It’s like it never happened

The other day, the gal in the grocery store asked me how I was. It was an innocuous question really, something we ask one another every day without a thought. Then she followed it up with, “How are you feeling?” I knew from the look in her eyes exactly what she was asking me, and without a thought I said, “It’s like it never happened.”

Even I was surprised by that answer. Is that really true? All my inner voices, the ones at the ready  to criticize, applaud, caution or encourage, were on the verge of crying, “foul!” So, I had no choice but to look at it. Why had I chosen those words so cavalierly?

A lot goes into cancer treatment. Mine was breast cancer, yours (or someone you know) may be something else. Regardless, as I’ve mentioned throughout the years I’ve been writing this blog, the physical treatment is only one component of recovery. It is the mental and emotional healing that is critical to popping out the other side with some semblance of wholeness. So here goes, my attempt at why I say, it’s like it never happened.

I’m happy. Nothing beats being happy. I laugh a lot. Nothing beats laughing. Real laughter, the kind that rolls out effortlessly and won’t stop. Where your belly aches from it, but you don’t care. Good, hearty laughter, the kind that if we all did it at the same time we could shake the earth off its axis. (I have my best friend, Heather, to thank for this.)

I feel whole. I may not have breasts, but I don’t notice, and since I don’t notice it, no one else does. I’ve long felt that it is the energy we put into something that draws attention to it. If I was concerned about my now less-than-buxom physique, others would pick up on it and start to look, maybe not even at my chest, but at me, wondering what the energy was all about. I would assume they were looking at my breasts, or lack thereof. Do you see where I’m going with this? By being self-conscious, we create the attention and attract what we are most concerned about. I say, “Devil may care!” Revel in the beauty that is your body. It houses you and lets you experience the world in a myriad of ways – sight, smell, taste, sound, touch. It’s going to get a little banged up and worn carting you through all your adventures. Revel in the things your body has let you experience!

I don’t sweat the small stuff. Or even the medium stuff. It’s not healthy. All that negative energy over what? Let’s face it, most of the things we get all torqued up about are silly. There’s a dish in the sink, there’s a crumb on the floor, the person ahead of me on the road is driving too slowly, someone passed me going too fast, a child is crying in the store, the group at the  table next to mine is talking too loudly, and on and on and on. They are not life threatening, but we escalate them to blood-boiling irritations so that the next inconsequential thing that comes along, like your spouse leaves a sock on the floor, and whammo! The volcano blows. I no longer sweat the small stuff. I’ve learned that all that anger and stress over the little stuff is only hurting me.

I’m healthy. Sure, I have the usual aches and pains that a 56-year-old body has, which may or may not be due to the anastrazole, but I’m healthy. I’m physically active, mentally alert and still a handful. No complaints here.

What has changed is my quality of life. I have finally learned to feel comfortable in my own skin. My life is richer and fuller than ever before. I spend more time enriching myself and less time toiling. I have a powerful creative streak that has spent a lot of time on a back burner and is now front and center. Writing, painting, photography, beading, … you name it, I’m dabbling. There is something enormously fulfilling about expressing oneself through art.

So there you have it. It happened. Whether it’s like it never happened or not, well, that’s a whole lot of minutia. I’d rather paint.

Why you need a sacred space

I never really understood the big deal behind sacred space. When I did my yoga training, the teacher recommended we each build personal alters. I dutifully searched the internet to find examples of what mine should look like, completely missing the point. Flummoxed, I never did it. Even if I had built one, then what? The truth of the matter was, I had no idea what to do with an alter or how to create a sacred space. Then I got cancer.

It’s interesting who you turn to and what you do when your head is spinning and you need something solid to hold onto. Me, I turned to the most capable person I know, someone I trusted and knew I could rely on. I turned to me. And what I needed at that point to be able to function was to clear my head. I needed a sacred space. So, I built an alter.

An alter need not be fancy, or perfect. Mine is a low table, like for eating breakfast in bed. It sits on the floor in front of the picture window in our yoga room so I can sit cross-legged in front of it and enjoy the outdoors. The birds flit around the plants outside that window, and there is a hawk that uses the light pole as a lookout for his next move. It is an actively serene spot, one where life happens right outside and I can be an unobtrusive observer. It mimics what happens during meditation.

My altar-top is garnished with special objects that encourage feelings of comfort and safety. The unity candle from my wedding (what better day will there ever be than the day I said “I do” to my angel, Ken), a photo of my father and I, photos of Ken and I taken in a photo booth while we were dating, and a shallow bowl of stones I have collected from beaches and riverbanks with a beeswax tealight set in the center. When I sit with these items, the flame of the candle flickering over them, I am taken back to a simpler time, purer time, before-cancer time.

