Cancer Lesson #74: Happy to Be Here. Happy to Have Hair.

Cancer Lesson #74: Happy to be here. Happy to have Hair.

I find it hard to believe it’s been three and a half years since my last chemo. How could I have had surgery and treatment for cancer, and managed to emerge with a normal life once more?

It boggles my mind.

It’s a new kind of normal, of course. Though they’ve faded, I have scars to rival Frankenstein’s, and — like others who have gone through a bodily trauma — aches and pains I never had before.

For nearly a year, my chemo curls rowdily rioted around my face like the aftermath of a bad perm.

But I’m back to playing soccer, and last year I did a bike tour. I’ve also been known to attempt a cartwheel, usually in an ill-conceived fit of whimsy. The last one ended with me plopped on my bottom, but never mind.

Clearly neither my tumbling nor my soccer skills will ever win me a place on an Olympic team. And there are granddads (plenty of them) who zoom past me whenever I ride my bike.

The point is no one know if I’d ever be able to do any of these activities again, and I can.

That’s worth a cartwheel.

Having survived cancer, I know everything else is gravy. The icing on the cake. The cherry on the – well, you get the idea.

Being alive is a miracle, and I developed a mantra to remind me of that fact.

“Happy to be here. Happy to have hair.” I say it whenever I start to stress over something stupid. Sure, it’s not the most sophisticated phrasing, and maybe I sound a little silly.

I say it anyway because I know I’m one of the lucky ones.

I’m still here.

“Happy to be here. Happy to have hair.” I say it in memory of those who are not.

Take a moment to think of them. And take some time to enjoy the life’s extras too – the gravy, the icing, and the cherry on that sundae.

I do. Especially the sundaes.

Cancer Lesson #73: Being Treated for Breast Cancer Expands Your Undergarment Wardrobe.

Cancer Lesson #73: Being treated for breast cancer expands your undergarment wardrobe.

Sorry, guys. I’m not talking Victoria’s Secret. Think Bridget Jones’s granny panties.

You see, while having tissue relocated from stomach to chest leaves a flatter stomach (Yay!), it also weakens the abdominal muscles (Boo!)

Hence, the temporary need for support knickers, aka “granny panties.”

For several weeks – or was it months? – these lovely undies were accessorized by a cotton contrivance of a brassiere with thick straps and Velcro closures. Sexy, this bra was not.

For a long time, even wearing a sports bra was painful because of my scars so I resorted to camisoles, and not the alluring lacy ones the word calls to mind. Mine were more like tank tops with lycra. Not bad, but definitely not the come-hither attire of a siren.

Then I had my “reconstruction revision procedure.” How’s that for a medical euphemism? (See Cancer Lesson #43 “A Glossary” for more and #57 “Sets Don’t Have to Match” to add to your breast vocabulary.)

Happily, the anesthesiologist knocked me out for the procedure. Unhappily, I work up wearing yet another surgical bra.

Sigh. I put on my big girl panties and got on with it.

Addendum: I would be remiss if I closed without sharing a link to “Otto Titsling” sung by Bette Midler. If you’ve never heard this paean to the subject of female support, click through and enjoy.

Cancer Lesson #72: Don’t Ignore the Lump.

Cancer Lesson #72: Don’t ignore the lump.

Each year when I go for my annual mammogram, I get a little nervous. Some breast cancer survivors find follow-up tests very distressing, but I always feel better after being checked. Ignoring a problem rarely makes it go away, especially when that problem is cancer.

If you’ve had breast cancer, you know people like to share their own close calls.

“I had a lump once,” they’ll say. “I was really worried, but it turned out to be nothing.”

Those are the good stories.

We also hear the other, not good stories. At least one person has told me “If I’d gone to the doctor when I first found my lump, my cancer wouldn’t have been so advanced by the time it was treated.”

The most heartbreaking of all was the man who said, “If my wife had gone to the doctor right away, she’d probably still be alive.”

You may be thinking I made that last one up.

I wish you were right.

So, here’s Cancer Lesson #72, repeated because it’s so important: Don’t ignore the lump, no matter where it is or how small.

If I’d ignored mine, I’d still have cancer, just more widespread and, oh yeah, more likely to kill me.

Thanks. I’ll take that mammogram.

Cancer Lesson #71: Cancer Makes You a Bad Risk

Cancer Lesson #71: Cancer makes you a bad risk.

I’m a bad risk.

I know because Metropolitan Life Insurance sent me a letter telling me so. It seems they “…considered carefully the Statement of Health … submitted requesting Dependent Life benefits” and “…find it necessary to decline the request for coverage at this time because of a history of breast cancer.”

Well. Beneath all the wordiness and unnecessarily capitalized words lurks a bluntness that took me by surprise.

To be honest, I expected them to turn me down, having long suspected insurance policies are a like mortgages – in order to get one, you must prove you don’t need it.

