
Women’s breasts are at the top of the list for beauty and sex appeal.
Breast implants remain the #1 plastic surgery, if that isn’t a clear indicator of the cultural messages about our breasts, I don’t know what is?

I did not opt for reconstruction. Due to my low body fat content, I would have had to utilize implants.
It seemed odd to me that I was going to remove something foreign from my body, and then replace it with something foreign.
Again, this decision took very little consideration for me. No thank you.

Most of the time, I love my body and my scar.
Most of the time, I feel comfortable with the emptiness on my right side of my body.
I am, like all on this Earth, am a work in progress.

All of the time, I’m confident in my surgical decision.
All of the time, I’m incredibly grateful to be alive.

All of the time, I am acutely aware that while my life might be asymmetrical, the very most important parts of me are in fact,  intact, and that is what truly matters.

What is Cancer Good For? Volume 1: Confirmation that I Married Exceptionally Well

football pic

This is a love letter to my husband, really.

I met Nate in 2003, when we were mutually traveling to cheer on the Hawkeyes at the Orange Bowl. Nate was traveling with one of my best friends from high school, who was no his roommate as they both worked in politics in Des Moines at the time. I was traveling with my brother.

I was initially a skeptic. I often am. I actually wasn’t interested in dating. I can’t really remember why, or if there was really a why, but I had sworn to be single.

Nate had other ideas.

He was right.

 

From the first time I met Nate, his genuine warmth, profound kindness, bright mind, shared passions and his easy nature made him good company. All of this is still true.

In addition, he was, and still is a gentleman.

 

I can remember him buying me a drink at our hotel bar in Fort Lauderdale.

I can remember him asking if it was acceptable to kiss me.

His thoughtfulness has not waned in our years of marriage.

 

We had a lovely courtship, filled with the busyness of campaigning, enjoying our early 20’s with ease, including a frenetic work and play pace. We were easy mates.

We’ve been married for thirteen years. They’ve been filled with many joys, successes and plenty of happiness. We are genuinely the best of friends. Our company is easy, we like to spend time together and we also are both very happy independent of one another.

 

Then, this whole cancer bit.

Nothing prepares you for being a good spouse to someone who has cancer.

Someone who is losing her right breast.

Someone who is going through chemotherapy.

Nothing. Prepares. You.

 

We started seeing a therapist together. Not because we have a troubled marriage, but because each of us was able to acknowledge we have absolutely no idea how to deal with my health crisis, and that we wanted to do it together. It’s not that we have struggled to be honest with each other, but our current situation is awfully unique, and collectively, we needed help to be who we need to be for one another. Nate didn’t flinch. When I said I needed a therapist, he said he did, too, so we go. Together.

 

While I have struggled with feeling ashamed, the sense I’ve absolutely failed at living – Nate has gently, but in a stalwart fashion came alongside me, and has provided the gentle pillar of strength that lifts me through my self-loathing and sadness. I can tell him the truth about how I’m feeling, he validates my feelings and still finds a way to tug me along.

 

He doesn’t look at me with any less affection or interest. And folks, I’m bald and one-boobed. His love is as one might hope and pray your spouses might be, without prerequisites. If anything, I sense he both loves and appreciates me more deeply.

 

I was always the do-er in the house.

Laundry. Most cleaning (ok, we also pay someone), most meal prep and clean up. Most bathing of our kids. Scheduling. Planning.

Now I feel disgusted with myself as I hold down the couch on my days following chemo, and ask him to do the things that were my tasks.

He does them with a sense of humor, and with no resentment.

 

He’s always been protective of me, which might amuse some of you.

Most of you know, I really don’t need anyone to protect me.

However, is sentiments reflect the depth of his loyalty and affection for me.
He tries to deflect the well-meaning people who want to “help” in our crisis.
He tries to absorb the unwanted attention and to save me from sadness and suffering.
He’s noble, truly.

 

His love is unique and deeply spiritual.

I say this after much thought and reflection, and I’ve been able to appreciate his unique devotion and love for several months now as we endure my health crisis.

 

Be it from a Christian perspective:

Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. (1 John 4:7)

 

Or the teaching of the Buddhists about Karuna, which roughly translates to compassion. Buddhists teach that to have true love, you must have the desire to, and ability to ease the pain of others, and one can only do that by understanding their suffering.

This would be easy to avoid.

To really get into the trenches, and to unpack both my spiritual and physical pain in a way to completely understand, take on and try to alleviate is a tremendous undertaking.

Nate is devoted to understanding and trying to alleviate my suffering, thus, taking on suffering himself.