I meditate in front of my alter. It holds an energy that warms my body and connects me to the universe in ways that other places do not, can not. I don’t know the science behind it, nor do I care. There was a time when I would have analyzed the heck out of it, the psychology and physiology of it, but in reality the power of the mind, body and spirit combined transcend what we understand about ourselves at this stage of our existence, and so some things I just accept as knowing. I don’t need to go on faith on this one. I need only meditate in the glow of the candlelight.

In reality, we are our own sacred space. Even if we don’t feel like we are, deep down inside is still that kernel of untouchable truth, the divinity within each of us. I realized early on that my job was to nurture and grow that small, neglected part of myself; to fan the small ember to a roaring flame that can withstand the howling winds of life.

As I grow stronger, with cancer treatment behind me and the day-to-day business of living at hand, it is becoming all too easy to neglect my tiny altar. Truth be told, I need more, a larger space to call my own, a place where my inner flame can explore at will. And so I am creating a new sacred space, a place where I can write, paint, think, be. In it I am surrounding myself with objects that have influenced my life and nurtured my soul. It is a combination of the ordered structure of office and the chaotic melee of creativity. It is me.

I still have my tiny altar as well. It is where I dig deep, connect to the elusive inner me that often scuttles ahead of my understanding in an esoteric game of cat-and-mouse. I think it is time to change out some of the objects, or add others to the clutter. Maybe the new photo booth strip taken during chemotherapy? My bald head glowing like the alien girl in the movie, Cocoon. Those were special times. Sometimes, all it takes is a quiet moment of reflection with a favorite photo to realize that. One day, today will be one of those special times, a memory I look back upon with fondness. Why wait? I think I will start relishing this moment today.

Skeletons in the closet

Lately I have been plagued by bouts of anxiety. Normally it wouldn’t bother me, I think a twinge of anxiety is healthy when triggered by something appropriate. Public speaking – makes me anxious; meeting new people – yes, mildly anxiety inducing; crossing paths with someone who is combative and prone to attack –  yup, makes me anxious. When things are going well – nope, not supposed to make me anxious; and yet as of late it does. It’s like the emotion has gone rogue.

And why does it have to be so darn sneaky? Sure, there are the warning signs – the vibrations in my nerves, like the shuddering surface of a puddle from the footfalls of a large beast in the distance, that tell me something scary is coming my way; or the tension across my shoulders, subtle and barely perceptible against the tightness starting in my chest. You know the kind, when you want to take a deep breath for no apparent reason other than you suddenly need to. I usually try to ignore these signs, giving them a courteous nod of acknowledgment and dismissing them as non-existent, like I wish they were, instead of being my own personal Paul Revere, warning me that “anxiety is coming, anxiety is coming!”

Thinking back, I don’t recall ever having had an actual full-blown, stop-me-in-my tracks, anxiety attack. If I did, or started to, I’m sure I dealt with it much the same way as I dealt with all emotions I had no use for over the years, by relegating it to a closet in the deep recesses of my psyche and entrusting the key to a gatekeeper, to lose. Then came breast cancer.

A funny thing happened when I got breast cancer. It seems all my trusty gatekeepers who had so adeptly kept me and those pesky unpleasant emotions from crossing paths took me at my word and flung open all my closet doors, then abandoned ship, or body, as the case may be, and headed for cover.

I suppose I brought it upon myself (lest you think that on top of dealing with breast cancer you will have to deal with all sorts of buried emotions bursting free as well). After I was diagnosed, I went on an emotional spring cleaning to root out any issues that may have been poisoning my body from the inside out. It was exciting to rummage around in my deep, dusty internal closets and see what unpleasantness lurked there. If healing meant inviting back from the depths the parts of myself I had previously exiled there, then so be it. Every unpleasant, embarrassing, hurtful memory and event, inflicted on me and I inflicted on others, that tumbled out; I welcomed with open arms. I won’t say it was all fun, but it was necessary.

It’s funny what you forget, or remember, as the case may be; which events still hold a punch and which ones have faded to a dull gray, mere shadows of their former selves. Some are easily reinvigorated by current reactions, others resist reanimation no matter how much poking or prodding is proffered their way. I am proud of myself on this front; I did the work, turning over stones and staring old wounds in the face. I won’t say we all hugged and parted friends, but we did come to an understanding and let bygones be bygones.

Then came the actual emotions, the ones I didn’t care to feel. Out they tumbled and I had to learn how to incorporate them into my life in a healthy way. That’s not to say I have lived my life with no emotions, I was more like a painter working with a limited range of colors, limiting my expression to the bright, happy colors and never using the sadder tones. I’m not sure where anxiety falls on the spectrum, as an emotion or color, but currently we are off to a rocky start, because anxiety is sneaky.

