Author

Susan

To the girl on the left…

Two years apart.

Same Lululemon hoodie; different body and soul occupying it.

I’m not here to bullshit with all the champions who are going through chemo right now and tell you “everything will be ok!” because we all know that’s not always true. And in those daunting hours, days, months of treatment we often can’t see the light because we’re literally confined indoors to our homes and hospitals under the stale fluorescence of fake lighting and saccharin enthusiasm.

I found my light by observing others who had walked the path before me. They have hair! They are going on vacations! They have cleavage! I was bald and puffy. I felt left behind and sorry for myself. But I saw my future in the other cancer survivors who were years ahead of me in remission. I realized that my new normal—crushing exhaustion as I would draw on my eyebrows every morning and glue on fake eyelashes just so I could look halfway decent and avoid sneers and stares if I even dared to venture into the outside world–would not be my forever normal.

So, to the girl on the left, I’d like you to meet the girl on the right. She is one of those future cancer survivors that you’re going to enviously admire. Let her be a testimony to all of the doubts and insecurities you’re feeling right now. Let her show you how life can be normal again. Although you feel small and helpless now, she is evidence that miracles are being planted in the ashes that surround you, and they will grow into oak trees with roots so deep they do not fear the changing seasons.

She is proof that –although you cannot see the plan God has for you—you are right on track.

To the girl on the left: I know you nearly had a panic attack before you posted that picture of yourself bald on social media.  You were flustered and frightened by what the response would be because you cared what other people thought. And you will be criticized but not in a way you are prepared for. You will be judged for wearing wigs to “hide” your cancer. You will be condemned for saying the word “fuck” in your blog. You will be chastised for posting photos of your mastectomy scar and surgeries. You will get fusilladed by a sea of eye-rolls as you perpetually forget important dates and can’t even recall what you said in a conversation two hours ago.

The girl on the right is proof that as time passes and people pass judgement, you’ll learn to care a little less about those things. She is proof that you can and should do whatever the hell makes you happy because by the time you’ve caught up to the girl on the right, you’ll have earned every ounce of that happiness.

She is proof that one day you’ll become a stranger in the oncology department which now seems so familiar and where everybody knows your name. She is proof that there will be weeks that go by before the word “cancer” is spoken. And when it is, that word will slip from your mouth like a vase full of flowers tumbling to their demise while you flinch at the piercing explosion on the cold marble floor. It will rattle you. But also remember that the girl on the right is a fucking badass so she asks someone to grab a broom and everybody laughs because she says “I hated that ugly vase anyways.”

She is proof that as your life changes, you will learn more about yourself than you could ever imagine.

She is proof that you are not alone in your fight. Stay strong, whatever you’re going through now is just the test before you learn the lesson.

 

 

 

Fear and Loathing in Allergy Season

The incorrigible villain known as pollen is once again plundering my lungs of breath, scorching my throat, and welcoming me into its lukewarm arms with dual ear infections. Post-cancer, I’ve had a difficult time finding antibiotics and medicines that respond to my body in a satisfactory way. My immune system is now an extremely callous, obstinate version of what it used to be. In some ways this is good—I generally am sick less often—but when germs and infection do invade, they tend to have a competitive advantage. Chemo changes the body considerably; I never used to have any allergies and now I’m allergic to numerous things including pollen and most of the human race. Cancer hollowed out my old body and refilled it with new contents.

Human nature encourages us to act bitter to these misgivings in life, but what if we decided to embrace the terrible things that have happened to us? Is it wrong to celebrate my sickness as I sit here freezing in two sweatshirts with tissues and various bottles of antibiotics and pills in front of me? I rejoice in these reminders that my health is not guaranteed, because it means I’m alive. Cancer taught me to appreciate the best and the worst of life; the worst sometimes being the more valuable experience.

After cancer, one battle ends and a new war starts. We’ve been dragged and burned through a nuclear war zone and then thrown back onto our trembling legs and told to run back into the world’s unfamiliar embrace. We stumble to recognize this new world we live in, where fear and worry are trivial words for which we no longer recognize their express meaning because they are now intrinsic to our character. We are made of fear, but we’ve internalized it so we can control its power within our conscious and rearrange where it dwells. We conquer fear and vanquish it to the attic in our minds until a small beam of sunlight illuminates its silhouette and exposes the curled up corners of a chilling satisfied smile veiled in the shadows. But we grin back, because when you’ve seen that menacing face, you’re no longer controlled by it. We control the beast. It no longer dictates us; we are free because death does not frighten us.

New beasts may inhabit the darkness: anxiety, depression, hopelessness; but their power is limited to the shackles we place on them. They are defeated in the acknowledgement of them and the ability to govern their size and influence. The moment you stop fearing death is when you can live unadulterated in your lust for life and be present to every raw emotion that unearths from the shadows.

That is where you find the confidence to finally write your own destiny.