 

When Nate bought me a drink at the hotel bar in Fort Lauderdale in December 2003, there is no way that he knew what he’d be called upon to do as a spouse of someone enduring cancer treatment.

And for all of the reasons I initially fell in love with Nate, the process of going through this treatment with Nate at my side has immeasurably deepened both my gratitude and love for my partner. I married exceptionally well. For this, I am profoundly grateful.

Longing for Normalcy: the Ravages of Chemotherapy

Herceptin

Perjeta

Adriamycin

Carboplatin

Neulasta

 

The list of torture devices employed to eradicate any seed of cancer that may have silently snuck out into my beloved body.

Also, the list of life-saving pharmaceuticals that are going to return me to a normal life expectancy.

Ah, cognitive dissonance. It is a love-hate relationship, with hate being quite strong on the days of suffering.

 

The suffering. Truthfully, I struggle to find words to articulate the suffering, but I shall try, as one of my goals is to tell everyone the truth about cancer. My Truth.

 

People, trying to connect and understand my suffering have asked: is it like having the flu?
No folks, it’s like having fu*****g chemotherapy.

And it is beyond your imagination. Horrible. Dreadful. Harrowing.

Minutes seem like hours. I beg for, and sometimes self-medicate to sleep, because it is the only escape for days.

 

Chemotherapy side effects are like being at the hands of a sadistic torturer, that at times, persists in non-stop torture. Then, the torture seems to be relenting, perhaps stopping, and you think the veil of suffering might too lift, and as a cruel twist of fate, the torturer is back, with yet another tool of suffering.

Anaphylaxis during chemo infusion #2. This, it seems, is fairly normal. It is poison, after all.

The medical team had it stopped within 30 seconds, pumped me full of anti-allergy drugs and had it back flowing in 10 minutes.

Just think of a substance so toxic, it brings on anaphylaxis within minutes, yet so essential to your treatment, they fool your body into thinking all is well, and they keep infusing you with that poison.

 

Anal fissures. Google that if you’re inclined.

 

Simultaneous constipation and diarrhea. Who knew that was possible?

 

Sores in my nose. Random nose bleeds.

 

Aching so deep in my bones, inside my body, that parts ache I had never realized were part of me.

 

Nausea. My goodness, nausea. Debilitating. Unable to move, but when still, the focus is solely on the suffering. It’s awful. It won’t lift. Then it does, and you think, I might be clawing out of the suffering, and then it returns. With no forgiveness.

 

So, chemotherapy kills your digestive system. Literally, all of the good bacteria gone. Digestion, if that occurs, is varied. There is no normalcy. From hour to hour, my digestion changes. Thus, what worked to eat earlier in the day may lead to extreme gas or diarrhea.

 

No hair. Plus a strangely itchy scalp that occasionally hurts to be touched, or to lay on a pillow. This is frustrating when all you can do is lay down.

 

The fatigue. It’s as if my limbs are made of lead weights. There is a block of stone on my head. To sit up is, during the worst moments, truly impossible. This is not hyperbole. I literally cannot sit up.

 

Coffee is just the complaint at the top of my list of appetite and taste changes. Not only do many tastes change, but there are also many foods my body can’t tolerate. By not tolerate, I do mean that within 10 minutes of eating it, it will be out of my other end. It’s pretty special.

 

To abate this suffering, I have to throw pharmaceuticals into my body. I loathe this. I avoid medications whenever possible. But, herbal tea doesn’t take care of nausea. I’m like a chemical cocktail. Just thinking of this makes my stomach flip.

 

At the root of all of this suffering is my desperate yearning for normalcy.

I’ve never under-appreciated my health. It’s truly one of the things I value most in life.

Now, I’m just desperate for it. Pleading for it. Praying for it.

Feeling healthy and like myself is like this glowing dream that is muddled by the chemicals I will not escape until mid-March.

The burden of suffering is my albatross.

 

My albatross even smells. I smell like poison. During the infusion, for the days following. My urine, my sweat, my entire body. It’s awful to smell like a chemical cocktail. I just want to smell like me.

 

In my last cycle, normalcy started to creep back about day 9. I’m on day 9. It’s emerging, but a bit slower in this cycle. Perhaps due to the anaphylaxis, perhaps due to cumulative effects. I’ll never know.

 

But normalcy, I shall continue to seek you, belief in your return and dream of you during my worst moments.

 

The Breast Cancer Buffet

Breast Cancer is this one-size-fits-all diagnosis. The title gives me a commonality with many others, but the diversity of what this diagnosis entails is pretty profound.

Imagine you’ve been invited to a buffet, which includes exactly zero of the foods you like.

We can all think of foods we can tolerate, and those which will cause us to gag or wretch.

