In the Mirror

in-the-mirrorHaving had many surgeries, I am familiar with the feeling of seeing scars for the first time. Whether it was the odd bulge of the port protruding from my chest or the strange caved-in area on my leg where a large tumor was removed, I knew that it could be difficult to assimilate these things into my idea of myself.

But this surgery, this has been something much different.

Although I had looked at plenty of pictures of women who had gone “flat,” I suppose I wasn’t really prepared for how I would look after my surgery. Looking at my newly flat chest, I don’t see me. It’s someone new in the mirror now.

Regarding my surgery, I have been told many things by other women, including:

Well, you weren’t using them [my breasts] anyway, so it doesn’t matter, right?

You should just be glad to be alive!

You’re almost through with all of this, and then you can move on with your life!

At least you won’t have to wear a bra any more!

Just think positively!

Hearing these statements, I didn’t feel consoled.

Going through cancer treatment involves a lot of loss. From the first diagnosis to the last treatment, patients like myself must confront the continuing changes in our bodies and our lives. Even after one loss is accepted, another lies ahead. And for many, this cycle of scan, treatment and more can last a lifetime.

I agree with Nancy’s Point that women are often made to feel guilty about grieving after their mastectomy.

The truth? I miss the old me. I miss having breasts. 

At this point, I don’t know who I am seeing in the mirror. My chest is mainly numb with some areas of shooting pain, neither of which helps to make a connection with the “new” me. There’s nothing I see in the mirror now that resembles myself.

Sparse hair sticking up out of my scalp, thinner after chemo, and a flat chest. That is what I see in the mirror. And there will be even more changes to come in the new year with radiation treatment, hysterectomy, and anti-estrogen therapy.

The rapid nature of diagnoses, scans, treatments, and surgeries provides little time to think about all of this. It often leaves you gasping for air, desperately searching for a break in the busy-ness of cancer. But there are always more doctor’s appointments, and always more shocks that must be quickly accepted, or more likely, pushed back into the darkness where they are often hidden behind a forced bravado.

The scars are beginning to heal, but it will be awhile before I can accept them as part of my new “normal.”

I don’t feel brave, and I’m not a warrior. Right now, I’m just tired.

Cancer and Family

cancer-and-familyBoth love and cancer have bound our family.

Cancer has often seemed like an unwanted and violent relative who continues to show up for dinner. Demanding everything and leaving nothing, he shakes our lives until very little remains.

As the dust settles from his appearance, we hug each other closer and breathe a sigh of relief, thinking this will be the final time. But no. We bury family members, struggle through holidays, and continue on. And still he returns.

I hear those who are newly diagnosed with cancer whisper sadly, “But I don’t have any family history! I never thought I’d have cancer.” Murmuring, “I’m so sorry,” I silently wonder if it is better to be thrown headlong into a cancer diagnosis or to have a family history full of cancer.

Is it better to have an unfamiliar enemy? Or to know intimately this ghastly disease?

When medical professionals ask about the history of cancer in my family, it usually takes about 5-10 minutes to discuss it fully. They take notes furiously and then look at me with glazed eyes. Their expressions seem to be a mix of sadness and disbelief.

Occasionally I’ll elicit some surprise, even from those who have experience with this sort of thing. When I spoke with the genetics counselor, she questioned me further about those family members with skin cancer. “When were they first diagnosed?” she asked. I gave her a guess as to dates but then explained that this cancer was ongoing. “You mean there has been more than one time?” she asked, shocked.

Yes, cancer keeps knocking at our door. Only two of us left now.

But then there are those who ask about my family history, specifically a history of breast cancer. Taking my vitals, a nurse in the hospital during my most recent visit asked me if any of my family members had had breast cancer. “My mother. She died in 1999,” I responded. The nurse nodded and then left my room.

Lying there in the darkness, I could guess as to why she had asked me that question. She wondered why someone my age had already had breast cancer twice. As I have a family history–plus the PTEN mutation–it’s explainable. And she could leave my room feeling a bit better about her own risk for cancer.

Our throw of the genetic dice resulted in snake eyes.