This is where you learn to embrace your new post-cancer body and unlock the healing power contained within your mind. It’s how you learn to be the most enthusiastic girl in the world with a recurrent double ear infection and a throat that feels like I’ve swallowed a fucking razorblade.

So feed the beasts you want to grow: confidence, happiness, appreciation, love; in turn, this will starve the ones you wish to die.

 

 

7 Things I Wish I Knew Before Starting Chemo

Hands and feet in ice!

Chemo drunk is a feeling I can’t justly describe with words and adjectives.

I’ll take you back a bit: It’s December 21 and I’ve just finished my last chemo session at the hospital. I’m home, trying to have a conversation with my mom, but my eyes keep fixating on the velvet glow from a Yankee Candle. She says something funny and I laugh, a few seconds too late.

My mind is soupy and slow, like bisque that’s started to congeal. I hear words but my thoughts are lost in the emptiness of space. I meticulously toil over sentences, calculating each one through my head with the speed of an early edition fax machine. Something metallic catches my eye, the hardware on my mother’s purse, and now I’m hypnotized by how the silver reflects the flickering candle. It feels like my eyes are lost. They don’t know what to look toward, so they find light and drift to it drunkenly. My body is buzzing inside. I’m an old noisy refrigerator.

This feeling is nothing like alcohol intoxication. This is what it feels like to be dying. My cells, both good and bad, are being devoured as the poisonous cocktail of chemotherapy drugs flows through my veins. I’m being brought to the brink of death, just so I can rebuild. It’s war; destroy the enemy with brute force, but the victor suffers the casualties of battle as well.

You don’t want to be left wounded on the battlefield. Chemo is an experience we’re mostly unprepared to handle. My first few times were terrifying and I didn’t know what I was doing or what to expect. So, I’d like to share seven things I wish I had known about chemo before I started.

  1. You should drink so much water during chemo that you will feel like a water balloon. If you can’t drink water, try Gatorade, juice, or popsicles. I suggest you pack a lunch like you’re in third grade and your mom has just let you buy anything from the grocery store. Chemo is time-consuming and boring; knowing that you will have a few hours to sit around and eat whatever you want is something to look forward to.
  2. Ice your feet and toes! I’m shocked at how many hospitals don’t practice this method to prevent neuropathy. My infusion nurse would bring me two buckets of ice water and rubber gloves before chemo. I’d soak my hands/feet for one long, miserable hour during Taxotere (docetaxel) treatment. It’s not fun, but I never had any neuropathy or damage to my nails.
  3. You’re toxic. Your pee and saliva are toxic. The nurse will tell you that you need to flush the toilet at least twice and don’t share food or drinks with people.
  4. Chemo isn’t the only drug you’ll be getting. Steroids, antihistamines, anti-nausea and anti-anxiety drugs are just some of the usual pre-chemo meds. I took Emend (aprepitant), which is a three-day pack of pills that prevents nausea. I never threw up
  5. Dress warmly; hospitals are cold. Bring fuzzy socks or slippers for after your feet get an ice bath.
  6. If your hair falls out, it will start on the 14th day following chemo. And it kind of hurts. It felt like dull needles digging into my scalp. By the time I shaved my head, I just wanted it gone. I also was a little drunk (champagne), because I had a head-shaving party. … Which leads me to my last point. …
  7. You can still have a normal life. I had a party two weeks after my first chemo. I got drunk. I shaved my head. I cried. I sang Elton John songs with my friends until 3 a.m. I was alive. I was grateful. And I’m still alive because I never once let cancer or chemo stop me from living. You’re going to be fine. Drink the martini. Buy the fancy shoes. Keep on living your life, but with a tad more moxie.

My Love-Hate Relationship with Social Media

It’s 8:47 p.m. on a Monday. I flip open my personal laptop and the bright screen practically blinds my eyes in the evening light. Annoyed, I dim the screen’s light and go to Facebook. To be honest, I loathe Facebook, but I feel obligated to give it a brief scan to make sure I haven’t missed anything important like National Chicken & Waffles Day.

One headline jumps out at me. My heart starts beating steadily faster and I can’t decide if I’m going to cry or throw my laptop off the balcony. The post says that cancer isn’t real. Cancer is actually caused by a vitamin deficiency and is a government hoax. Vitamins. Well, Holy Shit Balls, I guess the answer has been under our noses all along?

The sins of social media are flourishing in an already credulous time. I’ve considered taking a break from it recently; it’s just all too much. I’ve seen people with GoFundMe links asking for money who will also post photos with their $4,000 handbag casually in the background. I’ve seen spineless comments made on Facebook that cancer is population control and we shouldn’t fight it. The lies, the negativity, the advertisements, the duck lips. And WE ALL DO IT, in some way or another. I don’t post an ugly picture of myself because I don’t want people to think I’m ugly. However, I DID look ugly in that photo. It’s social manipulation.