There’s nothing good on this buffet, but there are some options that, with a condiment or some salt, you could tolerate.

When I was initially diagnosed with breast cancer after my biopsy, I had a diagnosis that was ideal.

ER+, PR-, HER2-, Luminal A.

Anticipated Stage 1.

 

Yeah. That’s common language and knowledge to me now.

To simplify: I could choose a right breast mastectomy and some Estrogen suppression, and I’d be back to my life within months, with a cure rate of over 95%.

Really, not bad at all when you look at this buffet of undesirable options.

 

The undesirable buffet includes things like:

Metastatic Cancer

Triple Negative Cancer

Triple Positive Cancer

BRCA1 Positive Gene

Invasive Breast Cancer

Non-Invasive Breast Cancer

Luminal A Tumor

Luminal B Tumor

Node-positive

Node-negative

Micrometastases

Macrometastases

Also, consider the nuclear and mitotic rate growth of your cancer cells – leading to a grade for your cancer

I’ve left some variables off of the buffet here, but as you can see, Breast Cancer is this many-layered, complex diagnosis for which one’s treatment choices are widely varied based on what gets thrown on your plate at this buffet you never intended to visit.

 

So, when my initial diagnosis seemed a relatively simple solution, I felt like I had at least one foot on the ground.

 

A full chest MRI showed no evidence of any further tumors.

Additional 3-D imaging and ultrasounds (torture) on my right breast seemed to confirm one location of cancerous tissue, and it seemed limited to the breast tissue. To be clear, you’re hoping to avoid spread to muscle tissue, lymph nodes, bones, and so on.

 

So finally, the surgery on October 15, 2018.

My mastectomy went well, and the initial pathology in the OR was that there was no spread to lymph nodes (they take your sentinel nodes during surgery & test them in the room to see if they need to take more lymph nodes).

 

The recovery from my right breast mastectomy was really smooth.

I was off of pain meds after 48 hours, and back in the kettlebell gym within 10 days – with some modifications. I was back in the gym coaching volleyball within 5 days.

 

The post-surgical appointment after my mastectomy was a different story.

At that appointment, the surgeon revealed that there were additional locations of cancerous tissue found in my breast, with different markers.

 

The buffet of Breast Cancer had dealt me a much different challenge.

I was now ER+, PR+, and HER2+.

There was also a macrometastasis of cancer deposit in one of my sentinel lodes.

The conversation changed dramatically.

Now, chemotherapy and radiation were needed.

Overall, that post-surgical appointment was like a nightmare. The sentiment oozing from the staff was pity. My outcomes were clearly different. My plan to get on with life with one less breast was no longer going to work.

Your own mortality. That’s nothing fun to wrestle.

 

So, here’s how we got to chemotherapy. So many chemicals. So much poison. 

Doxorubicin. Cyclophosphamide. Herceptin. Perjeta.

But, after my chemical hell, I’ll be back at a 96% cure rate, so it was a no-brainer, but a treatment reality that is absolutely horrible.

 

There were some other steps along the way.

One important decision was transferring my care to UIHC. Talk about World Class.

The staff, the access to and knowledge of the most up-to-date and relevant research, and the facilities are all absolutely incredible.

Nobody looked at me with pity there. In fact, they challenged any assumption I had about not living into my 80s. They had a research-based confidence and treatment approach that conveyed an outstanding outcome.

The first time I felt good, truly good, after my change in diagnosis was after an opinion from UIHC.

 

Understanding Breast Cancer is really unique to the individual and her diagnosis. The buffet is an endless offering of nothing good. The buffet determines your treatment options and your outcomes.

So, next up, chemotherapy.

On Vanity

On Vanity

 

Cancer is a challenge. What those challenges are varied for each person and caregiver(s).

Inevitably, once a conversation about surgery (mastectomy) or chemotherapy emerge, the changes to your own physical person are an affront to who exactly you are. These realities are profound and inescapable.

They’re also a chance for a valuable introspection.

To really whittle down what matters. It’s awfully simple.

What matters: living.

Why: people. The people who I can’t bear to leave.

I’m going to have wine around my living room table with my daughters.

I’m going to attend many more family Thanksgivings and Christmases.

I’m going to teach many more students and coach many more athletes.

I’m going to sit on the couch and watch Netflix with my husband for many years to come.

So, when that is what matters, vanity is tossed aside quickly, and for me, with a sense of defiance and irreverence as a clear message to cancer.

Cancer won’t take what matters the very most to me.

 

But, it will take some parts of me both temporarily and permanently.

 

In our Western culture, and due to my socioeconomic status, I’ve been able to be concerned about my personal appearance.

