Peace Out, Pinktober

Looking the part but not feeling it.

It’s the last day of Breast Cancer Awareness Month and this year, I wasn’t feeling it. Not one bit.


Last year I’d just​ finished treatment for my own breast cancer and was high on life, leaning into the Pink Ribbon. 


I wore pink, bought t-shirts/sweatshirts/mugs/hats, posted about breast cancer, and generally was obnoxious.


My behavior in October 2021 was a 180 degree spin.


It was hard to put a finger on why Pinktober was so grating this year. 


There were several good campaigns against Pinkwashing (e.g. slapping a pink sticker on a banana “in support of breast cancer awareness” – and really, in 2021, who ISN’T aware of breast cancer; Pinkwashing is essentially using a disease as a marketing ploy), but my personal ire wasn’t necessarily related to that.


It was related to me.


Here’s what I realized today, October 31st, at the last possible minute: I am not over breast cancer. Not one bit.


By objective measures, my last step of active treatment was August 2020, when I had my reconstruction surgery. That’s 14 months ago.


While I didn’t have a specific plan for what survivorship would look like, I (consciously, subconsciously) presumed that I would bounce back to my old self, except now with a SURVIVOR sticker slapped on my list of life accomplishments. 


SURVIVOR Me was supposed to be All The Things: Fit, Healthy, Authentic, Wise, Kind, Generous and an All Around Inspiring Boss Lady Doctor with a sassy short ‘do (thanks, chemo).


Actual Me is not.


While I am some of the things, I can’t seem to get where I want to be.


I am in a professional coaching program for female physicians and recently, my favorite coach asked me if I’d ever experienced any trauma.


My immediate answer was “No,” because up to now I’ve never been, say, kidnapped or in an airplane crash (fingers crossed it stays that way). As an afterthought, I casually mentioned that, oh, there was this one thing, I’d gone through cancer treatment in the middle of the peak COVID pandemic last year. There was a pause, and she said, “That’s absolutely trauma. You need to reckon with it.”


As I type, this probably seems obvious, but it was the first piece of evidence I had that my survivorship mode might not be on track the way I wanted it to be.


The second bits of evidence were two-fold: I had to leave my bubble twice and merge into Real Life. 


In September and October, I went to two professional work conferences, the first ones in over two years. They were full of milestones: first flights since COVID, first public speaking gigs, and – the thing I was most scared for – the first time seeing colleagues since my diagnosis.


To be unflattering and blunt, I have many moments of vanity and have carefully, professionally curated how I present myself in front of others. 


2021 Me was ticking almost zero of those boxes. 


My fears: people would not recognize me (this came true a few times), people would think I look old, people would think I look like sh*t, people would pity me, people would look at me differently than I want to be perceived.


Of course none of this came to fruition. Deep down, I know that the person who cares the most about my drama is me, and no one else was probably giving a passing thought to any of the other things because they’re mired in their own muck. 


The third moment of clarity came last week, when I was invited to present a talk on breast cancer survivorship to other patients. Friends, you know I love public speaking, and this was my moment to shine. An audience and opportunity to talk about myself? Count me IN.


I put together a talk that I thought was honest, authentic, vulnerable and with some good advice. I was excited to give it. And then, despite having given hundreds of talks – sometimes in front of big audiences – I found my voice wavering multiple times as I told my story.


I realized I am not over breast cancer. Not one bit.


But.


I want that to change. 


This is the start. And I hope that Pinktober 2022 finds SURVIVOR Me in a new place.

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.