We’ve grown stronger, though, and appreciate each other a bit more after all of this. Those of us that remain are scarred and a bit hobbled, but we know well the fragility of life and that cancer can return at any moment. So we talk more, sharing stories from our lives and simple pleasures like reading and movies and good food.

And we do our best to kick that unwanted relative, cancer, to the curb for good.

Feeling Broken at Christmas

feeling-brokenI just feel broken.

So much has happened in the past several months.

Perhaps it is simply the overload of experiences or the effects of the drugs I’ve been prescribed. My thoughts feel jumbled, fractured somehow. And my body has two long, jagged scars that tightly bind my flat chest.

Too, the biopsy results from the surgery were not so great. Despite having finished chemo, two of the six lymph nodes removed were cancerous. There were also pre-cancerous areas in my left breast.

The meds help with the pain somewhat. I can rest, but sleep is often difficult.

I’ve sort of hunkered down and escaped from the joyous social media posts that I find in my online streams. Not that I want to deny others their happiness…it just seems far away at the moment. Cookie recipes and holiday cocktails? My cocktails this year have been more of the chemo variety.

Reading further in The Broken Way by Ann Voskamp, I find:

“Grace waits in broken places. Grace waits at the bottom of things. Grace loves you when you are at your darkest worst, and wraps you in the best light. Grace seeps through the broken places and seeps into the lowest places, a balm for wounds.”

I hold onto this. That and the blessings I find each day, like the pendant my husband gave me that says, “Angels watch over us.” And the kitten sitting beside me purring. The warmth and security of my home, the love of family.

Voskamp goes on to say,

“Grace is grace when it gives us what we’d never ask for but always needed, and moves us to become what we always wanted. But hardly ever the way we wanted.”

I wonder about this last part. Is this time in my life moving me to become someone better? I hope so. Certainly I would never have chosen this, never would have even imagined that I would be in this place, facing a bigger and badder cancer than the first time around. Maybe something good will come of all of this.

Maybe?

The end of this year has brought me to my knees. Part of the lyrics of “O Holy Night” have been running through my mind lately, “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices…” Perhaps being on my knees is where I need to be right now. In the midst of my brokenness and pain, I am grateful still.

This will be a quiet Christmas for me as I continue to recover from my surgery and prepare for the next phase of treatment. If you are struggling during this holiday season, please know you’re not alone. Let’s walk through this tough time–and seemingly impossible time–together.

Maybe together we’ll find grace to help us through.

Hiding and Thriving

volta-in-bag-with-frameIt may seem strange, but in some ways I’ve been happier lately.

Certainly this is one of the worst times of my life. I’ve had to deal with a major threat to my health (and life), along with the meaning of being a woman in our culture. Too, I am no longer working and so do not have that to grab hold of in my attempts to find meaning or a place in society.

Regarding the “woman” question, it’s still a process and not really one of my major concerns at the moment. Although the pain meds help, my chest still feels like it has been bound tightly, often making it difficult to move around the house or do much of anything. I tire very easily. My focus, obviously, is regaining strength.

prosthesisBut maybe not for the company who provided the compression bra for my surgery. Apparently these bras are mainly used for reconstruction surgeries but can also be used for folks like me to hold the drainage bulbs. And the bra also came with a single, fluffy prosthesis.

Yes, apparently the company thought vanity would be a concern right after major surgery. My husband thought it was a cosmic joke to be given this after a bilateral mastectomy. And, to be honest, it made me feel even worse at the time to be reminded of my newly flat chest.

As cancer strips so many things from my life, I’ve been forced to take things moment by moment and appreciate what’s left.

  • I can still move around and do some things on my own.
  • I can enjoy reading books and watching movies.
  • I can drink as much coffee as I want.
  • I have the escape and creative outlet provided by Second Life.
  • I love watching the kitties bounce around the house with abandon.
  • I have a husband who still loves me and takes care of me.

And yes, part of my recovery involves hiding at the moment. This latest bout with cancer has brought with it an overload of experiences, questions, pain, and trials. Many more questions remain, along with the pain of radiation and even more surgery. Right now, I’m simply enjoying a bit of rest and quiet from the chaos of being a cancer patient.