I still have never had an actual anxiety attack; this feels more like a cat toying with a mouse. It always happens when I’m happy, usually embarking on a new adventure of expression or creativity. When I’m just about done with whatever it is I’m bringing to life, excited about this new untapped mode of expression, I start to feel this panicky sensation. Then Paul Revere makes his ride.

If I think about it, these anxiety flareups began when I started going to the Orlando Health Community Clubhouse to make earrings for cancer patients. Once a week, patients and caregivers get together to make earrings that are then offered free to Orlando Health cancer patients. It’s a keep-one-donate-one activity.  It’s quite fun, and very relaxing, to let the earrings come to life, born of my imagination and creativity.  They have easily over one hundred types of beads of all sizes, shapes, patterns and materials to choose from. It’s a closet creative’s dream come true! The first week I made two pairs, then the second week, six pairs. I loved them all, so it was hard to pick one pair to keep. Technically, it is keep one-donate-one, and technically I’m a cancer patient there so I can take free earrings anyway, but the point for me is also to give back, so I just choose one pair no matter how many I make.

Back to that sneak, anxiety. Sure, I know a bunch of tools to stave off anxiety – exercise, yoga, meditation, breath awareness – but the thing with me is, I need to know why. Why now, when the hard part is over? Chemotherapy, surgery and radiation is behind me. Why now, when I’m healthy and happy? I’m engaging in new activities, exploring different creative outlets, connecting with myself in new ways …

Oh, darn.

I suppose that says something about me, that a year plus of cancer tests and treatments didn’t elicit an anxiety attack, but a little creative expression reduces me to a squeak toy for an imaginary monster. And so more work begins, the exploration into why a little carefree, creative fun has me leery of shadows. Truth be told, the real boogy man, cancer, has already been vanquished by my knights in shining armor at Orlando Health.



Happy Valentine’s Day, my love

I often gush about my husband, Ken. Why not? He is one-in-a-billion and worth gushing over. He is my best friend, my soul mate, my twin flame, my lover. He is kind, strong, chivalrous and funny. He is everything a husband could be, everything a man should be, everything I could ever ask for.

Our love story is not unique. We met in a grocery store (the Publix at the corner of Congress and Gateway in Boynton Beach, FL, to be exact). It isn’t there any more, it moved across the street, but our love endures. Every now and then we make the trek back and have dinner at the restaurant where we had our first date (Park Avenue BBQ Grill, on the same corner, but across the street from where the Publix was). The food is still good and the memories still flood back. It was a magical night. It was the first day of the rest of my life.

So, here I am, thirteen Valentine’s Days later, still madly in love. I won’t say the road has been easy, but it has always been worth it. I have navigated life’s sorrows crying on Ken’s shoulder and life’s joys with him cheering me on. When I lost my cat, Heidi, my best friend of 17-years, he was there, sharing my sorrow and listening to my pain. Six months later, when the pain would burble back up and the tears would come again, he would hold me and make it alright, as if crying for six months because a cat died was perfectly normal.

When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was there. If he cried, it was not in front of me. For me, he was protector, cheerleader, caregiver and support system. He went to every doctors appointment, test and treatment. He asked questions that I overlooked and was involved in the decision making process every step of the way, while making sure I felt like the decisions were mine alone. And, no matter how tired he was, he stayed up late into the night, holding my hand and letting me talk, knowing how important it was that I get it all out.

Amidst all of that were endless evenings of theater and concerts. I never heard him turn down an opportunity to experience something new. He learned yoga and meditation with me, and even agreed to go to a yoga retreat for our honeymoon. Yes, he is one-in-a-billion, my husband, possibly even one-in-a-trillion.

I’d like to think I have been there for him too, when his father died, for his hand surgery, when he left his job to start his own business, but this isn’t about me. It’s about Ken, my husband. He is perfect to me, mostly because he is perfect for me. That’s what it is all about, isn’t it? Finding that person who is perfect to you and for you in every way? And so it is for me, on Valentine’s Day and every day. I get to spend each and every day with the most amazing man on the planet, to me. I love you, Ken, today and every day. Thank you for encouraging me to be me, in all my crazy glory.