Now, for those of you who know me, I’m a function over form person, most of the time.

Dry shampoo works for me about every other day.

I’d say that I’m happy to blend in, with my own approach to fashion, but definitely don’t want to stand out.

 

So, why am I undressing vanity?

We all have some level of vanity, it’s unavoidable.
We should love ourselves. Deeply.

What we see in the mirror every day, others do as well.

So, I’m looking at physical vanity.
I can get self-absorbed in an occasional pimple, the wave in my hair that I hate on the edges, or the shirts that aren’t long enough for my seriously elongated torso.

I don’t think that I have excessive self-admiration, or have any sort of misunderstanding about my physical attractiveness.

 

But, what chemotherapy will do is to take control from any ability I might have had to hide from others that I have cancer. I won’t look like the typical me for several months. But, I’ll still be me.

It’s like a badge: yep, folks, I have cancer.

Hair off your head gone, strange cancer hats to wear, eyelashes gone, eyebrows gone, and the list continues.

I love my eyelashes. Vanity.

No eyebrows seem strange.

People ask about wigs, ask about “cold cap” therapies to try and save my hair, and again, after much thinking it over, I can say, no thanks.

I have cancer.

I’m going through chemotherapy.

 

I chose a pro-active cutting of my hair earlier this week, as several people recommended that it would make the hair loss less traumatic.

Eventually, I’ll just shave it.

My hairdresser is like a semi-therapist, and definitely a friend, so Tiff cut my hair with happiness and tried really hard to make it cute.

I feel like one of two people in this new haircut: My Mom or a 12-year-old boy.

So, no, I don’t feel “cute” in my new haircut.

That’s OK.

It has to be OK.

 

If I can’t handle being bald and unsightly for 4-6 months of my life, then who am I?

Honestly.

What matters isn’t my hair, my eyelashes or whatever else falls out.
Truly.

Getting ugly for a long, healthy life is worth it.

What matters is people that I love. The life I want to return to.

So, to hell with vanity.

And, to hell with privacy (this is WAY harder for me).

Everyone will know that I have cancer, even if I don’t know who they are.

 

So, if you don’t feel good in your body today, it’s OK.

You’re alive.

Appreciate that.

 

I am Not One of Those Women

Eiffel Tower

I have much pride in my achieved roles.

Achieved roles are those which we acquire on the basis of merit – this position is earned or chosen.

These achieved roles reflect my skill, ability and/or effort.

I also love some of my ascribed statuses.

This is something we’re born into, or have no control over. No choice or effort.

 

Regarding my newly ascribed status:

I’m not one of those women for whom you march or donate in October.
I’m not a “cancer survivor.”

I’m not a “Pink Warrior.”

 

I’m a Wife.

I’m a Mom. (Albeit a failure on some days)

I’m Irish.

I’m a Christian.

I’m a Friend.

I’m a Social Studies Teacher. I’m an Educator.

I’m a Traveler.

I’m a Volleyball Coach.

I’m a Track and Field Coach.

I Work Hard.

I’m Fit.

I’m Healthy.

I’m a Heavy Lifter. I play with kettlebells for fun (and suffering).

I’m an Avid Reader.

I’m an Optimist and simultaneously a Realist.

I have a Growth Mindset.

I’m a Problem Solver.

I’m wildly Honest.

I cast a wide net and Love many – in a manner that is entirely my own.

I’m a crazy Left-Wing Liberal.

I’m Informed.

I’m an Introvert, who presents on occasion as an Extrovert. (this can be exhausting)

I’m a Dog Lover. (I’d love cats as well if my husband wasn’t allergic)

I’m a Hawkeye Fan.

 

But. I’m not One.of.Those.Women.

 

So, this is a really real thing. I’m not inflating my sentiments.

To fold this new person into my identity has been impossible.

I don’t want people to pity me.

We all know the look. I get it day after day.

 

I actually don’t want to march with anyone in October.

I don’t want to wear pink. In fact, it’s now aversive to me.
I don’t want to stand and be recognized at a Dig Pink event.

 

For those of you who have survived, and feel folded into the sisterhood, I’m all for it.

For those of you who march to remember someone you’ve lost, I support you.

It’s just not me.

 

Maybe someday it will be.

Maybe not.

For now, we’re at a stalemate here.

You Have Cancer

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Microcalcifications.
Have you heard of those?
I had not, until I received a phone call on August 14, 2018, sharing that there were some found on my mammogram and that I’d need to come in for a follow-up.
They’re probably nothing, she said.
And, to be fair, she was likely right.
Only about 10% of microcalcifications are cancerous.

I didn’t even tell Nate.
Why bother, they were likely nothing.

