Grief Tsunami

It’s taken me a long time to write this post.

Like a long, long time.

It’s not that it hasn’t written itself in my head; it has. I just couldn’t muster the will to put it out in the world.

Me, today, January 22, 2021

Quick recap: January 3rd, 2021, marked my One Year Cancerversary from diagnosis.

I’ve been done with chemo since May 2020 and had my reconstruction surgery last August.

All along, I told everyone who would listen that “I’m doing great!”

And here’s the thing: at the time, I meant it.

Strength, wit and grit have gotten me pretty far in life and cancer was no different.

I jumped in head first to cancer treatment and at every turn, I took the harder path.

The dirty secret was that in the end, it didn’t *seem* too bad.

I took off less than 3 weeks for my bilateral mastectomy and 3 days for the reconstruction.

I barely scheduled any time off during chemo, minus the infusion day itself (and I even worked a half day leading up to my date with the IV drugs during one of them).

My energy was ok. I ate food. It didn’t taste great (Hello, metal mouth), but I managed to gain and not lose any weight (whomp, whomp). I exercised every day. I worked a lot. I was advised it was ok to go back into the clinic to see patients a month after finishing chemo so I went back one week BEFORE the final one (I’d worked virtually for two months at the height of lockdown in the spring).

And then, around October, it all caught up to me.

Cancer causes trauma. Period. Despite the strength I felt, and I genuinely do not think it was a front, a tsunami of grief flooded over me. I still can’t shake the PTSD.

My oncologist and other cancer survivors (yes, I am now tentatively calling myself a survivor) have told me that my experience is not unusual.

Diagnosis brings Go Mode, where it’s all adrenaline and fighting the beast. The treatment phase is Survival Mode, where you just need to do what it takes to get through it. But I am still figuring out the manual for Survivorship.

Post-cancer Me is different. I don’t want to go back to the old Me but I also don’t exactly want to stay like this.

On the plus side, I’ve got hair again and for the first time in my life, it’s CURLY. Like curly curly. I got it recently shaped on the back and sides (and was only charged for a men’s cut!) and the shape is approximating a pixie.

On the majorly negative side, I discovered that I am insulin resistant, aka pre-diabetic. My eyelashes are stubs and my brows – after a lifetime of Brooke Shields-esque unruliness – are ghosts of their former selves. The weight I managed to gain during chemo is stubbornly not coming off. I have an old person’s pillbox that is filled to capacity and every Sunday I painstakingly replenish the little AM and PM boxes for the upcoming week.

The Global Pandemic has kept me from doing something – anything – celebratory to mark the end of treatment (I had so many vacations planned!), which contributes to my feeling that the ending of the story remains unwritten.

I bought myself a pair of custom pink sapphire earrings with inverted, spikey stones and gold studs to commemorate (and never forget) the journey.

I immediately lost one, which is the most Me Thing that has probably ever happened.

This Is A Love Story

I know this picture is terrible. It’s hard to capture the back of your head.

This is a love story.

I am married to someone I’ve known since I was an awkward freshman in high school.

We bonded over sitting in the same row in Sister Geneva’s English class and our mutual affection for Chuck Taylor high tops.

I’m obliged to tell you at this point that we did not date until after college, although once in our senior collegiate year I asked if he’d ever thought about dating me.

He said no.

In retrospect, I don’t think that was true, but at some point he clearly changed his mind.

Love isn’t flashy all the time.

There are many ordinary moments I have forgotten over the past 22+ years. That makes me sad.

Our story includes moving five times for my work and many years of waiting to get to the next step, whether it was residency, fellowship, my first “real job” as an attending or some other nebulous goal that was just ever-so-slightly beyond the horizon.

Cancer was a new reckoning.

We’d been through so much already.

But love showed up – mightily- when I asked My Ever Patient Spouse to shave my head one step ahead of the chemo this past spring.

He did.

Months and months later, my hair started to grow back.

Regretfully, no one informed me that I was developing a mullet and it wasn’t until I looked at the back of my head for the first time that I realized I needed a barber NOW.

Once again, I enlisted him into action.

He gently buzzed my head again, but this time, not to scalp. It was just to neaten the edges. I think he did a pretty good job, even if the above photo doesn’t do it justice.

My friends, that is love.