Oh, what a glorious morning

Some days it’s hard to feel grateful. Why is that? My life has not changed dramatically since yesterday. Granted, today is Sunday, which makes tomorrow Monday, as opposed to yesterday, which was Saturday with the promise of Sunday still on the horizon. I enjoy my job and do not have Monday doldrums, so the days of the week should not matter. Sure, I’d rather stay home and putter around the house any given day of the week, but my husband goes to work so it would be lackluster puttering at best. It’s always more fun when he’s around. We don’t have to be doing the same thing, or even be in the same room. Having his warm presence permeating the house is enough. The same with my kitty. Knowing she is sleeping somewhere in the house, her face free of fear or concern, is enough for me.

And so it is with gratitude. It is a see-saw ride, as I suspect it is with you. Some days I am bursting with thanks for all the blessings in my life, big and small. They parade before me in a conga line of blissful thoughts, each taking their bow in turn as I shower  them with thanks. I couldn’t forget about them if I tried. Other days, a milky cloud moves in and obscures the obvious, leaving me to flounder for even one grateful reflection. Like happiness, gratitude is not a given in life. It has to be worked at. Feeling grateful is as much an effort as not feeling grateful, so when gratitude eludes me, I make the effort to give the see-saw a push, back to a place where gratitude comes more naturally.

An easy path to gratitude for me is to look back over my adventure with breast cancer. I survived! Surviving breast cancer treatment comes to mind more often than one would think. There are dozens of ways that adventure could have gone south, and that’s before even taking cancer into account. I went through chemotherapy, a double mastectomy and radiation therapy, and I’m still standing. I’m very, very, super, uber grateful for that.

Then there’s me in the aftermath. I feel great and I look pretty darn good flat. I feel comfortable, natural, attractive. My husband finds me attractive. I am the love of his life, as he is mine. No physical blemish can diminish that for either of us. I’m pretty darn grateful for that, too.

Then there are clouds. What is life without a peek at the clouds from time to time? They sashay across the sky in a Rorschach test of white blobs. If there is ever a way to turn the tide of gloom, it’s a session with the sky. No matter what the outcome, delving into my psyche to chase the meaning of fluffy cloud images is always a hoot of a time. I’ve seen a menagerie of animals parade across the Florida sky over my backyard, as well as the occasional knight, gnome and super hero, and they always leave me with a grin on my face and joy in my soul.

Bird songs are another fan favorite for me for seeking gratitude. The nuances of the songs bandied back and forth pull me out of myself, switching my attention from somber internal notes to the flighty whimsy of my feathered neighbors. I wonder what they say with their happy songs? Are they looking for a mate, sharing information on a tasty treat, or maybe just celebrating the day? I think they celebrate the day more than we think. They open their eyes to the rising sun, maybe the warm rays on their feathers nudging them awake, and burst into song, the bird version of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.” It’s hard not to sing right along with them!

Then again, I’m a morning person. My husband stares in wonder at the stars! They don’t move me the same way, but I’m learning. Maybe it’s because I like the here and now and the twinkle of the star I see happened thousand of years ago, or longer. I know, I am seeing the light now, but somehow to me it doesn’t quite feel like the present moment.

So, here’s an interesting notion, I actually burst into being in the past just like the star. We are both a culmination of the events that got us here, to this point in time, when the pinpoint of light that is the star completed its billions-of-mile journey taking thousands of years and I completed the 56-year of my life journey and decided (realistically, at the urging of my husband) to tip my chin up to gaze at the stars, and we met, that star and I.

When I put it that way, it is pretty darn cool. I guess it’s time  to spend some time outside at night and expand my gratitude horizon. It is just an attitude, you know. What you are not grateful for today you can turn into a blessing with just a thought. Give it a try. For example, I’m grateful, in many ways, for my breast cancer. I have grown more as a person, become a better wife, friend and daughter, and learned to appreciate the gifts in my life more as a result of a disease I chose to call an adventure, and that is one heck of a thing to be grateful for. Now it’s your turn. Turn your lemons into lemonade!

One velvety paw

My cat has developed a new routine. Yes, she still sleeps with me, curled in the crook of my arm so she can take full advantage of my body heat and a free hand to methodically stroke her until she drifts off to sleep on a cloud of kitty ecstasy. I know this because, in return, I get to fall asleep to her rhythmic purring. She sneaks away some time in the night to do whatever it is that cats do in the middle of the night (no doubt up to no good. As most adults will attest, nothing good happens after midnight.) She comes back around 5:30 am, before the alarm goes off, which she is not a fan of, to check up on me and get in some last minute loving. Normally she just barges in, leaping onto the bed with gymnastic-quality aplomb and then sauntering about, on the bed and on me, until I wake up. As of late she has adopted a new tactic. She leaps onto the bed (same gymnastic-quality aplomb), then makes her way carefully to my head and sits down to study me for a while.