I’m sure their decision is backed up with statistics galore, but what do they know?

No one can predict who will get cancer or if it will return.

Not even MetLife.

Cancer Lesson #70: Staying on Track

Cancer Lesson #70: Staying on track

In April 2011, I wrote a poem about preparing for surgery (Lesson #23), which read in part, “This engine’s going to switch its track.”

The railroad analogy has held true and remains the best way I can describe what it felt like to learn I had cancer.

I’d been chugging along on my chosen track, taking in the sights, when BAM! I was shifted to an alternate route into Cancerworld.

Six months later, chemo – and my time on the siding – ended. I rejoined the “main line,” choosing a slower route with better scenery.

The new route included more stops, sometimes at smaller stations along the way and sometimes in the middle of nowhere, when I was too exhausted to go any further.

In short, there were times I became the little engine that couldn’t.

I’m sure you remember that book: Watty Piper’s classic The Little Engine that Could. If you’re my age or older, you probably read it as a “Little Golden Book,” but it’s published in hardback too.

The little engine’s mantra of “I think I can, I think I can” is a great philosophy, one that had always worked in the past. And yet, in that first year after chemo, there were times it didn’t matter how hard I thought I could. I couldn’t because I was just too damned tired.

I’d been warned recovery would be slow, but somehow I thought my train would be, I don’t know, ahead of the curve.

Tomorrow it will be four years since my surgery, and these days I occasionally find myself taking the easy route, even when I think I can – I know I can – manage the hilly one.

This is a change. After surgery and chemo I spent two years testing myself, trying to figure out what I could still do, but I no longer feel I have anything to prove.

Instead, I’ve begun to understand that we will all die with some goals unaccomplished.

It’s up to us to decide which ones to let go now and which to continue to strive for.


Cancer Lesson #69: How to Celebrate Your Cancerversary

Cancer Lesson #69: How to Celebrate Your Cancerversary

Question: How should you celebrate your cancerversary?

Short answer: Any damned way you want to.

Four years ago today I drove home from the hospital trying to fit my emotions and thoughts around the new reality that I had breast cancer.

It was a beautiful sunny spring day, and I kept thinking I should be crying or screaming or raging against an unfair God.

But all I could think was, “I won’t be able to be captain of our soccer team this year. I’ll need to get Maggie or Carol to do it.”

Then I had to figure out how to tell my family. I ended up breaking the news to The Engineer over the phone because he couldn’t understand why he needed to come straight home.

We waited a few days to tell Darling Daughter. She’d just gotten her driver’s license the night before, and that’s such a milestone; I couldn’t bear to ruin it for her any sooner than necessary.

In retrospect, I see now that having cancer changed me, but not in a way I can easily explain. It’s a part of me, and always will be, perhaps not physically (please God) but in my attitude toward life.

The closest thing I can compare it to is parenthood. Everyone tells you what it’s like to have children, but it’s only after you have your own that you begin to realize what they meant.

I understand in a way I never did before that life is finite. We are only blessed with a certain number of days on this earth. I try to remember that, even when things don’t go the way I planned.

All I can do – all anyone can do – is the best I can with what I’ve got in my little corner of the world.

As Mahatma Ghandi said, “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

Another quote that speaks to me about this concept is Margaret Mead’s: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”

I am blessed to still be here, and for that I remain grateful.

And I am humbled to remember the others who fought this disease and suffered so greatly without that reward.

So, how did I celebrate my cancerversary this year? I worked, then went to the dentist and back to work. In between, I fit in several phone calls to two banks that managed to transfer $5000 instead of $50 between our accounts.

It’s been a good day.

Question: How should you celebrate your cancerversary?

Long Answer: Any damned way you want to.

Cancer Lesson #68: Always Looking Forward

Cancer Lesson #68: Always Looking Forward

Ten months after being diagnosed, I took my first exercise class after surgery and chemo. <cue the applause>

I wasn’t sure how I’d do. I’ve always been blessed with a nature flexibility, but cut muscles and scar tissue take their toll. My body didn’t move like before. (It still doesn’t.)

There were certain poses I knew I wasn’t ready for. But I also knew I’d never be ready for them if I didn’t try.

So if my plank looked more like downward facing dog, it didn’t matter. It was heaven to discover I could move in some of the ways I had before.

The best was the warrior pose – “Always looking forward” as my teacher describes it.

Her words felt like a benediction because once you’ve had a serious illness, your body never returns to how it was.

We can only move toward the future, eyes forward, like the warrior.

Cancer was an unplanned detour that changed me forever, and yet I’m still the same person I was, with many of the same goals.

I move forward to accomplish those I can while I am still here. Paying attention to my spiritual and bodily needs is part of that, as it should be for everyone, cancer survivor or not.

And so, gentle readers, I close this post as in all yoga classes.

Namaste. (The light within me salutes the light within you.)