Thoughts on #Pinktober

Well, well, with the turn of the calendar we’ve arrived at Breast Cancer Awareness month, complete with its cringe-y moniker #Pinktober.

Pinktober is highly controversial among breast cancer survivors.

Years of pinkwashing, exposes of “charitable” organizations that weren’t so charitable after all, and controversial political decisions by major players in the breast cancer sphere have soured many to the pink ribbon.

And let’s face it: seeing NFL players in pink jerseys may be a cute tribute, but I didn’t care about that when I was sitting in a chair with chemotherapy dripping into my veins.

More needs to be done.

For me, this is my first rodeo as a breast cancer survivor and I’m conflicted.

There’s the frustrated advocate in me who eschews the hype and demands action, and there is also the grateful human who has straddled the thin line between sickness and health – and she wants to celebrate.

So I’m leaning in to the pink. Hard. I choose gratitude and joy.

And I will proudly wear pink every day in October. I’m lucky that I get to.

Trigger Warning

I tell myself I’m getting better.

I *am* getting better.

Better better better.

I’m now 10 weeks past my final scheduled chemo.

Life is crawling back to some state of recognition.

I work full time.

I run.

I slather my eyebrows and eyelashes with an expensive growth serum and I think I am seeing progress.

I still overeat M&Ms on occasion.

Two things this week, though, sent me spiraling back to thoughts of dying – promptly – from cancer.

The first: Last weekend, I discovered a lump in my left armpit.

The left is my cancer side.

Trigger feelings of doom.

I am in a cancer group where the members regularly commiserate on post-cancer life, where every lump/bump/ache/pain immediately magnifies the tiny, constant worry that cancer has returned.

The lump is soft, mobile and slightly tender. All good signs for it being benign.

Rationally, I know it’s probably nothing. The most likely scenario is a slightly irritated lymph node from the friction sustained from my increased running.

But it nagged me all weekend.

Monday morning, I called my oncologist, just to be sure.

They took it very seriously and to my surprise, I found myself in her office less than two hours later.

I struggled to find the lump as she examined me (Good). It was not very impressive when I did (Good).

She decided to get imaging to be safe (Good plan), but the Worry Train had already left the station.

The second trigger: A song.

Specifically, “Our House,” by Madness.

This 80s tune brings back fond memories, although they’re from 2000, not 1983.

In the fall of 2000 I was a fourth year medical student, interviewing for OBGYN residency positions and traveling around the country for half of November and most of December.

In theory this is a stressful time, as getting into a good residency is a critical step for the future, the interviews can be intense with a lot of official and unofficial vetting going on, and most students (me) were traveling on borrowed student loan dollars and a shoestring budget.

I loved it.

Rushing to the airport, the red eye flights, the dodgy hotels, the pre-interview parties at resident’s homes, the early mornings, the tough questions – this is an environment in which I thrive.

I was so proud of my interview outfit. I had a charcoal gray skirt suit from Ann Taylor that I wore with a crystal blue silk turtleneck sweater and pearl stud earrings. I had the foresight to buy two sweaters so I could rotate them on trips with multiple interviews. I topped the look with a soft black trench from Talbot’s. At this point in my career I would dress for an interview with a lot more style, but at the time I felt like I’d found a respectable uniform.

I also had a soundtrack.

This was in the days of primitive file sharing, Napster and CDs. I had a mix CD – the late 1990s version of a mixed tape – that was filled with 80s and 90s hits, including “Our House.” I listened to that CD countless times in my travels and hearing the songs can send me right back to those moments.

Except yesterday, “Our House” sent me somewhere else.

The weather was perfect for a run yesterday afternoon, and my canine companion (Penny) and I were crossing the last bridge before home when this song came on.

The song reminisces about a happy childhood, yet these are the lyrics that got me:

“Father gets up late for work

Mother has to iron his shirt

Then she sends the kids to school

Sees them off with a small kiss

She’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.”

She’s the one they’re going to miss in lots of ways.

I was flooded with thoughts about dying, loss and my children, and unfortunately, no amount of running seems to be able to tamp them down.

Survivorship is such a struggle, but I hope that I will continue to be a Survivor for a long, long time and eventually I will find peace with post-Cancer life.

Hopefully, the triggers will be fewer and farther between.

Regardless, I will continue to overeat M&Ms.