There is something about the feline gaze, the laser focus of intent in their eyes can effortlessly reach into the depths of your brain and soul and will you awake. It is as if they have reached into your brain and flicked your on switch. It’s not a jarring awakening, at least not for me, but rather a sudden realization that I’ve been summoned. Then, once I’m awake, she places one velvety paw on my shoulder as if to say, it will be alright.

One velvety paw. There is so much packed into that simple gesture, yet I really have no clue what she is trying to tell me. I did turn to the internet and a quick search revealed that touching with a paw is a sign of affection for cats. Then again, so is head butting. It feels like a kitty catch-all to me; if your cat isn’t pissed off, it must be affection. No, I think it’s something else, I’m just not sure what.

And so it is with relationships. When two people speak the same language it is complicated; when you speak different languages and one of you is a cat, the difficult-0-meter goes off the charts. Imagine, though, a relationship where logically you should both be perfectly in sync, yet for the most part you are nearly always clueless. And so it is with me and my body. I think I know what’s going on, what will inch me back to peak health and what will send me astray, but I really don’t. What worked before cancer doesn’t work now, and foods I would never have considered eating before are main staples now. Its all catywampus. I can’t help but frown at how foreign my own body is to me, what makes it tick, sends it off kilter. The reality, though, is we live in an ecosystem (our body) that exists in an ecosystem (the earth) that resides in the universe, and anywhere in all that something can happen to throw all the rest off kilter and change the rules. I mean really change the rules.

And so it goes. Breast cancer was a game changer; two bouts of flu (albeit mild ones) in as many months is also a game changer. The paradigm I once lived in is gone. It died a slow, agonizing, horrible death (okay, I was depressed for half a day). Things change, and so I must continue to change with  them. Like the proverbial tree in the wind, I must learn to bend (even more) and sway (even more) as each new challenge presents itself, leaving whatever bag of tricks and home-spun users guide I was using behind in favor of fresh ideas and a new normal.

Ah, I sound tired even to myself. Maybe it is post-flu malaise. One velvety paw; sometimes that is all we need. One brief touch of reassurance. Cats are rarely wrong, at least not my cat, and this time I’m sure she is right. It will be alright. It will continue to be an adventure, for sure, but it will definitely be alright.

Letting go of fear

I had my six-month follow up visit with my radiation oncologist last week. Its hard to believe that it has been six months since my last radiation treatment, which means it has been ten months since my last chemotherapy treatment. I got the “all clear” yesterday, but it felt hollow. The follow up for double mastectomy patients seems too simplistic, too fraught with the potential for error. Really, all he did was ask me how I felt and then palpate (fancy word for knead and poke) at my chest and underarm, looking for irregularities, sore spots, anything that could mean something nefarious. It’s hard to tell, at least for me, although he seemed very sure, that its all clear.

My left underarm is a mass of dense scar tissue, which at any given moment is in various stages of being sore (due to my vigorous stretching) and being lumpy (due to it trying to bind up again). I do my own self-check every couple of weeks, but all I feel is dense, lumpy tissue. My oncologist, Dr. Rostorfer, gave me a tutorial on what scar tissue feels like the last time I saw him. I would point out what I thought felt like possible lumps in the dense tissue and he would shoot it down, telling me its just scarring, that it felt perfectly normal. Not ideal by any means, but it helped. Now I no longer get a clenching in my stomach when I knead at my scarring. The truth is, it all feels the same, like a shifting, fibrous area of healing-tearing-then-healing scar tissue. Perfectly normal, and so, all clear.

The most frightening part of a breast cancer diagnosis, and I suspect any cancer diagnosis, is the unknown. You spend months (at least I did) getting tested to narrow down  the scope of the cancer, all with no definitive answers. Then you spend months in treatment (chemotherapy in my case) hoping the cancer will respond, with no definitive answers. Then you have surgery, where you get some answers, but as it was in my case, the caveat of door number three, behind which there are more questions than answers. Then more treatment (radiation), after which you are put on a wait-check-and-see protocol to make sure nothing appears again. So now, after the frightening part of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment has subsided and is a thing of the past and the happy-go-lucky giddiness of treatment-free days is waving it’s hand frantically in the air for a turn, the new frightening thing about breast cancer is waiting to see if it comes back.

To me, fear is like playing a rigged game of Jumanji. No matter what you do, your situation is destined to keep getting worse. I say, let it go. Fear can be paralytic, stymieing your every move until your world gets smaller and smaller and all the pleasure is sucked out of life.  Yes, sometimes bad things happen, but a lot more often they don’t. For every horrible end result I can think of (and trust me, I can think of A LOT), there are exponentially more good outcomes to the same scenario. In the end, you just have to trust that it is not your time yet; you just have to let it all go.