Today will be my first follow-up appointment with the surgeon and most likely hearing the biopsy results from my surgery. I should be nervous, but oddly I feel calm right now. Looking back over my list above, I know that I still have a lot to be thankful for.

“And though I don’t know how today’s story will end, I remember: faith thanks God in the middle of the story.” –Ann Voskamp, The Broken Way

 

Going Deeper into Cancer-land

“I have heard there are troubles of more than one kind, Some come from ahead and some come from behind, But I’ve bought a big bat, I’m all ready you see, Now my troubles are going to have troubles with me!” — Dr. Seuss

Obviously, if I’m writing this blog post, I made it through my surgery ok. Home now, grateful to be able to rest and do as I wish for the moment.

While in the hospital after my surgery, though, I realized I had gone even deeper into Cancer-land. The bilateral mastectomy had been completed, and I had the scars and pain to prove it. Although the hospital stay afterwards was necessary, I had an interesting and sometimes disturbing peek into what might lie ahead.

view-from-windowMinor Irritation to Exasperation

The hospital was Brazil-esque with the never-ending bureaucracy of the medical system and its often confusing hierarchy. Nurses and assistants would arrive to check my vitals and then seemingly disappear. I wondered if I had descended into some sort of medical Twilight Zone.

And when I did see a nurse or an assistant, it could be quite an interesting experience. One assistant sat next to me and slyly asked, “So, do you feel you’ve had a ‘great weight’ lifted from your chest?” Her double entendre wasn’t lost on me. When I refused to answer her question about my psychological reaction to my surgery, she went on to say, “I’ve seen women either rejoice after a bilateral mastectomy and want to burn their bras or cry about their lost breasts. I think I would want to rejoice and burn my bras.”

I am unsure about her motivations for this conversation; it could be that she wanted to comfort and encourage me. However, it felt too personal and inappropriate to me.

in-hospital-bedGrowing Stronger

Frustrating interactions aside, I found some new reserves of strength within me during my hospital stay. Although I’ve been through numerous surgeries, this was the biggest and most serious, and I was full of anxiety about all of it. Sometimes, though, surviving those worst times in our lives are when we discover just how tough we can be.

As I became stronger physically, I would simply unplug my IV from the wall and do things myself. The nurses seemed surprised that I was able to get up and around on my own. I thought, “I may have cancer, but I’m not incapacitated. Plus this isn’t my first ride on the cancer merry-go-round.” Indeed, stubbornness can be a good thing in the hospital as it prompts you to recover quickly and regain independence.

towel-dispenserOh, and a sense of humor can help as well. One sleepless night I decided to be a Jedi. Waving my hand in front of the towel dispenser and thinking about the nurses and doctors, I said in my best Obi-Wan Kenobi voice, “This isn’t the cancer patient you’re looking for. She can go about her business. Move along, move along.” I wasn’t awarded with Jedi powers, but I did receive a towel for my efforts.

Most of All, Faith

When I was capable of doing so, I read from The Story and the devotional that I received from Compassion That Compels. At this point, I only had faith–and my small amount of strength–to keep going. I took things minute by minute, trying not to think or worry about the future. Sometimes all I could do during the most painful moments was simply say, “Jesus help me.”

And now?

Honestly, I don’t know. I’m still weak, tired, and hurting.

I don’t know anything more than I did before the surgery as the biopsy results have not yet been released. The surgeon thinks that it for sure has spread to at least one lymph node, but we will have to wait for the biopsy results to be certain. Nevertheless, it is still Stage 3.

Having Breast Cancer in our Culture

Some days I just want to crawl into a burrow when I am confronted with the appearance of my “new” self as well as its implications. What exactly are women who are fighting breast cancer supposed to think of articles like this? (And why is this on BuzzFeed Animals anyway?)

The terrible truth that most don’t want to accept is that cancer brings pain, both psychological and physical. Breast cancer isn’t fun or sexy. It is simply blood and pain and suffering, and for many women, death.

Although I am glad to have had a “good cancer”–as some people describe breast cancer–I am tired of trying to not only deal with this illness but also how society views this particular part of women’s bodies.

For someone like me who isn’t able to do reconstruction, it sometimes seems that I will never be a “woman” again. Living in this overly sexualized culture and redefining what it means to be a woman can be overwhelming at times. I’ve tended lately toward reading even more so that I can escape these questions for a bit.