I try to project honesty through my social media, but I’m not always straightforward. I’m not as strong or healthy as I portray myself. I’m not as witty in person — I’m better at writing than I am at speaking. Social media is amazing, but lately, I find it leaving me emotionally exhausted. Why do I keep doing it?

I check my phone probably 80 times a day. I rapidly double-tap my screen on as many cancer survivor’s Instagram photos as I can. I make comments, responses, hearts. As I was clicking through my phone on Monday, I decided to check up on a young breast cancer friend whom I hadn’t seen post in a while. I searched for her name and looked at her Instagram. She died one month ago. My heart feels like broken glass scraping through my chest.

Those moments are the worst aspects of social media, but also the most honest, unadulterated ones. Because, I had never met her, but I felt so connected with her and some of these women that it doesn’t matter. We share an intangible bond that was manifested through the internet, with people we’ve never physically met. This is the pure, beautiful part of social media that keeps me encouraged. The relationships we build with other kindred souls is what gives meaning to life.

It doesn’t matter if your relationships are made through social media or real life. They don’t need to be defined by anything other than their value, because physical proximity is increasingly invalid in a globally connected world. Cultivate the ones you care about and spread virtue.

We tend to sit behind our glowing screens and become separate, and sometimes worse, versions of ourselves. As children, we’re taught to think before we speak. But today, we need to think before we post. To the people out there who spam me with unsubstantiated articles that cancer is fake, I invite you to come to Florida and tell me that cancer isn’t real to my face. I’ll take you on a field trip to the oncology wing of my hospital.

Social media is a blessing and a curse, but I’m challenging myself to live with less of it and with more integrity. Last weekend, I had so much fun going on adventures with my friends that I forgot to take any pictures! I encourage you to do the same this holiday weekend, because I’m going to wear a unicorn costume and light fireworks off the roof and not take a single picture. When it’s not on social media, you’ll never know if it really happened.

P.S. Put your phone down and go outside. Namaste.

Why You Should Never Ignore Your Intuition

I’m sitting in a dimly lit massage room, waiting for the masseuse to come back. A large clap of thunder explodes outside as the lights start to flicker between varying degrees of brightness. Aren’t massages supposed to be Zen, relaxing? This feels like the start of a horror movie. Oh God. How do I leave a note for somebody to please relocate my body to a dressing room at Neiman Marcus instead of the Massage Envy in a shopping center?

My thoughts are interrupted when the door opens. It’s the masseuse lady; she’s holding an iPad, reading over my health questionnaire I filled out moments ago. She has a slightly puzzled, sad look on her face as she reads about my colorful life as told by yes/no/fill-in-the-blank questions. It’s the same look I always get when people see that I had cancer: long puppy dog face.

I smile in an attempt to disrupt this pity party. “Yeah I had breast cancer, I’m fine now. Do you have one of those boob-pillow things? I can’t lay on my stomach very easily with these foobies.” The conversations that follow are predictable. The first question is almost always: “How did you know you had cancer?” Well, I didn’t know. I think that people ask me that because there is a preconceived notion that breast cancer makes you feel sick or it hurts. Like when you know you have a cold because you’re coughing and sneezing. Anna says she assumed that cancer made you feel sick, and that it mainly only happened to older, unhealthy people. Right now, take all those ideas you may have about who gets cancer and bury them. Let them be as dead as Juicy Couture tracksuits.

For two years I unknowingly had cancer. It was 2013 when I discovered that pea-sized lump. I sat paralyzed on the couch, Googling breast cancer for hours as waves of fear washed over me and made my body numb with anxiety. My intuition immediately told me I had cancer. I begged my gynecologist to squeeze me in for a sonogram. After the breast sonogram, I got a call from a very chipper woman “There’s nothing there, you got all worried about nothing!” Her voice was filled with phony enthusiasm, like saccharin and crushed Prozac. But I craved those reassuring words so much that I swallowed every promise she told me and buried the fear deep inside. After my second sonogram 6 months later, and again at 12 months I was told “You’re fine!” Did she really think I was fine, or did she just brush me off as a 28-year old hypochondriac? Was I crazy to question her about why a non-cancerous tumor was getting bigger? Why didn’t she recommend a biopsy? We trust these people with our lives, but in reality they don’t enjoy unearthing bad news just as much as we don’t enjoy hearing it. Maybe that’s why she didn’t dig, and neither did I. I now realize that a framed piece of paper saying that someone is a doctor will never trump a gut intuition.

Finally, I went to a different doctor who biopsied the lump, and well, you know the rest. I guess I had to grow a backbone and stand up for my intuition. It was either that, or start digging myself a grave. I could have buried my head in the sand, and listened to my doctors who all told me that I couldn’t get breast cancer because I was too young, too healthy, and had no family history of the disease. I’m not saying don’t listen to your doctor; I’m saying listen to yourself first and foremost and find a doctor who agrees.

I’m sure I’ll still get asked all of those questions a thousand times more, and I’m happy to answer them. But please educate yourself on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer. It could just save your life.

Namaste, ladies.