And so it is with breast cancer follow up. For someone who has lived her life being afraid of everything and trying to mitigate and control the outcome of every scenario (its safer that way), that was one tough lesson. I spent the first 55 years of my life being afraid of what horrible thing could befall me in the course of everyday activities, and yet here I sit, staring in the lion’s mouth, day-in-and-day out, and I’m not afraid at all. When I look back at the lifetime I spent not doing things because of the specter of fear that hovered over me, tapping me on the shoulder to point out all the darkest possibilities of life that could befall me, I shake my head at the pointlessness of it all.

Yes, that’s right, the pointlessness of it. Whenever we act out of fear, the outcome is pointless. There was a time when fear served its purpose, when it kept us from becoming dinner for something higher on the food chain, but no more. Now, with nothing better to do with our fear response, we make stuff up to give it something to do, escalating every day innocuous events into live or die situations. In the end, anything and everything could potentially cause your untimely demise, but most likely won’t. It’s just the way it goes. But, I guarantee you that if you spend all your time not doing things because they might kill you, then eventually something else will. Personally, from where I currently sit, a long life spent denying myself is a far worse fate than a potentially shorter one spent with a wicked grin on my face and satisfaction in my soul.

Before you queue up for bungee jumping or spelunking, not every soul is satisfied by the same adventures. Adventures don’t have to be physically dangerous in nature. Emotionally risks can be equally as terrifying. Whatever it is you have always wanted to do and followed up the thought with “I can’t,” that’s your ticket to paradise. In the end, you may not even enjoy it, but the point is you tried, and that, my friends, is where the freedom, and the fun, is.


A haircut like that

Lately, I keep hearing reference to “I had a haircut like that once.” The haircut that doesn’t need scissors; the one where your hair just falls out in clumps, then sticks to you as though hanging on for dear life. It doesn’t want to go, really it doesn’t, but its roots have failed, so each strand ups its static-electric game in a vain attempt to latch on to some other part of you, delaying the inevitable for as long as possible. I remember getting in the shower and running my fingers through my hair. Silly me, I thought I could just rinse out the loose strands. Large clumps of hair came away, clinging to my fingers. It was like petting my cat in the spring, or for you dog lovers, like trying to brush the winter coat out of a Husky or Samoyed. The hair just kept coming and coming. And it sticks to you, for all its worth, in one last ditch effort to avoid becoming the lining of a bird’s or squirrel’s nest, or worse, of fulfilling its dust-to-dust circle of life march much sooner than intended. Its really hard to wash hair off yourself when it keeps falling out. You end up a human chia-pet, but with hair. Those were good times. Really, they were. I can say that because it never occurred to me that my hair would not grow back.

It should, you know, grow back (if you are wondering). I miss my post-chemo curly fuzz. I felt like a baby chick. My husband couldn’t resist rubbing my downy-soft head, nor could I. Now it is back to normal; thick, soft in a coarse kind of way, peppered with gray (less than before chemo, so thanks for that), and now streaked with teal and purple (not thanks to chemo, thanks to Jeffrey).

I saw a woman at the grocery store yesterday with “a haircut like that.” I stopped to chat, opening by asking how she was doing. She looked puzzled, so I offered, “I had a haircut like that once.” Those are powerful words, a pass-code to a not-so-secret club. She softened and we chatted about treatments we had, losing our hair and getting it back, and eyebrows. Her hair is coming back and her head itches (your head itches when your hair falls out and itches when it grows back in). She is sad that it is coming in a little grayer, but she is in the chemo-fuzz faze. Maybe it will get darker when her real hair comes back. She was afraid it wouldn’t grow back at all, so she has that. Her eyebrows are coming in thicker than they were before, so she has that too. Then we touched on hospitals and she changed. I don’t recall where she said she was treated (it was local, but nowhere I recognized), but she suddenly looked bullied and worn out. She wished she had gotten a second opinion before treatment, but she was frightened and just wanted it over with. I can understand that. That had been my first instinct too. I just wanted the tumor out. Thank God for doctors with really, really bad bedside manner or I might have gone with the flow too. She also had reconstruction done, which she is now second guessing. It is a long healing process and she’s is likely not done with it physically, but she seemed really over it mentally and emotionally. The longer the conversation went on, the sadder she became. That was not my intention and I couldn’t see any way to make her feel better, so I wished her well and we both moved on.