In the follow up 3D Mammogram, it wasn’t hard to see that the tech didn’t like what she saw.
The pathologist told me I’d need a biopsy.
The Breast Specialist helped me schedule a pre-surgery appointment.
I had to stop on my drive home because I was hyperventilating.

What had my body done?
It had betrayed me?
No. It couldn’t be cancer.

Looking at data, it didn’t seem like it would be, so I remained hopeful.
My biopsy was on September 7th and had to be surgical, due to the location of the microcalcifications right under my nipple, very near the surface.

Oh, and when you’re told that a wire localization is “no big deal” that is a farce.
They take you in during pre-op, squeeze your breast in the mammogram machine, give you shots, put in a wire, and guess what, it’s really unpleasant.
Silly to pretend it’s “no big deal.”
If I could go back in time, I’d ask for a valium. Serious.

I opted for a MAC sedation, which is used most often for colonoscopy procedures.
I did recover quickly from the sedation and the pain was very minimal.
In fact, I went to coach a tournament the next day.

The surgeon told me it would take 2-3 days for pathology.
It took eleven days.
That was horrible. Fear woke me up at night. Worry dominated my downtime.

Then the nurse called to tell me I had Invasive Ductal Carcinoma, and that I was ER +.
I responded: well, that is good.
She paused and asked for clarification.
I said, due to my own personal research, I knew this was the ideal type of Breast Cancer, that my outcomes were good, and that if I had to have Breast Cancer, this was what I had hoped for.

The next day, my Dad, Nate and I went in and met with my surgeon. She was outstanding. She spent 40 minutes talking it out with us.

I had several options and opted for a full right breast mastectomy.
The treatment plan called for a full mastectomy, and then that it was highly likely that no other treatment would be needed.

Looking at reconstruction, I do not have enough body fat to reconstruct naturally. My nipple would have to go because my cancerous tissue was right under it. I couldn’t get on board with removing one foreign agent from my body just to put in another (implants).

Also, I’m an A cup. I believe the euphemism for this is that I have “athletic breasts.” So, using a prosthesis is relatively easy, and I can actually get by often times without one.

So, while overwhelmed and rattled, I felt like this was pretty dang easy in the scheme of things. I knew far too many women whose battles were a heck of a lot more difficult than a major surgery. So, I was resolved to move forward.

However, telling other people you have cancer is horrible.
I believe that I am on this Earth to serve others.
I’m a teacher and a coach.
I’m a Mom.
I believe in lifting, not creating burdens for others.

And, I lost my Mom in 2015 to COPD after several years of slow decline.
This included 7-months of Hospice Care.
My daughters know death.
My Dad knows death.
My husband already nursed me through this tragedy.
I hated offering any more pain or fear to my family and loved ones.
I hated having to tell my volleyball players that I have cancer.
One of my players had a Mom in Hospice Care, dying of Breast Cancer.
Too much.
Unfair. To them. To all of the people I loved best.

But, I found a way, by telling the truth.
Thankfully, the truth did not include anyone talking about me dying.
That made it easier.

My mastectomy was October 15, 2018. It went well.
The initial look at my 3 sentinel lymph nodes in the OR showed no cancer deposits.
My margins were clean.
My pain was minimal.
I went back to coach within 5 days of surgery.
It seemed that this whole cancer thing was, while disconcerting, going to be a bump in the road that I had survived.

But, my cancer story had only begun.

So I Turned 40

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My 40th Birthday Gift

I turned 40 on April 25th, 2018.
My big gift, a fully loaded minivan, and yes, I was excited (still am) about it.
I’m a pragmatist at heart. A nice minivan both makes sense, and gave me some bells and whistles to enjoy.
My 40th birthday included a morning workout at my local kettlebell gym, a day of teaching, coaching at track practice and then heading to a local trampoline park to jump around with my family.
I’m active.
I’m healthy.
I do things like deadlift at 4:30am with my friends for fun.
I eat mostly paleo.
I believe that food is either medicine or poison.
I’m not perfect. I do enjoy a few drinks – I’m very Irish.
My guilty pleasure is to overserve myself with coffee.
Inside me, cancer was lurking, and I had no idea.
No symptoms.
My 40th birthday was a happy milestone, full of my favorite things- I love my gym, I love my job, I love my family, I love being physically active.

Thank goodness the recommendation is that when we turn 40, we get a mammogram.
Thank goodness that I opted to get a 3D mammogram, albeit in the summer, when I decided it worked better into my schedule.
If you look at data, including my age, risk factors and family history of cancer (I have none) I actually had a 1.5% chance of having breast cancer.

So, I turned 40. Thank God.

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