Surviving Now, Hopefully Thriving Later On

At this point, I am just grateful to be able to rest and count those blessings that come my way each day. That’s about all I can handle at this point.

Hope (When Times Are Tough)

hope-when-times-are-toughHope. It can be so elusive during dark times.

I had considered beginning this post with a pithy and yet inspirational quote regarding surgery. Reviewing the first few pages of the search results from BrainyQuote, however, I realized that most celebrities only talk about plastic surgery.

(Quick side note: I’m very thankful that Shannen Doherty has been so open about her own breast cancer journey. Her honesty about the true effect of cancer on our lives is very much appreciated and respected by myself and many others.)

For some of us, surgery is a necessity, and perfection of the physical body is far from the goal. We trade life for what most would consider a deformed, imperfect body. And often the psychological effects of surgery can be more difficult than the physical pain.

I’ve been through numerous surgeries–more than I can count, honestly–but this one will be the longest and the roughest for me physically and emotionally. It’s going to be awhile before I find my new “normal.”

But at some point, I have had to come to an acceptance of what will happen…

Surrendering my life, grasping on to those blessings that come my way each day.

Reaching out through my writing, thinking that possibly my words might impact others and even comfort those who may just be beginning their own cancer journey.

Most of all, though, learning to hope even when the future is uncertain.

As for me, I will always have hope;
    I will praise you more and more.   –Psalm 71:14

I’ll be spending the next day with family before my surgery on Tuesday. I hope to return to blogging and such within the next week or so. As with the famous line from The Terminator, “I’ll be back.”

If you’re the praying sort, please keep my in your prayers this week, especially Tuesday, the date of my surgery.

Enjoy your holiday, friends. See you soon.

Cancer-land During the Holidays

cancer-landTo say that my thoughts have been elsewhere lately would be accurate. Generally, they can be found wandering through Cancer-land, exploring what can seem like the never-ending terrain of scans, surgeries, treatments, and results. When one valley has been thoroughly tread upon, there is yet another rocky hill looming ahead.

Someone told me after I finished my last chemotherapy treatment, “You should be happy now! Surely you can see the light at the end of the tunnel!” No, unfortunately I’m still on that train, eating lunch in the dining car. 

I don’t know why I continue to be surprised by what others say. It is the rare person who understands cancer and its effect on your life, and it is a true friend who will stay with you through the ups and downs of treatment. Especially in this season of merriment and celebration.

Indeed, looking out the window last night, I was surprised to see Christmas lights glittering on houses throughout our neighborhood. Oh yeah, it is the holidays, isn’t it?

When your life is formed around doctor’s appointments, surgeries, and treatments, you can often forget that others are going about with the normal things of life, shopping for Christmas presents and attending parties. Unfortunately, regular folks forget that some of us are having surgery and getting treatment over the holidays. And that others are grieving the loss of loved ones to cancer.

“Merry” can be far, far away for many during this season.

Walking through Cancer-land right now, I’m learning to take it moment to moment. Merry I may not be. Even “thankful” can all too often be a memory. But as Joni Eareckson Tada states in “No Higher Calling: A Christian Response to Suffering” in the Beyond Suffering Bible:

“Take life in bite-sized, manageable chunks. Start giving thanks to God for small things….I learned that following the Bible–even saying the right thing with a hopeful spirit–was a way of placing myself under the shower of God’s mercy.”

I’m trying to take things moment to moment. Yesterday I was thankful for a visit from a friend. This morning I was thankful for a hot cup of coffee and some time in Second Life. And for kitties who bring lots of fun to my days.

I’m doing my best to follow Tada’s advice to say thanks for these little things with a little bit of hope. Saying thanks in the kitchen and living room and even the bathroom, because cancer affects all of your life and all of your body. And sometimes even just being able to drink a cup of coffee without pain is cause for being thankful.

Cancer-land is a place where many of us find ourselves during the holiday season. Some of us may not be merry or feel very much like celebrating. Perhaps, though, that being willing to say thanks for the small things in life while trudging up hills that seem way too tall is enough for the moment.