As I walked away, I almost felt guilty for my year of pampering and happy-with-my-choices attitude. Almost, but not quite, because it made me realize how important one voice can be. For me, it was my mother’s voice. My mother always got a second opinion if she didn’t like the answer the doctor gave her; she still does. Heck, she gets another opinion on just about everything. It served me well. For me, it isn’t exactly about getting another opinion; it is about finding a doctor, or mechanic, or teacher, or anyone that is going to provide a service for me, that resonates with me, and I can only do that by getting a second, or third, opinion when the first ones leaves me confused, sad or both.

We all deserve to interact with providers who can explain things in a way that we understand, that will take the time to patiently walk us through things until we are comfortable and ready to proceed. I am blessed to have found a team of doctor’s that understood me and what my goals were. It was no accident, I called the new patient desk at Orlando Health and told them about who I am, and they matched me with a doctor that resonated with my personality. Still, it was not an easy process. I met with an oncologist, Dr. Regan Rostorfer, who I adore. Then I met with a surgeon, radiation oncologist and plastic surgeon. Only the surgeon made the cut – Dr. Jeffrey Smith. The other two I continued to interview for. The plastic surgeon became moot, as I elected not to have reconstruction, but I still met with a wonderful plastic surgeon in Winter Park who explained in depth every reconstructive procedure, which was instrumental in my decision to forgo reconstructive surgery. I eventually found an awesome radiation oncologist, Dr. Tomas Dvorak, who explained the nuances of the various types of radiation treatment, how they work, the possible side effects and possible impact to each layer of tissue in its path. It was fascinating and encouraging, and gave me the piece of mind I needed to make a decision and move ahead with a positive, hopeful attitude.

I am grateful for the woman in the grocery store. She reminded me of the gift of choice. We all have it. It is difficult to choose service providers, but I see first meetings as interviews. They get to meet me; I get to meet them. Then they get to examine the problem and tell me what they think, and that part is pretty much pass fail. If I walk away shell shocked or uncomfortable, they have failed and I move on. Even the worst of news can be done with grace and someone can walk away feeling okay. This applies to everything we do. I am baffled by the stories I hear about folks who get their car fixed by mechanics they don’t trust and are convinced they are being deceived. Or people who don’t like their doctors, yet they go to them year after year. Choices, people, you have choices!

The woman in the grocery store also reminded me of the choices I have ahead of me. As  the course of my breast cancer changes from treatment to follow-up visits, so shall the course of this blog. My humorous anecdotes about chemotherapy and radiation are a thing of the past. No more blow-by-blow accounts of mastectomies or port surgeries. What stretches ahead are (hopefully) very mundane follow up visits. Five years of them, to be exact. First on the agenda is a bone-density scan next week. Stay tuned for that, I’m sure it will be a hoot and a half!

By the way, thanks to all of you for following and sharing my blog. Writing this blog was cathartic for me these past fifteen months, and that so many people made the choice to read and share it means a lot.

A patient observer

Two slices of raisin bread, toasted, with some fruit on the side. Honeydew melon these days, it changes with the seasons. As I buttered my toast this morning, it came to me that all during chemotherapy I made my own raisin bread. Now I buy it at the store – Dave’s Killer Raisin Bread. It also occurred to me that there was a time, pre-cancer, when I would have expended a good deal of energy chastising myself for turning to store-bought bread in lieu of baking my own. Now, I just notice. I notice the change in my routine like I notice the change in the clouds, as a patient observer. There is no judgement, no discontent, no self-punishment. I have meditation to thank for that.

I have a cold. I’ve tried to wrap my head around some sort of meaning behind it, but there doesn’t seem to be any. It’s just a cold. Quite different from the last cold I had. It was a little over a year ago, Thanksgiving 2016 to be exact. I remember it clearly because I was in the middle of my first phase of chemo, the part that kills off your white blood cells along with everything else, and I had caught a cold. It frightened me, because in my mind the common cold I had could kill me. That is the cancer horror story I had managed to find and read, where someone finishes their chemo, is cancer free and is taken down by a cold. Drat. It was the only word that came to mind. Drat.

This cold is quite different. I have a fully functioning immune system and death is not at the table. It’s just a cold, or maybe a mild flu, and I’m just observing. The aches and pains that come with a cold, the runny nose and stuffy head. If all else fails, a fever will set in and cook the germs where they hide. It’s fascinating really, the body’s elegant response to drive off invaders. I don’t interfere; I just let my body do its thing. No Tylenol or Nyquil or Vicks VapoRub or heating pads, just my good old-fashioned immune system, Vitamin C Bio Fizz and chicken. I eat what I crave and it seems this cold calls for chicken. How do I know? I listen to my body. Meditation will do that for you.

So what does it mean, to be an observer? To me, it means to take a step back and take in the whole picture, rather than be invested in the fray. I try to be in the moment, not of the moment. For example, being in traffic, or simply driving with other people on the road, is a challenge for many people. Other drivers go too fast or too slow, change lanes erratically, run yellow (and red) lights, and on and on and on. The bottom line – they exist. How dare they! I say, so what? If I’m in the slow lane doing my thing and someone hurtles by me one lane over, why should I care? Most likely it is not because of my deep concern for their welfare and that they might get a ticket. No, usually it is because they have violated some imaginary rule I created and so I experience a feeling of being personally wronged. Crazy, right? Really, there should be absolutely no reason why I react at all, why any of us do, yet we do. We can’t help ourselves. And so I meditate.

Driving the three hours to my mother’s house last Saturday, I was pleasantly surprised by my lack of interest in or reaction to the antics of other drivers. I just let them do their thing and I did mine. And oddly enough, without the gyrations of jockeying for position and lane changing and such, I arrived in two and a half hours instead of three.

I’m baffled by that part. I didn’t go any faster than normal; I just drove in the slow lane and minded my own business. Maybe it’s some sort of cosmic reward, positive reinforcement for good behavior. It does make some sense, because when I used to worry about being late for things, I usually was. Now, I give myself the appropriate amount of travel time and, traffic or not, I always make it on time, even when bumper-to-bumper traffic threatens to derail me. I just take a deep breath, let it all go and trust that it will all work out as it should, and it does.

Funny thing about that, if you trust that everything will work out as it should, it always will. I mean how else could anything possible work out, except as it is meant to? Meditation doesn’t hurt, either.


Life’s like that

Last Saturday, I pulled all my dresses out of the closet and put them on, one by one, to see how they fit my new physique. Let’s face it, my torso is crafted somewhat differently now. A double mastectomy will do that for you. I was somewhat surprised to find that dresses I never thought would be passable fit great and some that I thought for sure would be keepers are headed for the thrift store. Life’s like that, full of little surprises.

Me being me, I can never just let something like that go. It intrigued me, the various ways that exercise could have played out. It is a very different scenario to shop in a store for clothes when you have no breasts than to try on your own dresses, one at a time, dresses that pre-surgery looked fabulous (why else would I have bought them?) and now have the potential to hammer home the obvious, again and again and again. Yet nothing happened. No mood swing into the Netherlands, no reflection staring back encouraging self-doubt; just an incongruous happiness and feeling of freedom.

I am still baffled that not having breasts doesn’t bother me. There I was, trying on dress after dress, and all I could think about was that they looked better now than when the girls were trapped in there longing for freedom. The dresses that didn’t work I considered taking to a seamstress to take in the chest area, but decided I didn’t like them enough to make the investment.

Still, fit or not, it turned out to be great fun shopping in my own closet, each familiar dress unveiled as a potential new look and actually turning out to be just that, a brand new look for me. As a bonus, dresses I hadn’t worn in years, because I didn’t have the right bra, were no longer a problem. No more bra straps showing, no more side body flesh smooshed up into unnatural contours that none of us has when were not trussed up in a brassiere. Now, everything sits as it should, no fuss or muss. Clothes fit or they don’t, without consideration for the correct holsters for the ladies. No cramming or squashing or squeezing. Me and the dress, that’s it.

The women out there know what I’m talking about. I’ve never met a bra I really liked, and when you do finally find one that fits, it is guaranteed to wear out in three-to-four months and you’ll need a new one. By that time, the company that makes it will either have discontinued it or made enough changes to it that it’s unrecognizable and unwearable. Sure, we all flip longingly through the Victoria Secret catalogs, but my profession does not include sitting still in my underwear for a camera with most of my breast strategically on display, so let’s be realistic on that front. If you want what she’s wearing, be prepared to be sporting some serious cleavage. It is a great look for date night with your spouse, but not so great a look for the office.

Can you tell I love the new me? Granted, life threw lemons at me so I’m making gallons of lemonade, but consider it. What would life be like without the trappings of convention? Without the requirement of a breast code that ensures we fit into the social circle we have been thrown into? Me, I swim along with everyone else without a sideways glance. I feel like I’m the lucky winner of some sort of free breast pass. It’s kind of cool, if I do say so myself.

Okay, before I sign off, I want to remind everyone, attitude is everything. I think my free pass come from the fact that I have given myself a free pass. I neither call attention to nor detract from the changes in my physique. Honestly, I don’t give them a second thought. I am wearing the same wardrobe pre- and post-mastectomy with the exception of a bag of bras I couldn’t donate to Good Will fast enough. My clothes are an expression of the joy I feel to be blessed to hitch a ride in this body for this life. Are yours?